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Nov 24 16 6:15 AM
Nov 25 16 6:16 AM
Italy 24 - For a few years now, the Holy See has been following a path of dialogue with Shiite Islam, with meetings in Tehran and Rome, and this endeavor is clearly yielding results.
In recent days, the Pope met with Tehran's Islamic Culture and Relations Organization, whose representatives were in Rome for a meeting sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. Pope Francis thanked his guests for their “willingness to dialogue” and expressed gratitude and appreciation for their visit, claiming that he had felt “great joy” when, on January 26 this year, he met at the Vatican with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.Moreover, he said he was “very favorably impressed” with that country’s culture when he met, also at the Vatican, with Iranian vice president Shahindokht Molaverdi on February 12, 2015. “Today is a very important day, I dare say, the best day of my life, because I met a holy man” like Pope Francis, said theologian and president of the International Foundation of Revealed Sciences Ayatollah Morteza Javadi Amoli to Tv2000, a television channel owned by the Italian Bishops Conference. Dialogue was reopened with the Sunni world, too, and culminated in a meeting at the Vatican between Pope Francis and the imam of Al-Azhar, the highest Sunni authority in the world, who some years ago severed all relations with the Holy See after the Vatican had condemned the massacre of Coptic Christians in Egypt.
Dec 8 16 7:42 AM
“There’s a war between Muslims, Christians who have fled will not be coming back”Interview with the Apostolic Administrator of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, Pierbattista Pizzaballa: “Millions of refugees have changed the shape of our parishes. I don’t think those who have fled will want to return to Syria and Iraq”“The ideologies that destroyed Syria and Iraq are reaching us here Jordan too. The radicalism of young people is frightening”. Pierbattista Pizzaballa who recently took office as Apostolic Administrator of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem returned home to the northern Italian city of Bergamo to attend a conference organised by the John XXIII Foundation for the presentation of the volume of the Good Pope’s Opera Omnia “A. G. Roncalli – John XXIII” which focuses on the period from 1911 to 1912. Vatican Insider interviewed him.How have your first few weeks been? How did the Arab clergy take to having an Italian Administrator at the helm pf the Patriarchate after two Arab Patriarchs?“They have accepted me quite well all things considered. I am doing a tour of the parishes: not a pastoral visit but a meeting with priests to see first-hand what the situation is and find out about any problems. I found people to be very open. I think they understood the reasons for my visit. Naturally, there is a great deal that needs to be done in organisational, administrative and pastoral terms. But I see there is a lot of good will. There are very young priests who need to be guided.” Why did the Pope send you?“You would have to ask him, I’m not quite sure what criteria he followed in making his choice. I think the aim is simply to help reorganise the diocese a bit from an administrative and organisational point of view also bearing in mind my previous experience as Custodian of the Holy Land. And to decide some courses of action for the future because the Middle East is changing too. It is a period of transition.” In what way is the Middle East changing?“Sadly we read about what is going on in the newspapers, on a daily basis. Thanks be to God, our diocese is a bit less caught up in what is going on, we are not experiencing the tragedies seen in Syria and Iraq. But we are directly influenced by these events: there are millions of refugees who have changed the shape of our parishes. The ideologies that destroyed those countries are reaching us here too somehow.” What are you referring to? “The younger generations are changing, radicalism has reached Jordan too and it is frightening. Young people don’t have the same relationship with the Church as their parents did. Their relationship is more emancipated, especially in Jordan and Israel. This calls for different pastoral approaches. The diocese of the Patriarchate of Jerusalem comprises stretches over four countries: Jordan, Israel, Palestine and Cyprus. We cannot have a one-size-fits-all pastoral programme, we need to think of the different areas and their different needs and this requires some serious reflection on the part of the clergy.”What stage is dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians at, or not at?“I have to be honest, there’s nothing at the moment. With all due respect, I do not believe it is possible to speak of any form of negotiation over peace or anything else for that matter. Communication is at a bare minimum and is reduced to technical issues such as movement between the zones but on political level, I see nothing.”And why is that?