June 19, 2017 @ Rockdale Anglican Church.

I normally say no when someone asks me to give a spontaneous address. People tell me that I’m a gifted speaker, but I think my real gift is being able to focus for all the hours it takes me to write my speeches! Even so, I couldn’t say no to the lovely people from our local Shia community who organised the Eftar dinner on the premises of the Rockdale Anglican church.

What follows is an extract from a submission about religious freedom, submitted to the Australian Federal Parliament by my friend, Rev. Michael Palmer. The submission was based on what we saw and heard during our trip to Syria over New Year 2017.

Father Dave

New Year 2017 with Dr Hassoun (the Grand Mufti of Syria) and friends

Our New Year in Syria with Dr Hassoun (the Grand Mufti) and friends

‘A Window into the Freedom of Religion in Syria: and implications for Australia’

by Rev. Michael Palmer

‘If you see the Mufti in the Cathedral or the Patriarch in the Mosque you do not need to ask which country you are in …… you can only be in Syria.’ (Syrian Proverb)

On New Year’s Day 2017 the Grand Mufti of Syria joined the Service of Holy Communion at the Mariamite Cathedral in the old City of Damascus. Of course, the Grand Mufti did not partake of the Eucharist/Holy Communion but his presence was welcomed and his respect of the unfolding service gracious. Following the formal liturgy both the Mufti and the Patriarch addressed the congregation about the importance of working together in the rebuilding of Syria, and of their common belief in a God of love. Their concluding warm embrace spoke, every bit as eloquently as their words had, about the accepted place that they both enjoyed in Syrian Society.

The Syrian population is majority Muslim with a sizeable Christian minority. The Syrian crisis has led many Syrians, both Muslim and Christian, either to be displaced internally or to flee their country as refugees. The affiliated Syrian opposition groups have united under banners of ‘Democracy’ and ‘Freedom’ however the evidence is mounting that Freedom of Religion, and more generally the respect of Human Rights, in ‘rebel held’ areas are diminishing. In one ‘rebel-held’ area the ‘Pact of Umar’, which contains a list of rights and restrictions on non-Muslims has been reinstated. Among many other restrictions the Pact of Umar refuses the building or the rebuilding of churches and any show of Christianity in public. Maria Saadeh, a Christian Architect, and former independent member in the Syrian Parliament, says that the ‘Affiliated Syrian opposition’ groups use the words ‘Democracy’ and ‘Freedom’ as mere slogans to attract western sympathy but that their real intentions is to limit the freedom of Religion. While in Syria we heard Maria’s words repeated by many, both Christian and Muslim, and also from State and Religious leaders, as they perceived the real war of ‘the rebels’ to be one that raged against Syria’s long history of religious tolerance.

Into this context, the Syrian Government’s Ministry of Islamic Affairs and Endowments (Awqaf) has produced written material in an attempt to uphold religious freedom. The material clearly denounces the terrorism and extremism of religious movements like al Qaeda, Isis, and Boko haram, that have their foundations in the Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia or in the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt (1). Alternatively, the Ministry of Awqaf encourages freedom of religion based on the following Koranic verses:

  • ‘There shall be no compulsion in religion’
  • ‘Let him believe. And whoever wills – let him disbelieve’
  • ‘So remind. You are only a reminder’

One of the most important steps taken by the Syrian Arab Republic, towards combating the religious extremism and terrorism of the, so-called, Political Islam and restoring religious tolerance has been a document for the Development of the Religious Speech (A Charter of the Religious Honour). The Charter acknowledges that religious speech can often confuse, distort and exploit. It also acknowledges that religious speech when spoken by ‘people of tenderness in religion and easy-going in origins’ has a legitimate place in society. The following items of the Syrian Charter are relevant for our consideration of the Right to Freedom of Religion in any context:

  1. Contemporary religious speech must be based upon the priority of respect for the human psyche and maintenance, and the sanctity of blood and money, and honours, and freedom of belief and thinking.
  2. Contemporary religious speech must be based upon adopting the moderation in religious speech as a firm curriculum away from the intolerance of opinions on controversial issues, and the fight against extremist ideas and hyperbole and militancy in the legal provisions pursuance of saying the Almighty (Thus we made you a moderate community)
  3. Christian brothers are the sons of the homeland who are partners in citizenship and living together, and respect their holy places, churches and their religious rituals as stated in the teachings of Islam
    and the Prophet’s biography..
  4. Prevent the exploitation of the religious speech to serve trends or personal and factional political interests.
  5. Gathering all the energies of the society to tackle the extremist ideology and uncontrolled alike, and support the work and production issues, social justice, anti-corruption, and the elimination of unemployment and poverty in order to blow up the energies of society and creations in order to access the security, stability and prosperity and a decent living under True Islamic Thought.

