My article begins with a general framework (Islamic-Christian relations) on which I intend to throw a special light, that of the experience of a Christian Arab who was born and grew up in an Arab world and an Arab culture that are in large measure Muslim in character; a Christian Arab who, for the whole of his life, has experienced only the status of a Christian minority amidst an overwhelming Muslim majority. Lastly, a Christian Arab who lives at the present time in Tunisia where Christians are respected and enjoy a good level of freedom but where they are seen as foreigners, people, that is to say, who do not belong to the social fabric of society or even less to the country. In a few words, they are Christians travelling through. This experience of the Church in the context of the countries of North Africa is not without interest for all the efforts that are made on both sides in the field of inter-religious dialogue in general, and Islamic-Christian dialogue in particular, and this is even more the case because in certain countries in North Africa (I am thinking here for example of Algeria) Islamic-Christian relations are presently experiencing growing tension which still does not seem to have been resolved.
In this complex world of contemporary Islamic-Christian relations, there are hopes and challenges at one and the same time. I will begin with the hopes. First of all, the initiatives in favour of inter-religious dialogue from the Muslim side are undergoing a clear increase in numbers. We are witnesses to the overcoming of a psychology of fear or doubt as regards a subject (dialogue) which for a long period of time was seen as an exclusively Christian ‘production’. The visit of the King of Saudi Arabia, Abdallah, to the Vatican, his appeal for the creation of a forum of the three monotheistic religions, the world inter-religious congress which was chaired by him in Madrid, the invitation of the King of Bahrain to the Pope to visit his small Gulf Kingdom, the frequent inter-religious dialogues between the Holy See and Shiite Iran, the letter from the 138
Islamic leaders and the recent seminar of the Catholic-Muslim Forum in the Vatican are signs that were unthinkable only a few years ago. The opening of a church in Qatar (the Islamic country held to be the most closed after Saudi Arabia) may be seen as a movement in the same direction. There remains the great hope (dream) of a church in Riyadh or some other part of Saudi Arabia.
In addition, Muslim States, associations, and ordinary people as well, have recourse much less than was the case in the past to violent demonstrations when everything is broken or set fire to as soon as an aspect or a figure or a dogma of Islam is touched. We still remember the gigantic demonstrations following the address of Benedict XVI in Ratisborn and even more after the famous Danish caricatures of the person of the Prophet of Islam. Other caricatures have been published, an ‘offensive’ film was shot, and European Muslim associations preached for calm and made appeals in favour of a ‘ civilised way of protesting’.
For that matter, ‘ordinary’ Muslims and even certain ‘official’ figures – I am speaking here above all else of the countries of the Maghreb – are beginning to accept the principle of freedom of conscience (which is to be distinguished from freedom of worship) as long as it does not conceal economic, political or advertising motivations. I may refer here to thousands of opinions expressed on the web site of Al-Jazeera or of the BBC on the subject. The various cases that have filled the front pages of newspapers in Algeria and abroad, more than being examples of personal, adult and well grounded conversions have been the fruit of a zeal – praiseworthy but overly imprudent – to baptise as soon as possible (reference is made to ‘easy baptism’), with emphasis being placed on ethnic and nationalist aspects which in Algeria provoke a political and national susceptibility.
Lastly, on the Christian side, the period of dialogue of courtesy, of meetings marked by a spirit of openness and joy at being able to speak to Muslims, appears to be over. This was a necessary period (speaking to the heart) but it had to lead to another stage in dialogue called dialogue of truth – speaking to reason. For that matter, this was the subject chosen for the tenth plenary assembly of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue (in veritate et caritate). This step was not without contrasts and misunderstandings but it was necessary and also salutary. On the Catholic side the current approach in terms of dialogue seems to be summarised in the following statement: it is necessary to speak about the points that unite us but also about those that separate us, first of all to enrich each other, then in order to attempt to see how all of this belongs to the purpose of the salvific plan of God which embraces the whole of mankind.
There is a phrase in Arabic: ‘the East is East and the West is West: these are two worlds that will never meet’. Perhaps it is an exaggeration; perhaps it contains truth. The sensibilities are not the same, the reactions are not the same, and the concepts at times are not the same. Often it is not sufficient to translate a French word into Arabic for it to have the same meaning and the same consonance. During the meeting of the scientific committee of Oasis in Amman a number of parties argued, and with great conviction, that there is no need for an Islamic-Christian dialogue in Jordan because the Jordanians – both Christians and Muslims – live together very well and make up a single family.
There are therefore ‘structural’ misunderstandings between the two mentalities. Freedom of expression is a site of misunderstanding which has not yet stopped producing frictions (speeches, caricatures, baptism, cartoons, films…). And when these ‘hammer blows’ take place on a number of occasions during the same year the relations between people and communities are poisoned, above all in Muslim countries inhabited by local and foreign Christian minorities. One should not forget that Islam presents itself as a single system which incorporates everything and in which everything ‘is held’ (faith, worship, family, children, moral life, economic life, inheritance etc.). One need, therefore, touch on only one of the points of this large system for Islam as such to feel threatened and offended.
