Excerpts from Transcription of Al-Jazheera Interview with Cardinal Jean-Louise Tauran

 24 February 2012

Transcript of parts of the interview with Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran,  Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church, President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.

Bio: Cardinal Tauran has been Secretary for Relations with States (a sort of foreign ministry), Librarian of the Holy Roman Church and has held a number of key posts within the Roman Curia.

He is one of the most influential personalities within the Holy See.


Sami Zeidan, Al-Jazheera: Publications in the West have been filled with headlines expressing concerns about the fate of Christian communities in the Middles East, what is the Vatican’s view, do you see Christians in the Middle East facing annihilation?

Cardinal: Christians first of all are sharing the fate of the people of that region and where there is no peace, people are not at ease, and they suffer. But for me the great temptation for the Christians in the Middle East is to emigrate, because when you look at the situation, the Peace Process is not going on, and when you are a father and mother of a family and you have children …

Sami:  you look for somewhere safe…

Cardinal: Yes it is understandable, but if Christians leave the Middle East, it will be a tragedy, because first of all they are leaving the land where they were born. Christians have always been leaving in the Middle East, and, if they leave, the Holy Places will become museums, and this would be a catastrophe.

Sami: Do you think,  from the Vatican perspective, that there is a coordinated campaign against Christians in the Middle East and in other Muslim majority countries?

Cardinal: A coordinated campaign, I don’t know. But for sure if you open the newspaper, for example in Iraq, Christians are killed and in the rest of the Middle East also, every day we have this news and you cannot deny  that they are the target of a kind of opposition. I have been in the Middle East for many years and what I felt was that Christians feel they are second class citizens in countries where Muslims are the majority.

Sami:  Who is targeting the Christians? Is it one particular group?

Cardinal: It is these fundamentalist groups, these extremist groups, but when you speak with the political leaders they would say of course that they have nothing against Christians.

Sami: Do you think Christians are being targeted because the goal is to wipe out the Christian identity from the region, or are they simply one of other soft targets who are also victims of the violence? For example when you mentioned Iraq, attacks on Christians there are  often attributed to Al Qaeda, who also attack Shias, who also attack government installations… 

Cardinal: You know better than I do, that Islam has many sensitivities, I think every country and situation has its own profile and that varies from country to country.

Sami: Is the Vatican holding any talks with the rising forces in the Arab World, whether it is the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt for example or other groups?

Cardinal: I don’t think so, but you must remember that the Church, is not only the Vatican, but the local Churches and the Bishops on the ground, they  havemany contacts with these groups that the Vatican has not, the Vatican is Not The Church, the Vatican is a governing body , but the Church is the reality at the grassroots level.

Sami: The Arab Spring is bringing many changes to the Arab World, what about when it comes to dialogue between religions, do you think the Arab Spring will help or hinder that process?

Cardinal: I hope it will help, because when you look at the Arab Spring and the dynamic of the movement, the dynamic was: young people asking for dignity, freedom, jobs and these are values that we share, Christians, Muslims and every human being in the world.

Sami: Does the Vatican welcome the Arab Spring in that sense? 

Cardinal: Well I think this is a reality, it is not a question of welcoming, the problem is that we recognize that the aspirations are good. Now, we are to see who is to take over  this Spring, let’s hope it will go towards summer and not winter

Sami: And if it brings, as it seems to be the case in some countries of the Middle East, parties which have Islamic roots or have Islamic orientation, is that a threat to Christians in the region?

Cardinal: I suppose people on the ground will feel like that, but let us hope that the people who have the leadership will take into consideration that we are living in year 2012 and that there is an international law, a humanitarian law, and the experience of history and that reason will prevail over violence and passion…

Sami: So this means the Vatican has still an open mind on the order that is arising in the Arab World, because as you said, the local churches issue warnings and strong statements about rising Islamic forces…

Cardinal: They have an experience not only of today but of many centuries and it is up to them, but I shouldn’t dare to say that the Vatican fears or wishes, we have to be on the ground and listen to the aspirations of people.

Sami: Some churches say that the cause of the tensions is the religion of Islam itself, they say Islam is an intolerant, even an evil religion, how would you comment on that?

Cardinal: You have to remember that Christians and Muslims are in dialogue since many centuries, and not only after the Second Vatican Council as we often read in the newspapers. We have been in contact since the beginning of Islam, so there are different chapters and sometimes violence has prevailed over dialogue. But  now , there is greater awareness that we are condemned to dialogue as I am used to saying.

