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Christians in the Muslim World

How Libya and North Africa can “remake” Europe

At the Angelus yesterday, Benedict XVI made an appeal “to those who have political and military responsibilities for the immediate initiation of a dialogue, which suspends the use of weapons.” “May peace return as soon as possible for these people and further tragedies be stopped”, Cardinal Angelo Scola, Patriarch of Venice, tells , “means to object strongly that every death is one too many. But peace is not an automatic utopia, it is necessary to build it every day in reality.” “We in Europe,” Scola explains, “are victims of a strong presumption. We think we know how to evaluate and solve problems without taking into account the testimony of those who live in these situations.” Starting with the Christians in those lands. And there is not only the important issue of participation and democracy, but also of the transformation of Islam. This is a challenge which involves the spiritual contours of European identity, and of Italy in particular, the hinge between north and south.

“I ask God to obtain that a horizon of peace and concord may dawn as soon as possible on Libya and on the entire region of North Africa,” Benedict XVI said at the Angelus on Sunday, March 20. In what sense can one speak of peace when the policy is to take direct action to save the people from tyranny?


To speak of peace in these circumstances means, of course, to demand that armed violence, even in this case, would end and give way to negotiation, that peace return as soon as possible for these people and to halt further tragedies; to object strongly means that every death is one too many. But peace is not an automatic utopia; it is necessary to build it every day in reality. Therefore, to obtain peace, prayer arises, against all skepticism, as an effective tool.



On closer inspection, the gears of realpolitik never seem to respond well to commands. Why is this? Is it a lack of “strategy” or a cultural deficit or lacking foresight of some kind?


I am not an expert. What I can observe is that we Europeans are often victims of a strong presumption. We think we know how to evaluate and solve problems without taking account of the testimony of those who live in these situations. This often prevents us from considering all the factors in play. Many collaborators of Oasis who live in these places these days invite us to make a careful distinction: the situation in North Africa is different from that of the Middle East, although both of the areas are in turmoil. What is happening is largely an unexpected phenomenon or not foreseen in this way, but it has very different connotations from country to country: Libya is not Egypt, we know very little about Libya, just as this is radically different from what has happened in Tunisia. Also what is happening in Syria is different.



And what do you think about Libya, specifically, Your Eminence?


As to the current war in Libya, I would like to recall the opinion of Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, who speaks for all of us Italian bishops. This seems a realistic assessment: you cannot stand still when so many lives are at stake and the civil society itself. What then becomes complex is to determine what this intervention should consist in. So it becomes essential to listen very carefully to the voice of people like the bishop of Tripoli who has been there for years and knows the situation from the inside.



If we step back for a moment from the events related to the Libyan crisis, we see that across the Mediterranean–since the attacks on Christians at the end of last year, then by the Egyptian crisis, etc. — we are going through a phase of unprecedented instability. What is changing?


I believe that, as always in human affairs, it is only in time that a process, especially one so explosive and complex, can be understood. We must have the patience to let all the factors come to the surface. Certainly one cannot underestimate the strong demand for freedom, for the dignity of life, for democracy, and for work that emerges from these movements, but there are other aspects that we cannot see yet and that we must, however, try to understand carefully. For example: what evolution may occur within the diversity of Islam starting from these events? At the same time, there is the advance in the process that I call the “hybridization of cultures and civilizations”, an historical process, which is partly violent, partly unpredictable and also hopeful, and which does not ask permission to happen, but which we can at least try to accompany, and to govern.



How concerned should we be about the plight of Christians in the Middle East? Can we still speak–given the paucity of their presence– of a particular “task” they have in the face of these circumstances?


The situation of our fellow Christians in the Middle and Far East is very painful. We cannot afford to remain passive, to not to listen to their voices and their cry for help. The Church of Venice, on the path of the pastoral visit that has involved the entire diocese, has been able to work with two remarkable people: Bishop Luigi Padovese, murdered in Turkey, and Shahbaz Bhatti, the Pakistani Christian Minister who was the victim of a recent attack. Their testimony is forcing us to act for the freedom of the Church, which is threatened in some predominantly Muslim countries. Their martyrdom documents that what it means to live authentically as Christians is to live the desire to follow Jesus, to find a place–as Bhatti wrote in his spiritual testament –at the foot of his cross to participate in his resurrection.



Almost all agree in recognizing that a major humanitarian crisis is upon us. What must the government and the society do to rise to the task?


One thing is the impetus to welcome, which must be immediate toward those who find themselves in a difficult situation which is so burdensome. Another thing is that the policy must be orderly and organic, even in a case of a grave emergency like this. The problem is that everybody should assume responsibility: the whole of Europe is called upon to respond to this situation. Our country must prepare itself to face realistically the fact that tens of thousands of people will present themselves at our doors. Of course, we need to have a vigilant eye and a far-sighted vision: the tragedies that mark North Africa and more generally the beginning of the third millennium are a formidable challenge from Providence toward the man of the future. What kind of man do we want to be? An “I-in-relationship”? Or a man who, of course, can have amazing techno-scientific means available, but who tends to fossilize into an individual identity and thus deteriorates?



Do you think the crisis at hand is also a “yardstick” of European unity?


This uneasiness demonstrates that Europe cannot be held together only by the cement of the euro, but needs a clear identity, a sound economic and foreign policy, and with ample breadth. But this is impossible, I repeat, unless Europeans as individuals and nations respond to a huge question: “Who will be the man of the third millennium?” Perhaps the tragedy of the migration of large numbers of men and women from Africa, if we are all more generous, can be the glue for the construction of a peaceful Europe because it is capable of opening itself, with an intelligent availability, to those in need. A Europe that becomes a tangible expression of that sharing between people which is essential for the present and the future and that we Europeans, who are a bit comfortable and sedentary, have not been able to make the stable project of the good life.



From the very beginning of your mandate, you have focused your mission as pastor on the status of the Church of Venice as a bridge of dialogue between East and West. Is there is a particular task that it can play in this historic moment?


At this very time, when throughout the Northeast we are preparing to welcome the Holy Father on his imminent visit to Aquileia and Venice, we are opening our eyes to a new challenge for Venice and the entire Northeast: to find the original function of the link between peoples and cultures again, and not only between East and West, but also between North and South. Looking at a map of the area, what catches the eye is how the Adriatic is the vertex of the Mediterranean which, here in our area, opens to the heart of old Europe. The circumstances are inviting us to ask ourselves what this “new” and needed Northeast will be, which, as in the days of the splendor of Aquileia, from which 57 churches were born, could cover Croatia, Slovenia, Austria, Bavaria, Hungary. In a word, the Adria Alps region.




*(Interview by Federico Ferraù, translation by Sharon Mollerus)