The peaceful coexistence of Christianity and Islam has a history lasting over 1400 years. We should recognise that the Papal visit to Iraq is not the dawn of a new era but rather, an overdue return to normality, writes Mohamed Ali Albodairi.

When Pope Francis and Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani met last weekend, it symbolised the promise of a better relationship between Islam and Christianity. Peaceful and almost familial relations between the two faiths has been the norm in Iraq and the world for the past 1400 years, painful blips like Daesh's 3-year campaign in Mosul notwithstanding.

We should recognise that the Pope meeting the Ayatollah is not the dawn of a new era – it is an overdue return to normality.

Islam's deep-rooted respect for other faiths has been lost in tragic moments of modern history. From 9/11, to the Taliban, to Al Qaeda, to Daesh, extremist fringe groups have taken the headlines and created a false narrative of Islam.

Many commentators, viewing a 1400-year tradition through the lens of several tragic headlines, have seen violence as the rule, rather than the exception.

This thinking is dangerous, lacks nuance, and most of all, is ahistorical.

Where there is conflict between members of different faiths, in the Middle East and elsewhere, this has more to do with geopolitical tensions than with the nature of Abrahamic religion and civilization.

That categorization – 'Abrahamic', rather than the more commonly used 'Judeo-Christian tradition', which – perhaps deliberately – excludes Muslims, is telling.

It would be easy to assume that the first Christian-Muslim interactions were clashes of unrelenting military conflict, where Islamic expansionism fuelled the spread of Muslims across the Middle-East after the death of the Prophet and ended with the siege of Constantinople (now Istanbul) whilst being punctuated with the Crusades in between.

But this is only a small part of a much larger picture.

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The first Islamic society, established in Medina, was built upon the 'Charter of Medina', formulated by the Prophet Muhammad himself. The charter created a multi-religious, politically pluralistic state and abolished the tribal, sectarian structure that came before.

This created a society based on citizenship, not religious affiliation – something that, after 1400 years, many societies are still struggling to achieve. There can be no better measure of the essence of Islam than the actions of the Prophet himself. The 'Charter of Medina' is a perfect display of that.

This sounds a lot like modern notions of multicultural melting pots and civil rights – things that are not always seen as synonymous with the Middle East – particularly when it comes to Christian minorities.

The book When Christians and Muslims first Met by Professor Michael Penn, describes how a large proportion of early Christians lived in what would be modern-day Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Their writings were recorded in a dialect called Syriac, which only a handful of modern scholars can translate. Syricac is similar to Aramaic, the language that Jesus spoke.

If you're wondering why more Westerners haven't heard of these communities, it may be because many 5th century European Christians considered these Christians heretics, and therefore attempted to write them out of the history books – with some success.

Translations of early Syriac Christian writing show that for centuries, the spiritual centre of Christianity was not Rome or Constantinople, but Baghdad. Over half of Christians in this era lived in the Middle East, and their accounts of Muslim society (written in Syriac) show a very different picture to the one we have received from, for example, the Romans, who encountered Muslims in a solely military context. No one seems tolerant on the front line.

Throughout Islamic history in the Middle East and elsewhere, Christians held positions of power in government, worked alongside Muslim scholars, and even helped to fund donations for monasteries through Islamic donations.

Early Christians ate with Muslims, married Muslims – the Prophet himself had a Christian wife – and taught Muslim children. They have been part of Islamic tradition from the very beginning: Muslims believe that a Syriac Christian Monk named Bahira foretold Muhammad's destiny as the messenger of God, before he began his message.

This cosy relationship between Islam and Christianity is not just supported by history, but by scripture.

Muslims believe that the Torah was revealed to Moses, the Psalms were revealed to David, and the Gospel was revealed to Jesus. The Holy Quran explicitly supports this in verse 2.136: "We have faith in Allah and what has been sent down to us, and what was sent down to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob and the Tribes, and that which Moses and Jesus were given." The Quran also describes Jesus as 'the spirit of Allah'.

Christianity may have found its glory and pomp with the Romans, centred on the Vatican. But its spirit lies in the Middle East.

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