In its concluding paragraph, the Charter encourages ‘the adoption of love, tolerance and kindness instead of hatred and violence, and to adopt the principle of dialogue and understanding instead of quarrelling and collision, and the commitment of the course of acquaintance and cooperation and fraternity rather than disharmony, conflict, and exclusion under the shadow of Allah’ saying – ‘O people! We created you from a male and a female, and made you races and tribes, that you may know one another. The best among you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous.’

Implications for Australia from this Syrian Window.

While in Syria our small delegation appreciated a Syria with a vibrant and tolerant religious environment. In the areas where we visited, Damascus and Maaloula, it was apparent that the principles of the Syrian Charter for Religious Honour would not be a novel imposition but rather expressed longstanding foundational principles that are now being threatened by the ongoing Syrian crisis. The following are a few implications for Australia:

  1. Listen widely and cautiously when evaluating Freedom of Religion violations. There are indicators of a long history of religious tolerance in Syria. Whether Christian or Islamic, there are ancient places of worship, the existence of vibrant Communities of Faith and public symbols of religious tradition. Laws exist to both protect and also to promote various Communities of Faith. However the media messages, both in pronouncements and pictorial images, often suggest otherwise. Unfortunately the Media is increasingly considered an unreliable source. One Christian Priest beckoned, “For all the media, just to seek the truth.” but lamented that, “Most of the time the truth is not told, actually the opposite. There is an Arabic saying that lying is the salt of man, but we say now it is the salt of the media.” The Syrian crisis is confusing with contradictory information emerging and so in assessing the various truth claims or reported violations of Human rights there is a need to develop trusted sources of information and then to constantly re-assess those sources. The evaluation of Freedom of Religion must be built on actual realities and not pronouncements.
  2. The Law of the state is essential in allowing diverse groups to flourish in a coherent and peaceful mosaic. A variety of diverse religious or non-religious groups always exist in healthy societies. These ‘first level’ associations provide a sense of belonging and, especially when referring to religious groups, provide insight and motivation which cannot be restricted to our private or leisure life. It is an important role of the state to allow religious groups to flourish by providing the laws and principles that can define boundaries of suitable behaviour and sometimes broker conflict resolution. Syria’s ‘A Charter of the Religious Honour’ is an example of a state seeking to encourage Freedom of Religion in a diverse religious context. Overall, ‘all sorts of civil associations, have a natural liberty to exist and organise themselves, and the state’s role is to harmonise and, to some degree, regulate this social variety’. (2) While in Syria the delegation was challenged to encourage the Australian Government to be diligent in monitoring and limiting any religious groups that sought to destroy the harmony of society. In particular we were warned about The Muslim Brotherhood and the Takfiri Wahhabi movement however beyond labels the state should be wary of any group, or teaching, that incites division and violence.
  3. Encouraging Dialogue between Different Religious Groups. In a complex society of different ‘first order’ associations it is important that groups appreciate their need for co-operation as they seek not only continuing existence but also the maintaining of social goods. Any religious group
    which seeks to silence, by any means, other religious groups, or even contrary voices within their group, is operating ‘from its weakness by dismissing out of hand the capacity of its Faith to engage transformingly with the social and imaginative world around it.’ (3) A robust Faith Community will not fear difference nor be violent against contrary voices. A robust State will allow, within the rule of law, the Faith distinctiveness of religious groups, whether their institutional presence is tiny or ubiquitous.
    In the Syria Government controlled region of Syria our delegation was impressed by a peaceful coexistence of religious groups. The right to both ‘believe’ and to allow others ‘to believe to the contrary’ was seen by our delegation. Within the boundaries of a law abiding civil society, the state’s role in allowing communities of faith to flourish, even with outward displays of distinctiveness, will not foster a militant faith but rather religious institutions which will trust their futures unto a God whose existence is not dependant on policies of oppression or coercion.(4) The lesson here is that the state should encourage Faith communities to be engaged in dialogue with one another, and together, with the state. It is important for the state to allow as broad a participation of religious, and other ‘first level’, groups when encouraging discussion about shared aspirations for a decent society. In should be noted that the Syrian State has identified religious groups that are unwelcome in discussions towards the building of a decent Syria. While the Syrian context seems to justify this, religious groups should not be disqualified without reasonable cause from building community lest, on the one hand, society be deprived of an important piece of the community mosaic or, on the other, that sections within those disqualified groups become radicalised, and develop a weak and hence militant Faith.

