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Christians in the Muslim World

What the new Archbishop of Tunis brings from the Middle East

Interview with H.E. Msgr. Ilario Antoniazzi, Archbishop of Tunis, by Maria Laura Conte

From Galilee to Tunis: a considerable leap awaits Msgr. Ilario Antoniazzi, the new Archbishop of Tunis who will arrive in the Tunisian capital on Sunday 14 April. From Veneto originally, arriving in the Holy Land as a young man for his professional training at the Latin Patriarchal Seminary of Jerusalem, and ordained priest in 1972, Msgr. Antoniazzi leaves his appointment as priest of Rameh in Israel (about 3500 Christians, of whom about 500 Latins) and as director general of the Schools of the Latin Patriarchate in Israel, to lead the Catholic community of a country involved in the arduous attempt to build a true democracy and to relaunch a dramatically critical economic situation.



But Msgr. Antoniazzi arrives at this destination, which he could never have imagined, with a good dose of realism and a fair amount of hope: ‘It is a real jump that awaits me. I hope not a ‘somersault’. The context will be very different, but what I expect is to understand the Lord Jesus’ plan for me and for Tunisia. I have spoken with the Vicar general of the archdiocese who has given me a detailed description of the situation and I have gathered that what we must all insist on is hope: the hope of the Christians’ living there must always be bolstered. Tunisia is going through a difficult period and many people are asking themselves how the story might end. But it is only the Lord, the God of history, not man, who can answer’.



What was your impression of the Arab springs seen from Galilee?



I followed above all the protests of the Middle East, our neighbour Syria in particular and Lebanon. Then Tunisia seemed to be so far away. But I am catching up, I am reading and studying the situation. Tunisia is now at the top of my reading list and thoughts.



How was your experience in close proximity with Muslims in the past?



In Galilee we have no specific problems of coexistence between Christians and Muslims, as here the law of Israel rules and, both Christians and Muslims, we are both a minority. I also lived for twenty years in Jordan, where we Christians were a definite minority with respect to the Muslims. And yet that was such a lovely time. There were no problems. Quite the opposite, as we had lots of Muslim friends, everything was shared during religious holidays, there was a reciprocal exchange of good wishes. It was then that I learned to love the Muslim world, to discover it to the point of considering it interesting and a friend. If there were differences, they were resolved, never reaching the point of no return.



Do you remember any stories you can tell us to illustrate this?



I remember that when the Bishop of Amman came to see me, he was obliged to cross a number of Muslim villages before arriving at my house. Then it was a sort of moral duty to stop along the way and greet the Muslim chieftains, drink some coffee with them. If owing to lack of time he could not stop and they came to know about it, they were deeply sorry about it. It was almost an offence if the Christian bishop passed by without saying hello. A little bit like what happens among relatives. But this was the level of relations between Christians and Muslims in Jordan. Despite the differences of religion, we were almost like brothers.



An experience that augurs well in view of your move to a country with a considerable Muslim majority…What do you think are the first things that you will do at the beginning of your new mission?



I intend to dedicate the initial period to getting to know the people directly, visiting the parishes and the communities. I would like to know them one by one in order to stress to all the Christians in Tunisia the importance of their presence as witnesses of peace and hope in Africa and Tunisia despite the difficulties that they might experience daily. I desire to share with each of them every hardship and every joy, to take part in real life.



The Christian community in Tunisia is characterised by the contemporary presence of different nationalities, about eighty at least. How do you see this aspect? Is there a risk of fragmentation?



One cannot certainly hide the fact that such a composition entails difficulties, since each origin implies also particular habits. But I would like to valorise above all the wealth that such variety can offer. Besides, we have the same faith in common! With all the nationalities here among the Christians, we can put together a puzzle in which God’s plan can be seen which is realised in the communion, starting with so many different contributions. Each of us can and must bring his own to enrich the local church.



You will carry out your ministry in a country in which the party with Islamic reference won the last elections. In such a context how can the Christians act to evangelise and announce the Resurrected without running into the risk of being accused of proselytism?



This is a crucial point. I believe that our predecessors will come to our help, our Christian fathers who witnessed Christ and spread the Christian faith with their charity. Whoever met them and saw how they behaved, came to wonder: ‘Where is the origin of their capacity to love and devote their lives to this? How can they live like that?’. Well: it is possible to preach the Gospel living charity. It suffices to think of Mother Teresa of Calcutta: she was alone, but with her humility and charity she change the hearts of many. We too can give something, in daily life, we cannot just stand by and watch, without claims. The main ‘sermon’ for the Muslims is not what we do in church in front of everyone, but our way of living and acting. If someone asks for help, it is no use asking what religion he belongs to. Charity does not distinguish nor pose problems, it pushes you towards your neighbour and the Lord does the rest.



You will officially enter a cathedral built by the French during the colonial period, the only religious building along the main street, Avenue Bourguiba, in the heart of the city. Some Muslim leader writers have remarked on the fact that there is no mosque visible in the area. How do you see these objections?



In the past it was normal to construct such a church. In those times there was not so much feeling towards others. It was the French pride. But today a similar attitude creates a contrast with the simplicity of the Gospel. We only have to see how Pope Francis behaves. I hope that we can learn to distinguish between the past era and the present.



Your house in Tunis looks out onto the main road crowded with many young Muslims. How do you see them?



With fondness and love, as I believe that we are all children of God and therefore brothers. We do not have the right to look at each other without love. This independently of their standpoint with regard to me.


I would say this: ‘I, Christian, love you Muslim brother. I hope that you can exchange this love, but in any case I shall continue to love you. I am here to express nothing else except love’.



What is your opinion with regard to the likelihood of a Christian commitment in the politics of the country?



I think that the Church is not called upon to be directly involved in politics, but the Christians can express their standpoint. The Church must remember where the good of the human being is, but without intervening directly on the constitution or on the decrees. If these are against the Christians they will also end up being against the Muslims too. The Church must be prudent, but without giving up stressing the essential points of the respect of the dignity of man and women, regardless of their religious belonging.



Let us go back to the moment of your appointment: when you were told of your new position, what was your reaction?



My first reaction was one of surprise: ‘But look, Lord – I thought – what an imagination You have. To think of me who lives in the north of Galilee, near the frontier with Lebanon, and to send me to the other part of the Mediterranean’. But if He had the imagination to call me for this mission, then He will also have some to help me to live the episcopate there. There is trepidation and great confidence in me’.



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