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Religion and Society

In Tibhirine, Following the Surprise of a Friendship

 

 

 

More than a year ago Professor Azzedine Gaci, the President of the Regional Council for Muslim Worship (CRCM) of the Rhone-Alps Region, when looking at a videocassette on the monastery of Tibhirine, was very touched by the witness of Fra Luc, the oldest member of the community, a medical doctor who used to treat all the people in the area free. Professor Gaci came to me and said: ‘this man gave his life for Algeria and offered it up in sacrifice. What happened at Tibhirine is horrible. Would you agree to go there to pray and ask God’s forgiveness?

 

 

He then organised the trip with the CRCM, the government and the Church of Algeria, helped in loco by Father Michel Guillaud, who had come from Lyons as a priest fidei donum the previous autumn. It was proposed that we create two delegations, one Muslim and one Catholic, each made up of eight people. The journey took place on 17-21 February 2007. we went through Annaba, Constantina and Algiers. About ten journalists accompanied us so that a varied and friendly group of twenty-five people was formed. Many of us lived out those days as a veritable pilgrimage.

 

 

The involvement of the government of Algeria conferred an official dimension on our journey. The Wali (prefects) of the cities we went through, the Emir Abd el Kader University of Constantina, the ambassador of France, the President of the Ulema and of President of the High Islamic Council, and the Minister for Religious Affairs himself, all received us with much courtesy, but this did not remove from our trip its fraternal and spiritual dimension. Monsignor Gabriel Piroird welcomed us at the airport of Annaba and accompanied us until our departure from Constantina. Monsignor Teissier took his place when we arrived in Algiers. The meetings with the Christian communities in Constantina and Algiers were strong moments, as were the re-evocation of St. Augustine at Annaba, a moment of prayer in front of the tomb of Emir Abd el Kader in Algiers, in numerous mosques and Islamic historical places, and above all the culminating point of our journey – Tibhirine.

 

 

The official conversations soon left the terrain of protocol to go to the heart of faith. Thus Dr. Bouabdellah Ghlamellah, the Minister for Religious Affairs, was not afraid to launch into personal testimony on the importance of prayer and the way in which it is experienced. He pointed out to us that he owes his own spiritual pathway to his mentor, Sheik Abderrahmane Chibane, the current President of the Association of Algerian Ulema. This last had just received us with sensitivity and much attention at Mohammadia and he had explained to us the place and authority of the Ulema in the Muslim community of Algeria. The President of the Islamic High Council, Professor Cheik Bouamrane, a philosopher by training, presented to us his idea of inter-religious dialogue in terms comparable to those employed by Father Yves Congar sixty years ago when speaking about ecumenical dialogue – it was necessary not to express any judgement on the religion of another person before allowing that person himself to express, from within, his faith and his practices. It seems to me that this is the spirit in which our meetings in Lyons take place. I would like to pay tribute to Kamel Kabtane, Rector of the Great Mosque of Lyons, who during the last month of Ramadan organised conferences in two voices in order to compare Christian and Muslim conceptions of Revelation, of prayer, of prophecy, of fasting…

 

 

‘Explain the Trinity to Me’

 

 

During one of his visits to the Archbishopric, Azzedine Gaci asked me about the Trinity and said: ‘there is a point on which I would really like to hear you because at times Muslims say that Christians are not coherent in professing their faith in one God when they speak about three persons, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Explain the Trinity to me’. I answered him that this object complement (the Trinity) sits unevenly with the verb ‘to explain’! This one God in which we believe – the Bible says that He is Love. Now the property of love is giving and fecundity. We thus contemplate the circulation of this love in God, in the communion of the Persons: a Father who gives Himself, a Son who receives everything from his Father, and the Holy Spirit who is the eternal exchange of this love in God. Poor words with which to utter the treasure of the Christian faith! I had the perception that I had been listened to and respected. My interlocutor wanted only to perceive – or so it seemed to me – the beauty and the internal logic of the Christian faith.