“There are many reasons. The lack of willingness on both parts, Israel which is moving toward the right and Palestinians are divided, perhaps the international community has tired of this subject, especially now that there are more serious and urgent problems that need solving such as the conflicts in Syria and Iraq. All of these causes have combined together, bringing everything to a standstill.” How is Donald Trump’s election viewed?“As it is everywhere. Some are happy, others aren’t. Many people and many observers are curious to see how he is going to act seeing as though he is a bit of a newcomer. Electoral campaign slogans aside, we will now have to wait and see who his collaborators are going to be and what decisions he is going to make. There is curiosity in the air.” There has been talk of support for Trump in the new Israeli colonies. What impact will this have on the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians?“The problem of the colonies has a major impact, it is an open wound that refuses to heal and instead is getting deeper and deeper, making any kind of future agreement impossible.” So the idea of two peoples and two states has been ditched?“That isn’t quite true. But it is an uphill struggle…” How do you view the situation in Syria from where you’re standing?“The situation is tragic, it is a country that has ceased to exist, it is destroyed. By now we know what’s going to happen: it is clear that Iran, Assad and Putin will have the last word but at what price? The country is in ruins and not just the infrastructure. Relationships between communities have been destroyed too. There is a deep hatred, everything will need to be rebuilt and no one knows yet when or how. I don’t think the Christians who have left will want to risk their future there. The same thing is happening in Iraq.”Iraqi refugees in Jordan who escaped from Mosul say they don’t feel safe coming back…“I was in Jordan until the other day. I visited a school where there were Iraqi child refugees. During one of the breaks I asked the teachers: what curriculum are you following, the Iraqi or the Jordanian one? They burst out laughing and said: ‘The British one! We’re all leaving…’” The military cannot bring peace, they can only win the war. Politics is needed in order to establish peace and here it is non-existent. No one knows what the future holds. After what the Christians saw…They left and it is unlikely they will return.” How are Christians experiencing this situation?“On the one hand there are fears and concerns for the future. This war, this type of war with its religious backdrop, has disoriented the Christian community. I see a great deal of concern. On the other hand, though, I tell myself, looking back through history, that this is not the first time we find ourselves in such a situation in the Middle East. I am thinking of what happened to the Armenians 100 years ago. Deep wounds were inflicted but to paraphrase St. Paul, Christians were beaten and humiliated but they were not finished off.” Are Christians in the crosshairs?“It must be said that the war going on is above all among Muslims. Each person sees things from their own perspective of course. Christians living in those countries feel that the world hates them. But so do Muslims. It is a war between Muslims that is having these sad consequences for Christians too. There are forms of radicalism like Daesh… But I repeat, it is above all a war between them.” What are the real reasons behind this war?“A war fought with weapons coming from the West… There are many reasons: the power clash between Sunnis and Shiites, the energy issue, which is not just about accessing energy sources but also how these should be transported and finally, control over the Middle East. Then there are the positions of western and eastern countries that are divided.” The refugees of this war are coming to Europe… “They would have come anyway, though not in such numbers. We are talking about countries where 50% of the population is under 30 while unemployment rates are sky high. When these young people look at Europe via the media they see Eldorado.” What should Europe do for the Middle East?“I don’t know, perhaps it’s too idealistic but I would like to say what it should have done. It should have accompanied these countries in their development and growth. I am thinking of Syria, Iraq and Egypt, great countries that are immobile from an economic and social point of view.” As Christians of the Holy land and the Middle East do you feel you are receiving support and help from the other Churches?“I would be unfair to say we feel abandoned. Although everything can always be improved, I have to say that looking at what is going on in Syria and Iraq, the universal Church and Caritas are doing a great deal.” What stage are we at with the long, interminable negotiations over the tax and administrative agreement between the Catholic Church and the State of Israel?“Negotiations resumed this month, in a spirit of goodwill it seems and this is a good sign. We have seen this scenario repeat itself on a number of occasions and we hope it will lead to real solutions. After so much stalling no one is keen to hazard guesses or opinions, although I have seen gestures of goodwill from both sides. It’s time to wrap things up, there are so many fiscal and administrative problems that need to be resolved.”
