Islam and Muslim-Christian Relations in Europe: Recent Developments

Cardinal Jean-Louise Tauran

CEE – London

5 May 2013

Islam and its followers, present in all continents, including Europe, continues to be the object of attention and observation and study and not without preoccupation.

The Conflict in Syria and related issues

The current conflict which has been going on in Syria for more than two years has highlighted a very worrying fact, namely the presence in this country of soldiers from several countries, including Europeans. The gathering in a designated spot of young Muslims, coming from all parts of the world and bringing with them their military experience so as to fight for a common Islamic cause is nothing new. It is exactly what happened in Afghanistan, and in Iraq, leading to the creation of new teams of combat to be sent out on future Jihad missions. For Ayman al-Dhahiri, the leader of al-Qaïda, this is good news which he wants to make use of, in order to bring Syria under Shari’a Law in the Salafist-Jihad spirit. This is the reason why Western countries, Europe and the United States, are hesitant to offer any form of real support and military assistance to the Syrian revolution, especially with regard to its Islamic/Islamist component.

Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Lebanon

The main reason for the Papal Visit which took place from 14-16 September was to sign the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Ecclesia in Medio Oriente, on the Church in the Middle East: Communion and Witness, and entrust this document to the local communities.

It is important to underline that the Pope did not simply intend to address the Christians alone, but wanted his message to reach all peoples living in that part of the world. Obviously in the first place to Christians of all different confessions, but also to other religions, especially Islam which is the majority religion in that part of the world which witnessed its beginnings and its spectacular expansion, seen as conquests by some, and as invasions by others! A common message is addressed to all Christians: remain attached to your homeland! Among the various meetings which took place during the visit, surely the one at the Presidential palace was the most significant for Interreligious dialogue, which brought together members of the Government and Institutions of the Republic, the Diplomatic Corps as well as Religious leaders and representatives from the world of culture.

Benedict XVI affirmed, among other things: “The particular character of the Middle East consists in the centuries-old mix of diverse elements. Admittedly, they have fought one another, sadly that is also true. A pluralistic society can only exist on the basis of mutual respect, the desire to know the other and continuous dialogue. Such dialogue is only possible when the parties are conscious of the existence of values which are common to all great cultures because they are rooted in the nature of the human person. This substratum of values expresses man’s true humanity. These values are inseparable from the rights of each and every human being. By upholding their existence, the different religions make a decisive contribution. It cannot be forgotten that religious freedom is the basic right on which many other rights depend”.

Meetings/Discussions with Iranians

One of the most interesting partnerships is the one with the Centre for Interreligious Dialogue of the Islamic Culture and Relations Organization (ICRO), a para-governmental organization which coordinates the cultural centres present in the various parts of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The first meeting/discussion between the PCID and the ICRO dates back to 1994. This took place at Tehran and had as its theme “Theological evaluation of modernity”.

The last meeting took place in Rome from 19 to 21 November 2012 and had as its subject “Catholic and Muslim cooperation in promoting justice in the contemporary world”.

We affirmed in the final Declaration: “Justice as a virtue based on human dignity requires the right exercise of reason and the illumination of God. Recognition of, and respect for, freedom of conscience, inter alia, are conditions of justice in our societies”.

Inauguration of the King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue

On November 26 2012, a delegation from the Holy See took part at the Opening of the King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue in Vienna. The Archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Schönborn, and other Catholic prelates were equally present.

It would be superfluous to point out the hesitations and even doubts of many, Christians and Muslims, concerning this initiative. We know all too well, the ultra-conservative Saudi monarchy, bolstered by its petrol resources and its religious status which comes from the fact that two of the most important Muslim shrines are to be found within their territory, promotes, by way of Salafist Islam which so easily tends towards Jihadism. Moreover, all non-Muslim religious practice is strictly forbidden, thus depriving millions of people of even the most basic expression of religious freedom, that is to say, freedom of worship.

In spite of this fact, the PCID and the Holy See in general have accepted to be part of this new space for dialogues both as a Religious Community on the Board of Directors and, as a State on the Council of Parties as Founding Observer.

In my address I stated clearly: “Ladies and gentlemen, we are being watched. Everyone is expecting from the initiative of His Majesty King Abdullah, supported by the governments of Austria and Spain, with the assistance of the Holy See as Founding Observer, honesty, vision and credibility”.

A new collaborator at the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue whose role is to follow Islam in Europe

So as to more closely follow the presence and impact of Islam in Europe, a new collaborator has been named, Fr Michael Weninger, a priest of the Archdiocese of Vienna. This former diplomat has a lot of good experience, in particular with regard to religions. He has the necessary skills to provide the kind of service the PCID needs.

Commission for Religious Relations with Muslims

Among the eight consulters of the Commission for Religious Relations with Muslims (CRRM), two are from Europe, Fr Andrea Picini who works with us and Professor Ian Netton, the Deputy Director of the Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter, in the United Kingdom. The other consulters hail from Germany, the United States of America, from Iraq, Italy, Nigeria and Pakistan.

