Your Eminence, a few weeks ago you went to Iraq. What did you take down there during this very dangerous historical period? What is the link between your diocese and Iraq?
At the origins of this link there is a visit: the Patriarch of the Chaldeans, Louis Raphaël I Sako, came to Lyons to take part in a debate at the Catholic university on ‘The Vocation of the Eastern Christians: Present and Future Challenges in their Relationship with Islam’. As he was staying at my home together with his successor to the archbishopric of Kirkouk, Msgr. Yousif Thomas Mirkis, we formed within a few days a close bond of fraternal friendship in the simplest things: during meals, during moments of prayer, and during the Holy Mass in the primate’s Church of St. Joan. After 10 June, the day that Mossul fell, when the painful facts that we well know about began, I began to telephone the Patriarch regularly to have news and to communicate to him our support and our prayers. One evening in July I made the proposal to visit him in his country and he replied immediately, with enthusiasm, that such a visit would be the finest of presents: ‘we feel that we are totally forgotten!’. This is the reason for the new twinning of Lyons and Mossul – lest one forget!
The mass media often speak about the unending suffering of the refugees who have to abandon their homes, their jobs and their villages. Can you tell us what you saw in Iraq? Which meeting struck you the most?
I discovered the beauty and at the same time the price of Christian witness. In the cities that we visited over those four days I listened to hundreds of testimonies, all of them different because of personal and family circumstances but in essential terms they said the same thing: ‘my faith is more valuable than my home, than my city and than my goods’. None of the people that we met had denied or betrayed Jesus Christ, whereas for us this is a daily temptation, to which Peter and the apostles during the Passion gave way.
Europe is often distracted, taken up with her economic problems, her political problems and so forth. However, the revolutions to begin with, the instability and then the war in the Middle East say something to the West, even though it often does not want to listen. What are the strongest provocations that come to us from those countries?
This week, as Christian, Jewish and Muslim authorities of the city of Lyons, and not only of that city, we signed an appeal which called on no one to fall into the trap set by the terrorists, who would give anything to see all the forces of Islam rise up against the West, thereby creating, in a certain sense, a new war of religion. With this appeal we wanted to commit ourselves to creating a fraternity, leaving aside our beliefs and our faith, and to share the wish to live together and to reflect in the nexus between reason and faith, a subject close to the hearts of Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
The self-proclaimed Islamic State has drawn international attention once again to violence ‘in the name of God’. In this situation what is the real relationship between religion and violence?
I was very struck by what Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his book Light of the World. He was right in exhorting each one of us to self-criticism as regards our own relationship with violence: ‘It is important for us to maintain an intense relationship with all the Islamic forces that wish to dialogue and for there to take place an evolution of consciences where Islamism associates claims to truth with violence’. Indeed, faith without reason is capable of the same atrocities of which reason without faith is capable.
The Patriarch Sako has criticised with clear and courageous words the military action led by Obama. He spoke about a dark game, given that the bombs cause many civilian victims without, however, stopping the advance of the Jihadists. However the Patriarch himself and the bishops of the country had appealed to the West to intervene. What is the right response to this appeal?
One thing is certain. The Patriarch has repeated that it is not a matter of helping the Christians to leave the country, as some generous souls sometimes suggest, but, rather, to help them to remain, because this is their right. A Muslim professor, who could receive posthumously, together with the Patriarch, the Sakharov Peace Prize, died because he intervened on behalf of a Christian family that had been expelled from Mossul. He said: ‘Let them stay, they are here with us. They have been in Mossul for longer than we have!’. During the war in the Balkans, John Paul II argued that the use of force is not always against peace and that allowing certain situations to degenerate on the pretext of not using weapons could be cowardice and have even graver consequences than the use of armed force. Pacifism runs the risk at times of going against peace itself. I am not a politician, nor am I a strategist, but it is clear that energetic action should be engaged in within Iraq and Syria because air operations will no longer be sufficient. For that matter, this is not only a military question.
During his recent visit to Albania, Pope Francis pointed to that country as an example to be imitated of fraternity between the various religious communities. On what can this fraternity be based in Europe where words like ‘tolerance’, ‘dialogue’ and ‘integration’ are by now empty? From where can we start again?
For a long time now I have believed we have to go beyond tolerance (this is a word that owes its respectability to the Edict of Nantes of 1598 which was called by King Henry IV the ‘Edict of Tolerance’) and to cultivate instead a spirit of listening and mutual esteem. From this can be born real admiration for believers of other religions, which is the pre-condition for true progress in inter-religious encounter and dialogue. I am edified by the desire for God of certain Muslims in their bonds with prayer, with fasting and with sharing. The Muslim professor who died in Mossul was in my view a true martyr. Although he did not die for Jesus Christ, he nonetheless died to defend Christians, those other Christs that we become through the sacrament of baptism and confirmation. Lastly, I believe that Mercy must become a cardinal concept in order to foster encounter between the three great monotheistic religions. Mercy is the origin and the apex of our lives. The Jews are a chosen people precisely for this reason: to be the servants of mercy for all the nations. Christians find this word in the whole of the New Testament as well and see the entire epic poem of the Bible summed up in an essential phrase pronounced by the lips of the Virgin Mary at the heart of the Magnificat: ‘From one generation to another he shows mercy to those who honour him’ (Lk 1:50). Muslims, when they pronounce the name of God, also add immediately ‘Clement and Merciful’.