 

 

On a number of occasions Azzedine has expressed to me his profound agreement about the stance of the Church in relation to respect for life and the new biotechnologies. ‘Every time that I read a text of yours on these questions, he confided to me, I can say that I would subscribe to it as well without any hesitation’. He admires the clarity of our doctrine on the beginning and the end of life, on marriage and on sexuality…and he wanted to know whether Catholic couples obey the teaching of the Church in the field of contraception. I, in turn, asked him about the possibility of changing one’s religion, and in particular asked him about the threats that some young Muslim women receive from their close relatives when they request baptism. He replied that this scandalised him, that he does not fail to tell his community that the Muslim texts cannot be taken literally in this field, and that the spiritual pathway of each person must be respected absolutely.

 

 

By way of balance, I told him that we are not shocked by the public form of fasting and prayer in Islam (with explicit indications as to times or the chants of the muezzin), whereas Jesus teaches us to do all of this ‘in secret’ [Mt 6:2-18]. He explained to me that the Koran also insisted on secrecy but that the visible and communal dimension is of help to inner practice. I found the observation pertinent, in particular as regards fasting which, with the pretext of remaining secret, today runs the risk of disappearing from the practice of Catholics. What would happen to our society, he added, if one never saw anybody draw near to a poor person in the street and speak to him or give him something? These reflections, which seemed to me to be good ones and right, inspired my homily, the evening of my return, on Ash Wednesday, in the Church of St. John.

 

 

At the Graves of Tibhirine

 

 

One morning we left for Algiers and before reaching Tibhirine we stopped near to the place where twelve Croats had been murdered a few months previously and near to the spot where the heads of the monks had been found hanging from the branches of a tree inside plastic bags. By common accord, we decided not to make statements to journalists that morning and when we reached the monastery we immediately went to their graves. Monsignor Teissier and Father Jean-Marie Lassausse, who lives there for three days every week, showed us the places and their history. A passage from the Koran was read and then the account of the washing of the feet in John 13, a text by Frère Cristophe chosen by Vincent Ferold, and another by Frère Christian. The silence, a ray of sun in the cold, the singing of the birds, prepared us for the two prayers of the Fâtiha and Our Father. We then visited the monastery and in the hall of the community we gave to the members of the Muslim delegation a New Testament and a copy of ‘A Letter of the Martyrs of Lyons’, in the same way as Azzedine Gaci offered us a new edition of the Koran, on which he himself had worked. Then with Monsignor Teissier and the priests that were present we celebrated Holy Mass and several members of the Muslim delegation took part. Father Christian Delorme was unable to control his emotions when he read the Gospel. For my homily I read what Christian de Chergé declared there for his last Easter Thursday.

 

 

Beyond the constant exchange between the members of our two delegations, during the journey and the meals, there were some more official declarations and above all, on the last day, a meeting at the National Library, open to the public, which involved more than three hundred people. Chaired by the man in charge of that place, it began with three short papers, one by Monsignor Teissier, one by Azzedine Gaci, and one by myself. Then the audience was allowed to speak. Some members of the audience expressed their difficulty in believing Pope Benedict XVI after the address that he had given at Ratisbon. I replied that neither Monsignor Teissier nor myself had spoken personally about this with the Holy Father and that the only person present in the hall who had had this possibility was Monsieur Mustapha Chérif, the former Minister for Higher Studies. He referred to the private meeting that he had had with the Holy Father for more than thirty minutes and testified with clarity to the wish of Benedict XVI to carry on with Islamic-Christian dialogue in the trajectory of the Second Vatican Council and in the footsteps of John Paul II.

 

 

Another person rebuked Azzedine Gaci for speaking too much about love and not giving enough room to Islamic law. He replied to this by strongly stressing that he carefully observed the law specifically because it comes from the mercy of God who calls us to love. ‘Islam is a religion of the heart’, he often repeated. On the occasion of the inauguration of the Othman mosque in Villeurbanne I had already heard him say: ‘As soon as Christians begin to speak you can see that they love Jesus. I would like to say to my Muslim brothers that their love for God should be seen more’. It was he who at the beginning of Ramadan sent a message to his friends in which he did not say a word about fasting but spoke solely about mercy and prayer for forgiveness, calling on those to whom he was writing to join him in these words – ‘forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them who trespass against us’. And in response to my observations that these are words of Jesus from the Our Father, he answered me: ‘yes, but the most beautiful prayer for forgiveness that I know!’