Our delegation to Syria did see the destruction of Christian Churches, we did meet with Christians displaced and we did hear stories of Christians killed. The destruction seen and the loss of life recounted was distressing for us to hear. Violations of Religious Freedom are occurring in Syria but the consistent message that we saw and heard was that those violations are overwhelmingly being experienced by persons living under areas controlled by Militant Islamic groups (like ISIS) and the ‘Free Syrian Army’ along with its affiliated military groups. As Australia seeks to uphold the Freedom of Religion, along with all other Human rights then the last word in this appendix from Syria needs to come from the Apostolic Vicar of recently liberated Aleppo:

‘Now the city is unified, and we have no more armed groups, the jihadists, and especially the people are living in new hope and they are really happy because the threat of the daily bombing, the death, you know, in their own apartments, in the roads, is far now, it is far and really they are looking for a future and we hope that what happened in Aleppo will happen in all Syria – reconciliation, the reconciliation between all the parties, and really what I ask, don’t give us weapons but please help us to stay together and to unite and to reach peace and please the sanctions, and if you really speak about humanitarian aid and everything the first thing you have to do is lift the sanctions. Thank you.’

Bishop George Abou Khazen, Apostolic Vicar of Aleppo January 2017.

Notes as indicated in the appendix

(1) The Intellectual and ideological Basics of Combating the Extremism and Takfiri Terrorism And socalled the Political Islam. Syrian Arab Republic, Ministry of Awqaf. page 4

(2) Rowan Williams, ‘Faith in the Public Square’. Chapter 6, ‘Religion, Diversity and Tolerance’, page 80.

(3) Rowan Williams, ‘Faith in the Public Square’. Chapter 5, ‘Europe, Faith and Culture’, page 73.

(4) Rowan Williams, ‘Faith in the Public Square’. Chapter 25, ‘Faith communities in a civil society’, page 309. ‘because that would again seek to put the power of the human believer or the religious institution in the sovereign place that only God’s reality can occupy.’

Father Toufic, in my view,  is an archetypal priest. As Parish Priest of St George’s Melkite church in Maaloula (Syria), he has pastored his parish through the worst possible crisis.  Jabhat Al Nusra over-ran his town in 2013.

Three years later, the signs of destruction are ever-present. St George’s church has been rebuilt but, as Father Toufic says, the other church buildings can wait until all the homes are rebuilt, and that project is far from complete.

Syria has only just started rebuilding. Victory on the battlefield is still the priority and resources are scarce, and while the challenge of rebuilding homes is enormous, the even greater challenge is that of rebuilding relationships in areas where communities have been divided.

Nowhere is that challenge more obvious than in Maaloula – a Christian town violated by Islamic extremists and betrayed by families from within its own Islamic community! Father Toufic plays a vital role in helping to rebuild trust, and the essential ingredient, he says, is love – that most fundamental of all Christian virtues.

From my perspective, Father Toufic’s wisdom has application well beyond his own village. In my country, and across the Western world, I see Christians and Muslims relating in one of two ways:

  1. They highlight differences as points of conflict
  2. They try to minimize differences in an attempt to make peace

Father Toufic points to a third path. It is a path that neither minimises theological differences nor denies historical conflicts but instead tries to overcome both with love!

