Hundreds of Muslim clerics say religious freedom is essential

The conference was held in Morocco.Reuters

With much of the Middle East in meltdown from the carnage in Syria and Iraq through to continued violence in Israel/Palestine and the horrific campaign of violence targeted at Yemen, it seems there is little reason to be positive. That's before we even consider violence against Christians in Pakistan, Egypt and elsewhere.

However, this week saw a ray of hope emerge. Not from any of those trouble spots but from Morocco, where hundreds of Islamic scholars had gathered. The three-day summit brought together experts from both sides of the Sunni/Shia divide and produced a statement saying Muslim countries must respect the rights of other faiths.

The Marrakech Declaration and Call to Action makes for encouraging reading in the light of the atrocities carried out by ISIS in Syria and Iraq, Boko Haram in Nigeria and other extremist groups.

The Muslim scholars and intellectuals called upon "representatives of the various religions, sects and denominations to confront all forms of religious bigotry, villification, and denigration of what people hold sacred, as well as all speech that promotes hatred and bigotry". However, the pronouncement went a step further and specifically addressed Muslim countries: "We affirm that it is unconscionable to employ religion for the purpose of aggressing (sic) upon the rights of religious minorities in Muslim countries."

The participants in the event said they were drawing upon a foundational document of their faith, the Medina Declaration, which was written by the prophet Mohammed 1,400 years ago. In it he is said to have granted religious liberty to non-Muslims living in Medina, which by then was under his control.

Significantly, both Shia and Sunni scholars attended the gathering, which breeds hope that there will be an increased chance of its success. Shia minorities have been repressed in majority Sunni countries and vice versa.

Christians have borne the brunt of a lack of religious freedom in many Muslim countries in recent years, from misuse of the blasphemy laws in Pakistan to arbitrary imprisonment in Iran, through to the kidnappings and beheadings perpetrated by ISIS. Other smaller faiths have also suffered, including ancient sects like the Yazidis in Iraq, or more modern religions like Bahaism.

It's therefore very encouraging to read of renewed calls by the scholars to "establish a broad movement for the just treatment of religious minorities in Muslim countries and to raise awareness as to their rights, and to work together to ensure the success of these efforts".

A Boko Haram flag flies in Damasak, where militants kidnapped more than 400 women and children.Reuters

In addition to the more than 300 Islamic voices heard at the event, there were 50 observers from other faiths. Among them was Cardinal McCarrick, the former Archbishop of Washington. He said: "I was privileged to have listened to the declaration of our final gathering. It is truly a great document, one that will influence our times and our history. It is a document that our world has waiting for and a tribute to the Muslim scholars who prepared it."

Similarly, evangelical pastor Bob Roberts was in a positive frame of mind, describing himself as "blown away" by the declaration. "This is a Muslim conference put together by the top sheiks, ministers of religion, the grand muftis of the top Muslim majority nations," he said,"and they came up with a declaration, literally using the language of religious freedom to declare that violence cannot be done in the name of Islam."

It remains to be seen how the declaration is received, especially by the media-savvy extremists who run ISIS' propaganda. But amid the carnage being wrought by their co-religionists, this comprehensive and significant declaration will inspire hope for better treatment of minorities around the world.