Dec 11 16 2:41 AM
Italy’s Muslims Celebrate Christmas to Calm Integration FearsAs the Christmas season kicks off in Italy, which refuses to officially recognize Islam, the country’s newest Muslims try to integrate at any cost.ROME—Eight-year-old Alina, a Muslim refugee from Syria, had never seen a Christmas nativity scene before last year.But after Alina was able to secure a spot in a public elementary school in central Rome, through a program to integrate refugees led by the Catholic Church, she now knows where all the characters go and generally why there are there. “The three wise men bring pretty gifts to the baby Jesus after they follow a bright, bright star,” she explains as her mother listens carefully. “The baby then grows up to become a hero.”Alina’s mother, Hala, wants her daughter and her younger brother, age five, who attends a local Italian nursery school, to integrate—but only to a certain point. She says that while she means no disrespect to the Catholic Church or its teachings, she advises her daughter to “pretend it is all a fairy tale with dolls.”But she won’t stop them from taking part in their new culture. “If they sing holiday songs or learn about Christianity, that will only enrich their understanding of the world,” she says. “But I want to go back to Syria some day, so I don’t want them to become too European and forget our own traditions. This is temporary, not permanent.”Hala and her children have already been in Italy for three years. They were among the first refugees who arrived in Greece by way of Turkey and while they immediately qualified for a resettlement program, they were already on a long waiting list. They had hoped to go north to Germany or Sweden, but when the borders started closing up and they felt growing hostilities, they applied to come to Italy with a group of other fatherless families who just wanted to stop moving and settle down. Hala watched her husband bleed to death outside their home in Aleppo after being beaten for not joining the Syrian army. “That’s when I knew we had to leave,” she says. “But I vow to go back one day.”Whether Hala and her children will ever have a safe place in Syria to return to in their lifetimes is a larger question that no one can yet answer. But until then, she plans to stay settled in Italy, even though she knows she will never really fit in. “I am such an outsider here,” she says. “Even within the tiny Muslim community, we feel we must all keep a low profile and just do what we can to blend in and not make a fuss. We need to just fit in as best we can.”Hala wears a hijab but she isn’t sure she will make Alina wear one when she gets older. At the moment, Alina is dressed in bright pink from her hairband to her sparkly sneakers. “Maybe she will just wear it at home,” Hala says. “We are already walking a fine line just to get her into school.”Hala and her family are part of a community of more than 1.6 million Muslims in Italy, making it the fourth-largest Muslim population in Europe and the second largest religion practiced in Italy after Catholicism. Except for the fact that, in Italy, Islam is not considered a religion at all since the state refuses to officially recognize it as such, unlike official recognitions of Judaism or the Mormon faith. More than 95 percent of Italians call themselves Catholic, according to the last census data, so even the second largest religion is minuscule by comparison.But the lack of official state recognition, fueled almost entirely by leaders of the ultra-nationalist Northern League, makes it impossible for Muslims to build sufficient mosques and to feel they can practice their faith openly. Matteo Salvini, the Northern League leader, has called on Muslims to “adopt the Italian culture” or, as he says, “they can go build their mosques in their own backyards.”What amounts to official denial of Islam’s existence in Italy also allows certain school districts to blatantly discriminate, and it gives non-Muslim parents just cause to insist on segregated classrooms. Many schools in northern Italy, the stronghold of the Northern League, use language and learning curve barriers as reasons not to integrate refugee and Muslim students into regular classrooms. And even when they are integrated, there is often no respect for cultural differences. A school in Varese recently announced that it required all children—no matter what their religion—to be blessed with Catholic holy water during religious celebrations. Mirko de Carli, a leader of the Popolo della Famiglia conservative party who pushed the holy water mandate, has been pressing schools in Italy to “stand by our Catholic values at all costs.” (I wonder how he would feel if the Catholic schoolchildren in Dubai or Abu Dhabi were compelled to attend Muslim prayers?)But even if Italy’s Islamic community wanted to live separately, there is little opportunity. There are only eight official mosques in the entire country, compared to more than 2,000 in France and more than 1,750 in the United Kingdom, and lawmakers have recently pushed Muslims even further underground by closing some of the more than 800 cultural centers and prayer rooms where Muslims met to worship. Last summer Italy’s Interior minister Angelino Alfano declared that “mini mosques in garages should be banned.”In October, a group of Muslims staged a pray-in protest outside the ancient Roman Colosseum after police closed down several cultural centers and prayer groups. “We feel people are pointing the finger at us,” Francesco Tieri, a convert to Islam told AFP at the time. “There is no political will to recognize that we are here and that we are a peaceful community. We are forced to rent places to pray—which for us is like breathing air. If we can’t do it, we die.”The irony of it all is perhaps how well established Muslims are in Italy despite the slight by the state. The Great Mosque of Rome is the largest mosque in all of Europe, and truly a spectacular structure, with stunning architecture and a glorious décor. It is often visited by traveling dignitaries from Islamic countries who consider it a jewel among Islam’s religious sites.It is open to the public twice a week and all women who want to enjoy the Friday morning food market are required to cover their heads, easily facilitated by groups selling scarves around the periphery. But most Muslims in Italy worship in garages, attics, in the backrooms of stores and, though briefly, inside