Father Dave (L), Father Toufic, Soren Smith (Father Dave's son)

Father Dave (L), Father Toufic, Soren Smith (Father Dave’s son)

He is one of my favourite people in the world, and I pray for him every day – Dr Ahmad Badr al-Din Hassoun, the Grand Mufti of Syria.

I don’t know any other religious leader in the world whose first words to me when he sees me are “I love you!” Even I don’t greet people that way! I suppose I’m too self-conscious, or perhaps I just don’t have that much love in my heart?

When I told Dr Hassoun that I was working on a book entitled “Christians  and Muslims can be friends” he was very happy to be involved, which was just as well, as no publication on love between Christians and Muslims would be complete without Syria’s Grand Mufti.

Dr Hassoun is a very loving man, and an embodiment of the hope we have for a new Syria emerging on the other side of this conflict. Will you join me in praying for him?

Father Dave


It was my privilege to be asked to pay tribute to the noble Sheikh Nimr at the Islamic Centre in Banksia (Sydney) on January 9th, 2016, following his brutal (and largely unanticipated) beheading by the Saudis. I was then asked to repeat my speech at a rally in Martin Place (in the centre of Sydney) the following day. The full transcript of my original speech is pasted below the video excerpt.

Father Dave

A Tribute to Sheikh Nimr Baquir al-Nimr
January 9th, Banksia Islamic Centre

We gather to mourn the martyrdom of Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr (peace be upon him) – a man of principle, a man of courage, a man of God!

Perhaps the violent martyrdom of this man should not surprise us. Perhaps no act of violence from the house of Saud should surprise us – a regime already drenched in the blood of the people of Yemen, of Bahrain, of Syria and Iraq (through its proxy armies), and of the blood of so many of the Shia community within its own borders.

Even so, it is hard to know exactly why the Sauds chose this moment to murder this good man. Was it simply an attempt to stir up more trouble for Iran, are they hoping to profit by exploiting sectarian divisions between Sunni and Shia across the Muslim world, or were they simply satisfying their own blood lust?

We cannot know exactly what motivated the Saudi rulers on this occasion, but what we do know is that the savagery of these people always stood in stark contrast to the pacifism of the humble Sheikh! Here was a man who believed that the language of truth was more powerful than any number of bullets, and who encouraged his followers to confront violence with the “roar of the word”!

Like his spiritual predecessor, Dr Martin Luther King Jr., he fought back against injustice and oppression using only the weapons of non-violence. “Not by violence, but by our determination, by our belief, and by our steadfastness shall your power be defeated”, he said. No wonder they hated him!

In truth, I can understand why the government of Saudi Arabia hated this man so much. It was fundamentally, I think, because he refused to give them his true allegiance.

“We submit to the authority of God, His Messenger, and his family, and that’s it. We do not submit to the authority of a ruler. Never. No ruler, whoever he may be, has authority over us. Power does not grant a ruler legitimate authority.

Such words are poison to all who try to exercise unlimited authority over their subjects, but Sheikh Nimr when further:

“We are not loyal to other countries or authorities, nor are we loyal to this country… What does a country mean? The regime? The ruling clan? The soil? I don’t know what a country means. Loyalty is only to God! We have declared, and we reiterate, that our loyalty is to God, not to the Saud clan.”

Sheikh Nimr raises questions here that we all need to consider carefully. What does it mean to owe allegiance to a state or to any particular political system? Why should we love those who are born on the other side of our national borders less than those that are born on our side? At what point does patriotism become idolatry?
Interestingly, the early Christians faced exactly this same problem. When the early Christians declared that ‘Jesus is Lord’ they used the word ‘kurios’ (Greek for ‘lord’) that was a title that Caesar wanted to restrict to himself. By declaring that Jesus was Lord they were saying that Caesar was not Lord! Like Sheikh Nimr, they refused to give their ultimate allegiance to the state, and like Sheikh Nimr, many of them were hunted down, abused, tortured and killed!

To my understanding, this stand is the natural outcome of our monotheism. If we believe that there is only one God, then there can only be one ultimate authority. Genuine monotheism will thus always relativise the authority of any political leader, and so genuine monotheists will always be thorns in the side to political tyrants.

