This morning I had the opportunity to celebrate the Eucharist in spiritual communion with this anniversary, together with the tiny Christian community of the town of Tlemcen. There were the two Dominican Fathers, animators of the group of African students who currently form nearly all of our community. There was a nun of Our Lady of the Apostles, come from the nearby village of Hennaya, where she and her Sisters assure a presence of service and friendship in a place where they are the only Christians. There used to be one laywoman, a representative of the former European population, who has now returned to Europe following the independence of this Country. Finally, there were the members of the male Focolare of the town who give me lodgings and had just concluded a spiritual reflexion meeting with some Algerian Muslims who are friends of their apostolic movement.
This morning, during our prayer in profound communion with the religious representatives gathered in Assisi, we effectively prayed in order to entrust again to God our specific vocation: that of being a very small Christian community in an entirely Muslim town, and trying to find ways to develop relationships of service and friendship with its population in order to engage, through us, the Church in the encounter with Islam and the Muslims. In fact, while celebrating the Assisi anniversary, we were celebrating the vocation of all Christians who live a daily relationship with people of other religions. This is true not only in the Countries where the Christian population only forms a small minority, as in Algeria, but also in the outskirts of the large cities where now all sorts of religions are represented.
So the initiative of John Paul II, which had then a clearly prophetic character, has become, twenty-five years later, the acknowledgement of a reality that cannot escape anyone’s attention. This has led Benedict XVI, in his responsibility as universal Pastor, to give this anniversary a resonance similar to that of the 1986 meeting, where he was not present. As I watched this celebration, I particularly thought of the small Christian community in Libya who, in its two dioceses of Tripoli and Benghazi, has, together with the whole people of that Country, gone through a severe crisis. The Christians of that Church were there: the Filipino nurses, so often alone in their hospital work; the priests and the religious; and the lay people – all of them faithful to their vocation to serve a Muslim population hit by violence, just as the Tibhirine monks during another crisis, that of Algerian society.
The city of Tlemcen has happened to be chosen by ISECO (the Muslim UNESCO) as the 2011 Capital of Islamic Culture. Numerous symposia have been organized with the participation of academics from all Muslim Countries. The meeting taking place this week, in fact, was dedicated to evoking the history of the forced emigration of the Muslim population from Andalusia from the 16th to the 17th century. I was invited and listened – the only Christian, apart from one other, in the middle of a Muslim assembly where I counted many friends – to the narrative of the decisions made by the Inquisition and the sufferings of the Muslim peoples who had then to choose between exile and renouncing their Muslim faith by order of a Catholic power supported by the Church. All the histories of our religious communities are a mixture of good and less good.
If the current stress laid by Pope Benedict on religious freedom does not erase the past, it nevertheless constitutes a necessary appeal in favour of human rights and the respect due to each human being. Today we know, for example, the current trials of the Christian community in Iraq as well as other Countries. The sign given by Assisi, on the initiative of the Catholic Church, is therefore a great sign, precious for our times, to call all religious traditions to a sincere commitment to justice, peace and respect for the individual – for each man, each woman, whatever their religion or religious identity. The freedom of the act of faith turns the latter into a homage to God and the fulfilment of the person of the believer.
Religions have their share of responsibility in the work for justice and peace. Their past must give them the humility, but now also the will, to honour God by respecting the human being, any human being.
Tlemcen (Algeria) 27 October 2011
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