 

 

The Friendship of Lyons

 

 

Together we tried to describe the experience of friendship between Muslims and Christians in Lyons and to see what its future could be. For more than fifty years certain priests of Lyons, amongst whom Father Henri Lemasne, have been launching themselves in this adventure. They passed through the tumultuous hours of the war in Algeria. In the 1970s my predecessor, Cardinal Renard, committed himself to the building of a large mosque. The leaders of the two communities maintain relations that have never been interrupted and they do not hesitate to return visits on important occasions. Many initiatives are taken in neighbourhoods, the city and the outskirts of the city.

 

 

Our dialogue has now come to draw near essential questions, about which we are happy to engage in dialogue both amongst ourselves and in the presence of our communities: faith, mercy, alms, pilgrimages, the spiritual fight…without forgetting numerous points of morality. It is still necessary to ask each other and to listen to each other about monotheism and the Trinity, obedience and submission, conversions…for our ‘intra-knowledge’, as Gaci loves to repeat, who often employs this fine phrase from the Koran. This work is never detached from the world in which we live and in which we have the mission to be throwers of the seeds of love and peace. Recently, in an inter-religious statement on marriage, we offered, together with our Jewish brothers, common witness on a great question of society, but other challenges also await us, such as bioethics, euthanasia…

 

 

All of this has been experienced in a wonderful friendship which has filled us with hope. One can well see that the notions of tolerance, used without posing questions as regards inter-religious dialogue, no longer has much meaning; it is necessary to move from tolerance to admiration. In the verb ‘to tolerate’ I see no shade of love: one tolerates what one does not love very much but with which one is obliged to descend to pacts. For the progress of inter-religious dialogue and the spiritual pathway of each one of us, we must go well beyond this. Profound trust is needed, an interest that comes at the same time from intelligence and the heart, a gaze of contemplation and admiration. Let us remember the inner upset felt by Charles de Foucald when he witnessed the fervour of the Muslims at Fes. He immediately saw the measure of what he would have lost by distancing himself from the faith and that was the beginning of his return to Christ. When Gaci speaks about the love of Christians for Jesus, when I see him living his faith, it is clear that we are on the register of admiration, without a drop of envy or confusion…feelings that embarrass he who is at their origin because he is fully aware that he is not worthy, that he is not up to what God requests.

 

 

But allow me to finish with a small anecdote about our stay in Algeria. In Annaba, on Sunday morning, we had a meeting very early in the morning at breakfast in preparation for what was going to be a very intense day. The Christians greeted each other in a friendly way in the dining hall and kindly asked each other about how they had slept. Then the Muslims joined us; they came together from the mosque where they had met without talking about it the previous evening. The appeal to prayer was based on meeting each other to begin the day under the gaze of God. The Catholics did not have the idea of meeting to sing praises, even though it was the Day of the Lord!

 

 

Two months after our return from Algeria, our delegations encountered each other at the Archbishopric for an evening of friendship and to assess matters. Each delegation had participated in the echo that that voyage had generated around it but many came to say that they no longer prayed in the same way after that great moment. What had changed for these people in their way of saying the Fâtiha? Are our Muslim brothers now present in the supplications and the prayers of intercession of the Catholics? This is the mystery of God in the heart of his sons.

 

 

The fact remains that the truth of the entire journey that was engaged in will not be recognised by others and will not take place unless it gives rise to concrete outcomes. It is implemented charity that will constitute the seal of the authenticity of these exchanges. Why should we Muslims and Christians not launch ourselves, joining with our Jewish brothers, into the opening of a centre of care for AIDS patients and other people ‘wounded by life’, in the heart of a poor country that does not have sufficient means to attend to them? What we live in our hearts and our intelligence through all these meetings would become witness for the world. When, and how, will we take the initiative to engage in this shared and disinterested gesture?

 

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