This, I believe, is what Sheikh Nimir leaves to us – a belief in only one God who alone lays claim to our obedience and through whom we are ultimately all sisters and brothers. For just as true monotheism relativises the authority of political leaders, so it reminds us that all sects and divisions between us are only temporary, for we are all the children of the same God. From the one God we have come and to the same God we will return, and so, in the meantime, we are all equally deserving of respect.

Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr – a man of insight and compassion, and a man who was ready to die for his beliefs.

The most you can do is kill us”, he said, and we welcome martyrdom for the sake of God. Life does not end when a man dies. Real life begins when he dies. Either we live on this land as free men or die and be buried in it as pious men. We have no other choice.”

And so we who follow the one true God likewise have no other choice. We pray that we might be spared the violence that was visited upon our noble brother, and yet we too are ready to pay whatever price it is that God asks of us to uphold justice, to pursue the way of peace, and to remain faithful to our beliefs unto death.

Salawat Ala Muhammad, wa’ aali Muhammad

Grieving the death of Sheikh Nimr - Martin Place, January 10th, 2016

Martin Place, January 10th, 2016

Father Dave with Feruzan Behbahany

Father Dave with Feruzan Behbahany as she accepts an ‘Appreciation Award’ from Holy Trinity Church on behalf of the Imam Husain Islamic Centre (6/12/2015)

I hear this question asked a lot – not only by Christians but by Muslim friends as well: “Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?”

The question made headlines late in 2015 when Wheaton College in Chicago suspended a professor of political science for publicly answering the question in the affirmative! The academic was apparently quoting Pope Francis who, the professor believed, also answers the question in the affirmative.

Evidently the board of Wheaton College disagree, and numerous Evangelical Protestant colleagues have rallied behind them in support, including Albert Mohler, president of a Southern Baptist seminary, who went one step further, stating that not only do Christians and Muslims worship different gods, but Jews as well! “Can anyone truly worship the Father while rejecting the Son?”[1], he asked.

My answer to the ‘do we worship the same God?’ question is always the same – namely, ‘the last time I checked there was only one!’

It actually astonishes me that anyone from a religion that upholds monotheism can ask this question, particularly when those who ask it are normally very careful about the words they use. Yet I’ve heard educated theologians and even Archbishops use exactly this language! “We worship different Gods”, they say, as if they believed in a great pantheon of gods, each attending to the needs of their respective flocks.

I, for one, do not believe in multiple gods and I don’t think most of the people who ask this question do either, so perhaps we should begin by reframing the question in a way that is theologically coherent.

The question that I think people are asking is ‘is someone really worshipping God if they have the wrong conception of God?’ (or something like that).

I think that’s the question, and it’s a good question, as we mustn’t blindly accept the religious integrity of everyone who claims to act in the name of God.

I think of the misguided souls who fight for DAESH in Syria and Iraq and behead innocent civilians in the name of God. Are they really worshipping God? Their behaviour suggests that they are worshipping the devil! If these people do believe they are worshipping God then they must have a very different concept of God to the one I have, and I would say it is a defective concept.

So … can we say then that those who have mistaken ideas about God are not worshipping God?  A minimal amount of reflection shows that this would be a stupid thing to say, for who amongst us would claim to have a truly unblemished conception of God?

Presumably I believe very different things about God than does my counterpart fighting for DAESH. Having said that, my conception of God differs radically from that of any number of my fellow Christians too! Moreover, my personal understanding of God has evolved drastically since I first came to faith 30-something years ago. Indeed, my conception of God has evolved enormously even from when I first became a priest!

And so we are pushed down the path, so familiar to theologians, where we have to try to work out how much conceptual disagreement there can be within the bounds of genuine worship. What things do we need to believe about God in order to know that we are truly worshipping God, and where do we draw the line such that beliefs that cross that line indicate a departure from true worship?

This is, I presume, the heart of the issue for the board of Wheaton College and all who stand with them. Mr Mohler suggests that the process of discrimination is very simple – “Can anyone truly worship the Father while rejecting the Son” – and yet the Christian Scriptures themselves will tell us that there are plenty of ways to reject the Son that don’t require a departure from orthodox dogma and that, conversely, faulty theology does not necessarily mean a rejection of Jesus!

