The full version of this article first appeared January 13, 2016 at Christianity Today as “What Arab Christians Think of Wheaton-Hawkins ‘Same God’ Debate: Controversy echoes what Mideast Christians have wrestled with for centuries.” by Jayson Casper
Larycia Hawkins has a fan in Egypt. Theresa, the nine-months-pregnant wife of a Coptic Orthodox juice stand owner, could not hide her admiration when told how a Christian professor had donned a hijab in solidarity with Muslims facing prejudice in America.
“It is a beautiful thing she has done, going beyond the norm to better approach others,” she said. “But it would not work here.” Her comment came on the heels of her husband Hani’s discomfort. He called the symbolic act “extreme.”
In doing so, the humble man mixing mango and strawberry mirrored the reactions of most regional evangelical and Orthodox theologians to the core question of the Wheaton College dispute: not Hawkins’s hijab, but her “same God” explanation for it. All commended her intentions, but only one—the Palestinian head of a seminary—praised it as a stand for justice.
One pastor called it “excessive.” A bishop, “unnecessary.” And therein lies the rub. Whether considering donning the hijab in solidarity or debating if Muslims and Christians worship the same God, Arab Christians operate in a vastly different religious context.
Only recently have American Christians had to deal with issues raised by Muslims in their midst. The 9/11 tragedy birthed a political culture that seeks unity through theological terms, said Salim Munayer, head of the lauded Musalaha reconciliation ministry in Jerusalem.
“But among Muslims and Christians in the Middle East, the discussion is not over whether we worship the same God,” he said, “but rather Muslims challenging us that we worship one God at all.”
“Of course we are not worshipping the same God,” said Luther Awad, head of the Egypt chapter of Cru (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ). “But for better relations, many Muslim and Christian leaders like to say otherwise. Deep down, I do not think they mean it.”
Anglican bishop Mouneer Hanna Anis of Egypt applies it differently. Promoting dialogue between Canterbury and al-Azhar, as well as religious partnership in Egypt through the Family House initiative, he admits being moved by the cry of the muezzin. “The God Muslims worship, we worship as well,” he said, noting the common attributes of oneness, power, and transcendence. He even helped to secure Muslim condemnation of Malaysia’s decision to criminalize Christian use of the word “Allah.” But Anis is bound by the testimony of scripture. “For us as Christians, and only by his grace, God has revealed himself in the person of his son Jesus Christ, whom Muslims do not know in this way,” he said.
Magdy Gendy, retired dean of the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo, is appreciative of the ministry of those active in interfaith affairs. But he’s not interested in identifying the God of Islam. “I worship the triune God. The God they worship is none of my business,” he said. “To say otherwise is a political statement.” He offered a warning for America even as he encouraged love and respect toward Muslims. “There is a huge difference between Islam as a minority and as a majority,” he said. “Study Egyptian history and you will see.”
Cairo evangelical pastor Refaat Fekry echoed this perspective. He noted Muhammad’s early career called for tolerance, while his later revelations from God reflected an image similar to the Old Testament.“I cannot say we are united in our understanding,” he said. “Talking about God will only divide us further.”
But Christians of the Middle East may have no other options.
“We need to be open and try to find ways of communication and understanding,” said Bishop Thomas, who is responsible for the Coptic Orthodox diocese of Qusia in Upper Egypt. “There are areas where we can bridge and build up good relations.” He advised Christians to approach Muslims in light of Jesus’ attitude toward the Samaritans. “Jesus tried to build a community that would include the whole world,” he said. “Every person is in the circle of his love, even though they have different beliefs.”
The president of Nazareth Evangelical Theological Seminary in Israel, Azar Ajaj, agreed, but took the opposite approach. “Muslims already believe that Allah is God,” he said. “To say that both ‘persons’ are the same for the sake of building bridges is invalid.” The God of Christianity and the God of Islam are not the same, he said. To assert otherwise would elevate the Qur’an as an alternate means of knowing him. But Christians in the Middle East do not, and perhaps should not, press this matter. “We turn a blind eye for the sake of reaching out,” he said, “but more for the sake of living in harmony with the religious majority.”
Like in Egypt, Christian leaders in the Levant had differing perspectives. Imad Shehadeh, president of the Jordan Evangelical Theological Seminary, focused on Islam’s God of unitarian monotheism. “This theology is opposed to the Bible at the core,” he said, “and from a biblical perspective this God does not exist.”