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Interview with Cardinal Scola on Christian/Muslim relations

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By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.

One frustration about inter-faith dialogue has long been that it tends to be delegated to, and thus dominated by, a narrow band of experts. While smart and well-meaning, these folks sometimes have more in common with one another, both biographically and theologically, than with either the rank-and-file or the policy-makers in their own traditions.

Trying to bring the mainstreams into the game was part of the reason that Cardinal Angelo Scola of Venice launched the “Oasis Foundation” in 2004, which promotes solidarity among Christians in the Middle East and dialogue with the Islamic world.This week, June 21-22, Oasis held the annual meeting of its “Scientific Committee,” which brought together 70 Christian and Muslim leaders in Beirut, Lebanon, to talk about the theme of education.

Scola, 68, was widely tipped as a potential papabile, or candidate to be pope, in the run-up to the conclave of April 2005, and depending on the timing, he could well be in the mix the next time around.

According to notes from the Beirut meeting released by Scola’s media office, it was a bit of a good news/bad news experience.

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On the one hand, there were intriguing signs of progress in Christian/Muslim relations. For example, an official of the Lebanese government explained that at the suggestion of Prime Minister Saad Hariri, a Sunni Muslim born in Saudi Arabia, Lebanon's cabinet recently voted to make March 25, the Christian Feast of the Annunciation, a national holiday devoted to Christian/Muslim relations. The logic is that the Virgin Mary is a figure revered both by Christians and by Muslims. (There are actually more references to Mary in the Qur’an than in the New Testament.)

Muslim speakers at the Oasis gathering, according to the notes from Scola’s office, all condemned religious fundamentalism and violence – including, pointedly, its Christian variant. (During Lebanon’s long-running civil war, fighting was carried on by both Christian and Muslim militias.)

At the same time, Sheikh Ridwan Al-Sayed of Lebanon issued a sobering warning about Islamic education these days. Increasingly, he said, religious formation of young Muslims doesn’t happen in traditional institutional venues such as mosques, but in new spaces, including “virtual” spaces, such as those associated with radical preachers who build a following via satellite TV and the Internet.

French Cardinal Jean-Louius Tauran, currently the president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and a veteran of the Vatican diplomatic service, made the argument that fundamentalism – both its Christian and Islamic forms – is to some extent a protest against modern secularism and its attempt to drive religion out of public life. A society that wishes to keep fundamentalism at bay, Tauran suggested, ought to keep the doors open to believers and their convictions.

* * *
tPrior to the Beirut meeting, I had the chance to speak with Scola about Oasis and the broader state of Christian/Muslim relations. I began by asking him about the June 3 murder of Bishop Luigi Padovese in Turkey, which fell just one day before Pope Benedict XVI’s recent trip to Cyprus to present the working document for a Synod on the Middle East this October. Padovese’s death offered a chilling reminder of the challenges Christians face across the region.

tIn many ways, Christianity across the Middle East is on life support. While Christians have been leaving the region since the 19th century, their exodus has been turbo-charged in the last quarter-century by at least four factors:

•tThe Israeli/Palestinian conflict
•tThe rise of Islamic radicalism
•tEconomic and political stagnation
•tChristians have better access to Western networks of support, and thus are in a better position to leave

A century ago, Christians represented twenty percent of the Middle East, today it’s five percent, and falling. Scola didn’t attempt to sugar-coat the reality, saying that the synod in October in some ways represents a “last call” for the church in the region.

The following is a translated transcript of my interview with Scola. The exchange took place in Italian.

* * *
Interview with Cardinal Angelo Scola
June 7, 2010

The murder of Bishop Padovese shocked the Christian world, especially in the Middle East. Do you believe this was the act of an isolated madman, or was there something more behind it?

Personally, I don’t know anything beyond what’s been in the newspapers about whether this was the act of an isolated madman (something, however, that the episcopal conference of Turkey, and above all the Archbishop of Smyrna, Archbishop Ruggero Franceschini, now the Apostolic Administrator of Anatolia, seems to rule out), or whether it was an organized act and, if so, at what level.