I was reading a quote by a University professor in Tunisia that was saying to his students: “Please don’t let your pen drop off your hands, because if you loose your pens what do you have left? Your knives.” And this is a very wise recommendation…

Sami: One of the places where Christian communities are decreasing, one of the most important in the Middle East is of course in the Holy Land. There it is a bit more complex, you have a standoff between the Churches and the Palestinian Christian communities and the Israeli authorities and the Israeli occupation. What is your message to the Israeli authorities and how they deal with the Christian communities?

Cardinal: In the Holy Land the only thing you can foresee is unpredictability, because anything can change from the evening to the morning. But what I remember when I was there: ordinary people are ready to live together. The problem is the ambitions or the plans of the political leaders and this is another thing and of course and the Vatican , as a subject of international law, has not to interfere  in that.

But with regard to the Holy Land which is very important for the Holy See, is the issue of the Holy places, and this is sometimes a position which is ignored but I am deeply convinced that if the problem of the Holy places is not adequately resolved, there will be no peace in the Middle East… if you look at the conversations these past years nobody spoke about the problem of the Holy Places and the Holy See is the only one who always said, please don’t leave this issue for the last minute because it is a very complex problem and it has to be dealt with great intelligence, good knowledge of history. The Holy See is in favor of a special status internationally guaranteed for this part of Jerusalem, where the Holy Places of the three monotheistic faiths are open to the believers.

Sami: Palestinian Christians they say their life under occupation is so hard and that is why they are trying to leave, what do you say to the occupation authorities, what is the Vatican’s message you are certainly trying to preserve the Christian  presence in the Holy Land?

Cardinal: I think there is a principle which is universal which is that everyone has the right to live in peace in the land where he was born.

Sami: How would you address the concerns of Muslims, from their perspective, about invasions into Muslim countries and attacks of Muslim communities , as being at the root of tensions between Muslims and Christians?

Cardinal: This has nothing to do with religion, these are political options that are being taken in order to favor a certain political line, but I think we must always respect the believes of the others, the holy places and the holy books, all these treasures that belong to each community, otherwise this is a jungle and we see the result.

Sami: the European audience has a lot of concerns about immigration, especially Muslim immigration… right wing groups in Europe that say “don’t let these Muslims in, don’t deal with them softly, they might be tolerant people now, but if they become powerful they will destroy the European values of tolerance”, how do you address these concerns?

Cardinal: Well you  are right, to say that in Europe there is a fear of Islam, but it is due to ignorance, because when you speak to right wing groups, and I have spoken to many, they have never opened the Quran, and they never met a Muslim, and we have to do a great effort to educate. We succeeded in avoiding the clash of civilizations, let us avoid the clash of ignorances because most of the problems are coming from misinterpretations or ignorance.

Sami: What would be your message to authorities in Switzerland that seek to ban minarets or authorities in France that seek to impose legal penalties to face veils, what would your message be to them?

Cardinal: I should say,  before talking inform yourself about the meaning of a minaret, inform yourself about the believes of others. Different religions can be a kind of spiritual emulation for other believers and not only opposition I think.

Sami: How do you answer those who say there have been dialogue initiatives for a long time but they haven’t achieved their results and something more practical needs to be done? 

Cardinal: I think that the future is school and university, they must teach the religious facts of history in order  to form a common ground…

Sami: In the East or the West or both?

Cardinal: Both. For example I have seen a book of history which is taught in public schools in the Middle East, the Christians are never called Christians they are called misbelievers, this is not right, it is a question of honesty, at school we can forge a nation, you can shape the mind.

We have to have the same tools in order to be able to have a dialogue.

Sami: Are you calling for children in Egypt to be taught the basics of Christianity at school? Because Europe seems to be moving the opposite way and keeping religion out of the classroom…

Cardinal: I mean, from a cultural point of view, I don’t mean we have to teach them Christianity, but religion as cultural factor , in order to have no ambiguity, you cannot build dialogue in ambiguity.  At least (people ) should  have the basic knowledge of the elements of other religions in order to respect somebody who is believing in another way.

Sami: By the same token, do you think European classroom need to do the same about Muslims and Islam?

Cardinal: Oh yes, but in Europe we have also to teach Christianity! Because the problem is religion analphabetism, in fact the young generation ignores its own religion, so we have to make a tremendous effort to teach the contents of our faith and of course within our own religious communities and outside in newspapers a and at schools, to have at least a minimum cultural knowledge of the other religion.