TWO MURDERS in Muslim countries, though committed by isolated individuals, suggest a vein of intolerance that diminishes Islam and restrains human development. Islamic moderates need to assert themselves to reverse a trend toward zealotry in the heartland of the Muslim world.
Coptic Christians were worshiping at Mass yesterday (not Good Friday in this Eastern rite) in Alexandria, Egypt, when a man went from church to church attacking them with a knife, killing one person. He probably was deranged, as the authorities said after his arrest, but the attack underlines the precariousness of the Copts' position in a country that espouses freedom of belief but where Islam is the official religion.
At the Vatican on Holy Thursday, Pope Benedict XVI recalled the murder of the Rev. Andrea Santoro, a missionary shot in Turkey on Feb. 6 by a teenager shouting ''Allahu akhar" (God is great). Turkey is an aggressively secular country, with deep Muslim roots. Christians are tolerated, but missionary work is discouraged. Newspapers speculated Santoro was murdered in reaction to the Danish cartoons mocking the Prophet Mohammed, or because of disdain for proselytizing.
Egypt and Turkey are models of ecumenism compared with several of their neighbors. Foreign missionaries would not be allowed in Iran, and Christians could not worship publicly in Saudi Arabia. Most Iranians adhere to the Shi'ite branch of Islam, while most Saudis practice an austere Sunni variation, yet they share a belief that theirs is the true faith and others must be marginalized.
A few centuries ago, most people in Europe echoed those sentiments, though their religion of choice was Christianity. One of the great triumphs of Western civilization is the evolution of a consensus that anyone should be allowed to practice, and to proselytize about, his or her faith, or none at all. Tolerance of others' core beliefs was accompanied by greater openness to scientific inquiries, improvements in the economic system, and the development of democratic government.
The West cannot expect Muslims to follow this example easily. There's too much history between the two cultures. Some countries, such as Turkey and Egypt, however, are receptive to outside influence. The United States gives about $1.8 billion in aid annually to Egypt. It needs to pressure the government to act to counter persecution of Copts. Turkey seeks admittance to the European Union. The EU is right to require it to adhere to European standards of religious tolerance.
Ultimately, the world's great religions cannot coexist peacefully unless Muslims accept that the right of others to believe freely does not diminish the worth of Islam. God's greatness is not dependent on believers' intolerance.
© Copyright 2006 Globe Newspaper Company.