But from what Bishop Padovese said to us in Venice some months ago, during a meeting at the Cathedral of San Marco, I can deduce that he knew very well the risks to which he was exposing himself every day, and he faced those risks with an attitude of crystalline witness. Speaking of the church in Turkey, Padovese said: “If, as has happened in decades past, we as Christians accept being invisible, remaining an insignificant presence in the fabric of the country, there won’t be any problems. But we recognize, as is happening now in Palestine, in Lebanon, and above all in Iraq, that this is a dead-end street which doesn’t do justice to the Christian history of these countries, in which Christianity was born and flowered, and which would not do justice to the thousands of martys in these lands who have passed down to us the witness of their blood.” (Second Ecclesial Assembly, October 11, 2009).

In any case, however banal the material cause of a martyr’s death may be, the offering of their life is still radical and glorious. The episode of Saint John Baptist makes the point: a man of his stature was put to death because of the capricousness of Salome.

The Synod for the Middle East will be held in October, for which Benedict XVI presented the Instrumentum Laboris during his recent trip to Cyprus. What might we expect the synod to accomplish?

The importance and the expectations of the Synod are enclosed in its title: “Communion and Witness.” These truly are the two decisive questions for Christians in the Middle East – as they are, in a sense, for the whole church. The churches of the ‘first evangelization’ need to rediscover the freshness of their beginnings. To that end, they’re called to radically simplify their Christian proposal. The ideas of communion and witness respond to that urgency, which simply can’t be delayed.

The bishops of the Middle East, however, are well aware that given the situation facing many of them, if I can use a slightly rude expression, this is almost a “last call.” This obviously means the event will be freighted with a lot of expectations, but it will also help it go directly to what’s essential.

Pope Benedict recently visited Cyprus. Was there an impulse from that visit which is important for Christianity in the Middle East?

The trip to Cypus was striking, not only for the great value of that land which is linked to the mission of St. Paul, and not only for the richness of the pope’s reflections and declarations. It was also important for the pope’s witness to a faith that’s clearly rooted in the history of our time: his warning about the possible ‘shedding of blood’ in the Middle East, his meeting with Chrysostomos II, his embrace with the local Catholic community and the presentation of the Instrumentum Laboris to the bishops, and his declaration about the necessity of dialogue with our Muslim brothers. He added an immediate clarification, so typical of this pope, of the meaning of the term ‘brother’ – demonstrating that this was a deliberate choice of words, precisely in a moment in which the world was deeply on edge because of the killing of Bishop Padovese.

Recently the attention of the mass media with regard to the Catholic Church has been focused almost exclusively on the sexual abuse crisis. Do you believe this has created a media environment in which it’s difficult to raise awareness about the struggles of Christians in the Middle East?

The trip to Cyprus demonstrated that the Christian faith responds to the questions and the daily needs of the women and men of today, and at the same time it takes to heart the travails of a people (it’s enough to think about the obvious sorrow of the pope over the division of the island.) In that sense, it was a healthy thing for a church that’s been beat up quite a bit over the scandal of pedophilia.

The pope, with his charism, his personal example and his rigorous judgment, has devoted himself completely to addressing the crisis, and has accomplished a major step forward for us bishops, priests and laity: Now it’s up to us to follow his example, taking the necessary measures to ensure that the tragedy of sexual abuse of minors isn’t repeated, while at the same time also demonstrating the supreme ‘suitability’ of being Christian today.

The way in which the pope handled himself in Cyprus, on a Middle Eastern chessboard which has laid waste to the intelligence of the best diplomats in the world, was an eloquent demonstration that the faith still possess a strong cultural dignity, even on the human level, and in terms of the construction of the common good. If our terrible responsibility for the abuse of minors demands penance and renewed witness from all Christians, that’s also the best way to take up the truly radical question facing us today: ‘Can the post-modern person reasonably believe in Christ, and, above all, believe in the church?’