Another ‘structural’ misunderstanding is the notion of religious freedom. In Muslim countries (with certain rare exceptions) Christian minorities enjoy freedom of worship, that is to say the freedom to practice their faith in private as in public. For the Western mentality religious freedom means freedom of conscience, that is to say the freedom to choose one’s own religion or to choose not to have one. These two last concepts still have a long road ahead of them for the Muslim mentality. In this context, one understands why the discourse of reciprocity, although necessary, becomes problematic.
Another challenge, which is specific now to Algeria, is becoming worrying for the other countries of the Maghreb. In addition to the exaggerated and not always prudent zeal of certain evangelicals, one may observe an official Algerian policy that is becoming more rigid and is beginning to talk about ethnic and political concerns. The small Christian community of Algeria is involved despite itself, and every external intervention (above all by the Western Church) is seen as an undue interference in the affairs of an independent and sovereign country. And however little one knows about the recent past of the country, one now manages to have an idea of the underlying national and political sensibility. I repeat the point: what is happening in Algeria worries the other Churches of North Africa, given the geographical, political and economic weight of Algeria, not to speak of its heavy Salaphist potential. In addition, the move from a dialogue of charity to a dialogue of truth at times generates a certain hardening in the positions of the Churches. This may be the price to pay, but such is the case. A document that cites the CEI (the Italian Bishops’ Conference) forbids Italian priests to provide places of worship or prayer halls to Muslims. A recent document of the CEF (the French Bishops’ Conference) refers to an essential difference between Christians and Muslims in their way of speaking about God. The spirit and the tone of certain declarations of the Magisterium of the universal Church all go in the same direction. Once again, this could be a necessary step to take to achieve a dialogue of truth. It remains however true that the Churches that live in the Arab-Islamic world need to know on which criteria is based the current position of the Church as regards dialogue with Islam so as to be able to locate and find a positive balance between the official policy of the Church and the concrete circumstances of their own lives.
Along the same lines, one begins to perceive in various Churches of Europe a certain difficulty in relation to Islam, a growing diffidence and even the beginning of fear. It is beginning to be thought that Muslims in Europe (or at least some of them) not only do not integrate but do not want to integrate, and even that they are speaking about ‘converting’ a ‘Christian’ Europe that is in decadence from a moral and religious point of view. For that matter, in Arab and Muslim countries there are rather deep traces of feelings that are negative and diffident towards the West, which is always seen in the Muslim subconscious as ‘Christian’ (the historical-political context, various events, the recent movements of evangelisation, the political conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, the eternal Israeli-Palestinian conflict etc.).
Black and White
Everything that is happening is a historical movement that is stronger than we are. Are we perhaps moving towards a clash of civilisations or more towards a world, in religious terms, that is more open and more fraternal? I want to be an optimist, basing myself on two texts, one Christian and the other Muslim, in which, although they each reaffirm their own religious identity, the authors leave the door open to true and sincere dialogue. Cardinal Tauran, the President of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue, when opening the last plenary session of that Council, declared: ‘We are believers and we well know that God alone gives ultimate meaning to our lives and to human history. We are also committed to searching for the Truth, to loving it, to transmitting it, and to defending it. And although, on the one hand, we know, as Christians, that the Holy spirit works in every man and in every woman independently of his or her religious and spiritual creed, on the other hand we are bound to declare that Christ is the Way, the Truth and the Life. Jesus revealed to us the truth about God and man, and for us this constitutes the Good News. We cannot hide this truth under a bushel. Nonetheless, truth is inseparable from charity. God is Love and Truth. Truth inspires feelings, behaviour and acts of love’.
The second text is taken from a speech by King Abdallah, the sovereign of Saudi Arabia, that he gave at the time of the conference that was held in Mecca in early June 2008. This conference brought together over five hundred Muslim ulemas to discuss the subject of inter-religious dialogue: ‘you are gathered together here today to say to the world that we are the voice of justice and human moral values, the voice of life together and of dialogue. However, how numerous and difficult are the challenges that the Islamic Nation is encountering at the moment when enemies, and amongst these the extremist sons of this same nation, unite with so much animosity to injure Islam, its equity and its noble objectives…Dialogue is intended to oppose the threats generated by closure, by ignorance and by narrowness of views, so that the world will understand the precepts of Islam without rancour and animosity. Islam has chosen the path and defined the principles of dialogue with the faithful of other religions, and this path passes by way of the common values of the three monotheistic religions. These values feel repugnance at betrayal, reject crimes and combat terrorism’. We may add that the Saudi King wants to pay for courses to prepare people for dialogue for 40,000 imams. He has already obtained a nihil obstat from the Saudi ulemas and he is now waiting to receive the same from the other Islamic countries.
The world of Islamic-Christian dialogue is not monolithic. There is white and there is black. Everything depends on being able to navigate between the two. This new stage in the history of Islamic-Christian dialogue in the end can only be for the good of both. The error to be avoided is that of journeying along this road with feelings of diffidence, of distance or of conflict. If one manages to read this new ‘sign of the times’, to read it, that is to say, as a message that the Lord has sent us, we will be helped to be enriched by every little part of truth that the Creator has sowed in every man, in every epoch and in every place, and we will be able to give to contemporary man the witness that true faith in God can only draw believers closer to each other in respect and cooperation.