Two passages from the New Testament immediately come to mind when I think about this issue. The first is the account of Jesus’ dialogue with the woman at the well, found in the Gospel According to Saint John, chapter four.

Here Jesus dialogues with an ostensibly uneducated woman from a religious tradition that would have been considered heretical by Jesus’ peers. The woman’s theology is indeed a bit of a dog’s breakfast. She speaks of holy mountains and of a teacher-messiah who will ‘explain all things’ (John 4:25). Jesus says to her “you worship what you do not know” (John 4:22).

Without wanting to squeeze this statement from Jesus too strongly, these words suggest that, from His point of view, the woman is indeed worshipping God even if she doesn’t really know what she is doing.  Reinforcing this is the very fact that Jesus engages with the woman so deliberately, suggesting that He sees her as a genuine person of faith with whom he can enter into meaningful theological discussion.

Jesus goes on to say to woman that “true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth”, thus urging her to grow spiritually. Even so, at no point is Jesus dismissive of the woman’s basic spiritual integrity!

As I say, I don’t mean to squeeze these words in John chapter four to say more than they were intended to say, and yet it seems to be quite possible, according to this account, to worship what you do not know, and so to have a seriously deficient concept of God while still engaging in genuine worship of this God at some level!

How should Biblical Christians apply this to the question under discussion? Should we say that, from a New Testament perspective, all Muslims stand in the same position as did this woman – worshipping what they do not know (or at least ‘worshipping what they do not know as well as we Christians think we know’)?

I’m not ready to draw any sweeping conclusions as to ‘what the Bible says’ based on this one passage but I will say that this incident is a solid Biblical reminder of the fact that theological orthodoxy and spiritual integrity are not the same thing!

The other passage that comes to mind when I think about this subject is Jesus’ story about the Pharisee and the Tax Collector as recorded in the Gospel According to Saint Luke, chapter eighteen. This passage would indeed seem to be acutely relevant to the question of whether false concepts of God are a barrier to true worship as the story ends with one of the two characters having had their prayers heard by God and the other one not!

When we read the story of the two men we see that they pray in very different ways and quite possibly they have very different conceptions of God. Interestingly though, this is not stated explicitly by Jesus. What is stated explicitly by Jesus is the radically different conceptions they have of themselves!

The Pharisee prays “I thank thee God that I am not like other men” (Luke 18:11) and clearly he thinks a lot of himself. The tax-collector, on the other hand, has a very low opinion of himself, saying only “God, have mercy on me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:13).

Given that this is all Jesus tells us about the two men, we are forced to conclude that it is the self-conception of the two protagonists that determines the integrity of their worship in this case, rather than the orthodox nature of their theology as such!

This story strikes a familiar chord in the Christian Scriptures, where integrity of worship is generally related more to the attitude and behaviour of the worshipper rather than to their theological orthodoxy. The two may be related of course, but as in all of life so also in the Scriptures – actions tend to speak louder than words!

While reading about the Wheaton College incident today I also read of a group of Muslim women in Nigeria who put their bodies on the line to protect their Christian neighbours from a group of Jihadists[2]. Apparently when the militants boarded the bus to drag out the Christians and murder them, a group of Muslim women stood between the Christians and their assailants, saying to the jihadists that they would have to “kill us together or leave them alone”. Apparently the gunmen got confused and left (thanks be to God)!

Were these Muslim women worshipping the same God as the Christians they protected? ‘Absolutely’, I would say. Indeed, I would go further and say, in the words of Jesus Himself, that ‘what they did for the least of His brethren, they did for Him’ (Matthew 25:40). An act of self-sacrifice like that is indeed an act of worship, and one that exhibits both spirit and truth!

Father Dave Smith

Parish priest, community worker, martial arts master, pro boxer, author, activist, father of four.

[1]             https://baptistnews.com/faith/theology/item/30771-christians-and-muslims-don-t-worship-same-god-sbc-leader-says#sthash.r6W0gYX2.dpuf

[2]             http://dailycaller.com/2015/12/22/muslims-save-christians-from-islamic-extremists-in-shining-moment-of-defiance/

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