a former Catholic Church as part of the Venice Biennale last year. The Rome city council is currently considering allowing Muslims to use a school gymnasium as a temporary prayer space after a series of prayer rooms were shuttered.The mosques of Milan and Naples are also popular, not just with Muslims, but with authorities both in Italy and the United States that openly admit that they monitor all Friday prayer activities and log who is coming and going. Who can forget the extraordinary rendition case of Cleric Abu Omar one of the CIA’s most controversial scandals that involved surveillance gathered at the mosque in Milan.Of course notoriety and recognition are two ends of the spectrum, and Italy’s Muslims would like a little more of the latter. Last May, the Italian Islamic Confederation, a Moroccan offshoot of the Italian Islamic Religious Community and the Italian Islamic Communities, officially petitioned the government for recognition once again. The petition has gone unanswered to date, in part because the three main Islamic groups in Italy are known for their own infighting about what they really want in the way of official recognition, which tends to throw a wrench in the works. Italy’s government, currently in crisis after the prime minister’s resignation on Wednesday, likely has other priorities at the moment.Yahya Pallavicini, the current Imam of Milan, who heads the Italian Islamic Religious Community, which goes by CO.RE.IS., is perhaps the most recognized face of Islam in Italy. He represents the Muslim community at most secular and Catholic events, most recently taking the stage in a peaceful #notinmyname protest after the November Paris attacks. He was also present for a Catholic-led prayer service after the Orlando massacre in Florida last year.He told The Daily Beast that the Italian state often relies on the “usual excuses” not to formally recognize Islam as a religion in Italy, but he hopes that will change in the near future. “We have had positive interfaith experiences recently,” he says, noting Pope Francis’s invitation to visit the Great Mosque of Rome. “That can only help with recognition, though integration, of course, is another matter entirely.”As for little Alina, she’ll take the best of her new life in Italy. “There are presents with Christmas,” she says, noting the idea of Santa Claus seems a little far-fetched.“We’ll do what we need to do to make our lives better for now,” her mother Hala says. “Within limits, of course.”
Jan 11 17 3:53 PM
n emerging Catholic dialogue with Muslims aims to show public support for Islamic American communities.The dialogue stems from concerns expressed by U.S. bishops in the wake of “a serious uptick in violence against American Muslims … to make sure that they are sensitive to what is going on in the (Muslim) communities,” said Anthony Cirelli, associate director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.The dialogue, underway since last February, will build on three already existing regional Catholic-Muslim dialogues, also overseen by the secretariat. Those gatherings have involved Muslim and Christian scholars and religious leaders and have focused largely on academic discussions and comparisons of their respective religious texts, Cirelli said.The regional dialogues - mid-Atlantic, Midwest and West Coast - have been effective in creating a better understanding among Muslim and Catholic leaders on a theological level, Cirelli explained.The national dialogue also will help Muslim leaders to better advocate for current concerns, “especially with the incoming (U.S.) administration,” said Cirelli, referring to calls by President-elect Donald J. Trump and others to monitor American Muslims and limit entry of Muslim visitors from abroad.“While our meetings will still have as a central component the all-important theological conversation, right now there is an urgency to engage more in a kind of advocacy and policy in support of the Muslim community,” Cirelli told Catholic News Service.Cirelli cited statistics documenting a higher number of anti-Muslim activities nationwide as well as a recent study by The Bridge Initiative, a Georgetown University research project on Islamophobia, showing that Catholics who regularly obtained information from Catholic media were more likely to unfavorably view Muslims than those who did not.“The bishops’ priority at the moment is to listen to (Muslims’) concerns, their fears, their needs … and so discern how we as Catholics can help them achieve their goals of full participation in their communities,” Cirelli said.He said Muslim counterparts to the dialogue were still being identified.“At this point in our nation’s history, we, the bishops, are mainly concerned with listening to and, when appropriate, coming to stand with our Muslim colleagues in their own difficult work of addressing the fears of ordinary Americans with respect to Muslims as well as their work in trying to change the negative narrative surrounding Muslims in our popular media,” Cirelli said.The creation of the dialogue was motivated by the call of “Nostra Aetate,” the Second Vatican Council’s declaration on the relations with non-Christian religions.“As the national conversation around Islam grows increasingly fraught, coarse and driven by fear and often willful misinformation, the Catholic Church must help to model real dialogue and goodwill,” Bishop Mitchell T. Rozanski of Springfield, Massachusetts, chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, said at the time the dialogue started in February.Cardinal Blase J. Cupich of Chicago was designated as the dialogue’s Catholic chairman and assumed the position Jan. 1, Cirelli said.He said that as part of the dialogue’s launch last February, Bishop Robert W. McElroy of San Diego held a public discussion with Sayyid M. Syeed, national director of the Islamic Society of North America’s Office for Interfaith and Community Alliances.During the widely publicized event at the University of San Diego’s Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice, Bishop McElroy challenged U.S. Catholics to take an active role in combating “the scourge of anti-Islamic prejudice.”The next dialogue is set for March 7-9 in Chicago. On March 8, Bishop McElroy will discuss the common good tradition in the Catholic Church. An Islamic scholar, who has yet to be named, will address the Islamic understanding of hospitality in the Quran.