For years, experts have talked about the ‘disappearance’ of Christianity from the Holy Land and the entire Middle East. Do you see any indication that the situation is improving? Is there basis for hope ... hope that’s not simply theological, but also empirical and demographic?

I think that we can’t underestimate the importance of the presence of ‘new Christians,’ meaning immigrants, mostly of Asian origins. In Cyprus, for example, the pope was welcomed not just by the Maronite community, but also by many immigrants from the Philippines, from India and from Sri Lanka. This phenomenon is particularly evident in the Gulf, and despite the absence of a full and true climate of religious freedom, it’s a presence that could continue to evolve.

That said, the loss of the presence of the most antique churches would be disastrous, because they’re a spring for our tradition, meaning a way of connecting with the Christian experience itself; moreover, they have an incredibly rich liturgical and theological patrimony, and a unique experience of contact with the Islamic world.

Today in the Middle East, everything is polarized around numerous unresolved conflicts, but, without forgetting a healthy sense of realism, we also need to be able to read all the signs of the times. Recently Fr. Samir Khalil, in commenting on the Instrumentum Laboris, made reference to certain developments in Egypt and Lebanon, affirming that “in small steps, something is moving forward.” In order for things to progress, however, we need a perspective with which to face the third millenium. Facing these new times, we’re all like babies – fascinating, but fragile. This is where the theme of education enters the picture.

[Note: In a June 6 essay, Jesuit Fr. Samir Khalil, a Lebanese Catholic theologian, pointed to declining interest among Lebanese Shi’ites in an Iranian-style theocracy, and to the fact that Muslim converts to Christianity in Egypt may still be marginalzed but they’re no longer murdered, as signs that “things are evolving in the right direction.”]

At the upcoming meeting of Oasis in Lebanon, you’re going to speak on education as ‘a proposal for our time.’ Why did you select this these? What do you have in mind?

The choice of theme was born in the journey taken by Oasis from its foundation to today, which has been a journey of understanding and exchange of experiences at the international level. The most grave problem in the Middle East is violence: violence against Christians, the permanent conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, but also violence among Muslims. We tend to see only the terrorism that strikes the West, but the biggest atrocities actually fall upon Mulsims themselves. Let’s not forget that in Algeria, the civil war during the 1990s left more than 200,000 people dead.

Normally, they say that to avoid violence you’ve got to promote education. Naturally that’s true, as long as it’s clear what kind of education you’re promoting. There’s a kind of education that closes someone and makes them violent, and there’s a kind that dissolves one’s personality altogether, cutting ties with the people who generated you. Certainly we need education, but not just any education. We need educational practices that know how to connect truth and freedom. In Lebanon, this necessity is very clear: the schools of that country have produced both militia members and people of peace. Now we’re trying to understand how to favor the latter. That’s a precondition to any conversation about dialogue.

Can you say something about the present situation in the dialogue between Christians and Muslims? What are the important recent developments?

There’s a theological dialogue, which in the Catholic church is entrusted to the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dilaogue. The presence of Cardinal Tauran with us in Beirut represents a significant gift, and a great opportunity. Then there’s a dialogue of life, which touches all the faithful, not just in the Middle East but also in the churches of Europe. I think about my diocese, Venice, and in the Veneto, where the presence of Muslims is growing all the time.

There’s also a dialogue which takes as its theme the inevitable ‘cultural interpretations of every religious faith,’ and their implications for the human person and for the society of today. The Oasis Foundation locates its activity above all at this level. In this sense, it seems decisive to me that Muslims learn how to open themselves to the experience of Christians in the West. In the West, Christians passed through an era of Caesaropapism and theocracy, but today they understand how to celebrate the public importance of their faith in full respect for the pluralistic secular society in which they live. Muslims can profit from this experience, just as we can learn from them in other areas.

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