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A Look Inside Iran - Interview With Swiss Bishop Bürcher

GENEVA, MAY 5, 2006 (Zenit) - As president of the Islamic Working Group of the Swiss episcopal conference, Bishop Pierre Bürcher visited Iran and Qatar to promote dialogue.

There the 60-year-old bishop of Lausanne met with the Organization for Culture and Islamic Relations, a visit he considered particularly important given tensions between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Q: You have just visited Iran and Qatar. What is your impression?

Bishop Bürcher: I was impressed by the warm welcome of the Iranians and the people of Doha. The hospitality of the East is proverbial: Iran and Qatar confirmed this fame. They are two very different countries from many points of view.

These days, Iran is in the spotlight of international news. Qatar has multiplied reforms with success up to now, even in regard to interreligious dialogue. I noted that there, everything is hope.

Q: From April 17-24 you were in Iran, where you had several meetings with top-level Muslim figures. What is your assessment?

Bishop Bürcher: Yes, I had numerous meetings with Muslims but also with the Christian, Jewish and Zoroastrian minorities. Interreligious dialogue is more urgent than ever.

It is still too early to make an assessment of the meetings we had. But I think I can say that we have made progress. In addition to the institutional dialogue, which is indispensable, grass-roots contacts are also important.

Q: The relationship with the United States is increasingly tense. What is the atmosphere in Iran?

Bishop Bürcher: Not speaking Farsi, it is difficult for me to know what the man on the street thinks. But I did not have the impression of being in a country in a state of siege.

On the contrary, these [U.S.] threats have the effect of reinforcing national cohesion in Iran. Nationalism seems more important than religion. A U.S. professor told me that he felt well received by the Iranians, despite the policy of his country's government.

Q: What are your plans in regard to interreligious dialogue with Iran?

Bishop Bürcher: This was our second meeting with the Organization for Culture and Islamic Relations, after visiting this Muslim institution in Switzerland last year. We began the journey together.

A book will be published in Farsi and English with the interventions of this session and that of September 2005. After the next session of the Islam Working Group of the Swiss episcopal conference, we will evaluate that meeting and decide how to go forward.

Q: Describe your contact with Iran's Christians.

Bishop Bürcher: It was a great joy for all the members of the delegation to be able to meet with the Christian communities of Tehran and Ispahan.

The Christians of Iran are an infinitesimal percentage of the population. Together with the Jews and Zoroastrians, they are recognized religious minorities. We participated in the celebration of a Mass in the Assyrian-Chaldean rite.

I was impressed by the prayerful atmosphere and the number of young people present. However, the political and religious situation is not very favorable for them. They see themselves pushed to emigration.

I can add that religious freedom is not limited to freedom of worship. Iran, like Switzerland, has recognized the right to religious freedom which implies "the freedom to have or adopt a religion or conviction of your choice, as well as the freedom to manifest this religion or conviction, individually or in common, both in public and in private, through worship and the carrying out of rites and practices, and education." At present, all these rights are not being respected.

Q: You later participated in the Muslim, Christian and Jewish "trialogue" in Doha, Qatar. What can you tell us?

Bishop Bürcher: The works of the fourth Doha Conference on interreligious dialogue took place from April 25-27, under the patronage of His Highness Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani.

The Foreign Affairs Minister underlined that the principal rule of the three holy books is to believe in one God, which calls for a relationship founded on mutual respect.

The Qatari minister specified that interreligious dialogue implies first of all clarity and not controversy and added that discovery of the other and dialogue are necessary for coexistence in a world in which security and peace reign.

Among the speakers were the Egyptian Minister of Worship Mahmoud Hamdi Zaqzouq, Archbishop Georges Saliba and Rabbi Samuel Sirat, who were pleased with the Doha initiative and underlined that there cannot be peace without dialogue, and that progress cannot take place in the midst of conflicts.

Q: Why is there so much interest in interreligious dialogue?

Bishop Bürcher: I am convinced that the present process of galloping globalization must not consist in the opposition of one against the other.

Interreligious dialogue is at present dissuasion in the process that involves violence, extremism and terrorism. We must create spaces of dialogue between the different strata of contemporary modern society. World peace and justice have that price.


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