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Vatican Unease Over Islamic Countries

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VATICAN CITY, MAY 28, 2006 (Zenit) - Persecution of Christians in Islamic countries makes the news almost daily, and the Vatican is concerned. On May 17 Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo, secretary for relations with states in the Vatican's Secretariat of State, spoke to participants in the plenary session of Pontifical Council for Migrants and Travelers. The May 15-17 meeting focused on the theme of migration and Islamic countries.

After dealing with issues related to migration, Archbishop Lajolo, the equivalent of the Holy See's foreign minister, turned to Islam. The faith factor, he noted, is becoming more and more important in the debate over migration.

He first addressed the issue of migration from Islamic countries. The Holy See, he noted, has often defended the need for migrants to be able to freely follow their religious beliefs. This freedom includes the possibility to practice their religion, or even to change their faith. For their part, migrants should respect the laws and values of the society in which they now live, including the local religious values.

Turning to the conduct of Islamic countries themselves, Archbishop Lajolo warned that we are not faced with a homogeneous situation, but with a religion composed of many different facets. There is, nevertheless, a recent tendency for these governments to promote radical Islamic norms and lifestyles in other nations. He named, in particular, pressures from groups in Saudi Arabia and Iran.

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In Asia, until recently, Muslims and non-Muslims lived largely in peace. In the last few years, however, extremist groups have grown and religious minorities are the target of violence. The archbishop also expressed concern over Islamic expansion in Africa, and, to a lesser extent, in Europe.

The problems posed by the radicalization of Islam range from Christians being unjustly subjected to trials by Islamic tribunals, to a lack of freedom in constructing places of worship and obstacles for the practice of faith.

The Vatican representative criticized Islamic countries for ignoring the concept of reciprocity, common in relations among states, when it comes to matters of faith. Islamic countries, he noted, demand religious rights for their citizens who migrate to other countries, but ignore this principle for non-Muslim immigrants present in their own lands.

Strategy detailed

What should the Church do in the face of these difficulties? Archbishop Lajolo outlined recommendations:

-- Faced with Islam the Church is called to live its own identity to the full, without backing down and by taking clear and courageous positions to affirm Christian identity. Radical Islamists, the prelate warned, take advantage of every sign they interpret as weakness.

-- We should also be open to dialogue, whether with individual nations or within the United Nations or other organizations.

-- An underlying problem in dealing with Islamic nations is the lack of separation between religion and the state. Part of the dialogue with Islamic religious and political authorities should be aimed at helping to develop a separation between these two spheres.

-- A particularly sensitive point is that of respect for minorities and for human rights, especially religious rights. The Holy See will continue to speak out at international meetings for the human rights of migrants. For its part the international community should ensure that humanitarian organizations do not unduly pressure recipients of aid to change religion.

-- The Holy See will continue to declare its firm opposition to all attempts to exploit religion by using it to justify terrorism and violence.

-- The protection of Christians in Islamic countries is particularly difficult in the area ranging from Turkey to the Middle East. Solutions must be found for the many Christians who flee their country of residence in search of safety.

-- Muslims who live in predominantly Christian countries should be integrated into the nation.

-- The Catholic media can play an important role in educating Christians, including those living in Islamic countries.

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-- The Roman Curia together with bishops' conferences and local churches need to work closely together in these matters, including looking at the way to spread the Gospel in the Islamic world. This is our duty and our right, concluded Archbishop Lajolo.

British view

Muslim-Catholic relations were also examined recently by Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor. In a speech May 16 at the Oxford Center for Islamic Studies, the archbishop of Westminster said: "Our mutual understanding is crucial for world peace and human progress, not least in this era when globalization and mass migration have placed Christians and Muslims ever closer to each others, as neighbors in the same European towns and cities."

Dialogue between the two religions must combine both an awareness of what they have in common -- and what profoundly distinguishes them. "Catholics, in order to be good dialogue-partners, must first be firmly rooted in their understanding and love of Catholicism," the cardinal stated, "and I suspect that this is true for Muslims too."

But the main obstacle to this dialogue "is the failure, in a number of Muslim countries, to uphold the principle of religious freedom," he added. "It is essential that Muslims can freely worship in Oxford or London, just as it is essential that Christians can freely worship in Riyadh or Kabul."

Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor also called upon Muslims living in Britain to speak out when Christians are denied their rights in Islamic countries. "Where religious rights of minorities are disrespected in the name of Islam, the face of Islam is tarnished elsewhere in the world," he argued.

The cardinal furthermore distinguished between a "twisted religion" that is used to justify hatred and violence, and true religion. True religion, he explained, points us to healing, honor and purity.

Another prominent cardinal also recently expressed some concerns over Islam. Cardinal George Pell of Sydney, Australia, spoke on the theme of "Islam and Western Democracies" at a meeting of the organization Legatus in Naples, Florida.

His speech was given on Feb. 2, but only recently posted on the Web site of the Sydney Archdiocese. On the positive side, Cardinal Pell noted the points in common between Christians and Muslims, and he noted the great diversity in how Muslim beliefs are interpreted and lived.


On the negative side, he observed that the Koran contains many invocations to violence. Moreover, Muslims believe that the Koran comes directly from God, unmediated. This makes it difficult for the Koran to be subjected to the same sort of critical analysis and reflection that has taken place among Christians over the Bible, according to Cardinal Pell. What is needed, the archbishop of Sydney stressed, is dialogue between Christians and Muslims.

The Pope spoke May 15 to the participants gathered in Rome for the plenary session of the Pontifical Council for Migrants and Travelers. Regarding Islam, Benedict XVI observed that in these times Christians are called upon to practice dialogue, but without losing their identity.

This process, the Pontiff clarified, requires reciprocity. The Christian community, for its part, must live the commandment of love taught by Christ, embracing with charity all immigrants. In turn, it is hoped that Christians living in Islamic countries will also be received well, and with respect for their religious identity. Reciprocity, it seems, is increasingly on the Vatican's mind when it comes to relations with the Islamic world.


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