As you are aware the CRRM was set up by Paul VI on the 22 October 1974 as a distinct organism – albeit linked to the then Secretariat for non Christians, today the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, whose aim was to promote and encourage the religious relations between Muslims and Christians.

The consulters of the Commission have a mandate for five years which can be renewed. The Commission met to discuss the theme “Christians and Muslims bearers of hope”. A publication for internal use could soon come to light. In any case, the CRRM provides an instance for reflection and exchange at the level of the Universal Church on its relations with Muslim believers.

Two new pro dialogo Oriental Patriarchs 

His Beatitude Louis Raphael I Sako elected February 1 2013 to succeed Cardinal Emmanuel II Deli, who resigned having reached the age limit.

Mons. Sako, was known for his strong commitment in favour of Muslim-Christian dialogue when he was Archbishop of Kirkouk. He was also a consulter at the PCDI. Alongside other Christian leaders in Iraq, he launched an initiative with a view to reconciliation and national peace.

Since 16 January 2013, His Beatitude Ibrahim Isaac Sedrak is the new Coptic Catholic Patriarch of Egypt, with some 200 000 members. Mons. Sedrak, as Emeritus Bishop of de Minya, Egypt, was always known for his balanced and realistic stance. With the Revolution of January 25 2011, he always underlined the incapacity of the former regime in responding to the demands for change emerging from Egyptian society. In previous years he had already given sound judgements regarding attacks and other forms of violence of which Christians had been the victims, before and after the uprising: “We must be aware”, he said in an interview he gave in Spring 2012 to the APIC Agency, “that attacks such as these are all part of a game which seeks to spread disorder and so take our attention away from the problems of the day, for example social problems. The people are demonstrating, they are asking for dignity, they are seeking improved material conditions, and so a distraction is thrown in. The regime organizes or at least allows these attacks to happen. The Salafites and the Muslim brotherhood take advantage of this fact. Meanwhile the regime abuses these incidents in which Christians and Muslims clash, and use the tensions for their own advantage.

Muslim Participation at the Final General Audience of Pope Benedict XVI

Muslims, especially those in Italy, had taken part both at the Mass for the Inauguration of the Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI’s pontificate, as well as at the meetings which followed for the fraternal delegations and those of other religions.

Contacted to see if they wished to take part in the Final General Audience of the Pontiff (27 February 2013), they said that they would be very happy indeed to present.

One of them, were sitting next to a member of the PCID, was clearly disturbed by the applause, because he really wanted to hear every word of Benedict XVI. His final words were “the Pope is great because he puts the Church at the centre, not himself”.

Muslim Participation at the Inauguration of the Pontificate of Pope Francis (19 and 20 March 2013)

The same people – along with a last minute addition in the person of Mr Mustapha Cherif, University Professor and former Minister and Ambassador of Algeria – took part in the ceremony to mark the beginning of the Pope Francis’s Pontificate and were present the following day at the meeting arranged for the fraternal delegations and those of other religions.

Challenges to be met

Dialogue at the grass-roots level

One of the challenges lies in bringing the fruits of dialogue to the local level, so that this work does not remain simply at the level of the elite. This is precisely what the PCID and its Iranian partners affirmed in the final Declaration mentioned early which speaks of: “The need to take the fruits of our meeting and communicate them to the people of our respective communities and societies so that they can have a real effect in the world”.

The necessity to promote a healthy secularity (separation of religion and politics)

The amalgam of religion and politics does no good to either, and so often opens the way to the instrumentalization of religion by politics and vice-versa. Such instrumentalization finds fertile ground in those places where real democracy is not found.

The complex phenomenon known as the Arab Springtime has brought Islamists, especially the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafites to power. They came to power by way of a democratic process, through elections. Nevertheless, there remains the danger of democracy being wiped out by means of constitutional change and members of these groups placing their supporters in places of responsibility thereby impeding a democratic political transition.

The challenge then is this: How can religious values be brought into political life– be they from Islam or from other religions – without religion becoming part of a political game?

A dialogue between parties of Christian inspiration (for example the popular parties in Europe and the Muslim Brotherhood) may indeed be very useful at this time.

Education of Young people

Young people are the future of the world, they are, of course mat the same time, the first victims of religious fundamentalism and the ‘first material’ of violence and terrorism, hence the need for human and religious education which is open to the other: An open identity does not mean one which is mediocre or weak.

Young Christians should be helped to answer questions about the most important aspects of dogma, for example, the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Saving Mystery of the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ This is especially important when it comes to dialogue with young Muslims whose religion questions such aspects of the Christian faith.

Conscious that the presence of Muslims in Europe is a strong incentive for us to be credible Christians, we have underlined with realism and without fear that challenges are not lacking. Our hope is that these might in turn become opportunities.