Jan 21 17 9:06 AM
"It is my sincere hope that Azerbaijan may continue along the way of cooperation between different cultures and religious confessions. [...] There is here a desire to protect the great heritage of religions and, at the same time, a pursuit of deeper and more fruitful openness. The Catholic Church, for example, finds a place and lives in harmony among other religions that have far more members, demonstrating concretely that it is not opposition but cooperation that helps to build better and more peacefulnsocieties."A small flockUpon his arrival on Azerbaijani soil, Pope Francis was welcomed by Vladimir Fekete, the 62-year-old Slovak Apostolic Prefect pf Azerbaijan and head of the Salesian mission in Baku. The mission includes six priests, three consecrated lay people and two Daughters of Mary Help of Christians . In the Azeri capital there are also five Missionaries of Charity who have opened a welcome centre for the needy. These are the only priests and Catholic religious present in a country with a population of 10 million inhabitants. The Catholic flock in Baku is small. Back in 1900 there were around 10,000 Catholics but when the communist regime came to power everything changed, churches were reduced to rubble and priests were persecuted and killed. Today there are just 300 Catholics with Azeri citizenship and about a thousand foreign Catholics. In the rest fo the country there are only individuals or families. A long history of peaceful co-existence "Salesians have been present here since 2000. They were sent by the Holy See at the invitation of the Azeri government, which asked for priests to be sent in order to accompany the small Catholic community," says Fr. Fekete, adding: "Relations between Catholics and Muslims are good, as Poep Francis stated. This land was a Christian kingdom for a long time since the first century: when the Muslims arrived, a large portion of the population gradually converted to the Muslim faith but over the course of the centuries there have always been communities of Christians and Jews present and co-exixtence has never been problematic.This past is a beautiful root which the president and government care deeply about: political action aims to support and encourage peacefula nd industrious relations. Islam is generally thought of as a monolithic religion but it is actually multifaceted: Azeri Muslims are characterised by openness, respect and tolerance. For many years now I have been holding monthly meetings with representatives of Azerbaijan's traditional religions, therefore with the Sheikh of Muslims of the Causasus region, Allahshukur Pashazadeh, the Orthodox ArchbishopAleksandr and the representative of Jewish communities Millik Yevdayev: we talk about the lives of our faithful, we advise each other. They are very useful opportunities for exchanging experiences. We also often participate together in meetings organised by the government."The voice of MuslimsOne of Fr. Fekete's friends is 52-year-old Gunduz Babayev, who is married with three children and heads a department of the Caucasian Muslims Office, who states: "Real believers cannot accept fear, including Islamophobia. They must set an example by teachign love and respect for others: every true religion has this duty. In Azerbaijan, real religious belonging is not a cause fo division; each person lives accordng to their faith but al of us believe in one single Creator. Personally, I make no distinctions based on faith, I respect those who believe in one God and seek to do good. Our country is proud of the tolerance that exists among its inhabitants and I am convinced that Catholics can contribute to fostering this aspect that is unique to Azerbaijan."Gunduz Babayev's words are echoed by 23-year-old journalist Kasim Talibov: "Here, faithful of different religions get along, no problems have been witnessed. I believe it is important to foster mutual understanding so that we can be increasingly closer and more open towards others. As a Muslim, I show tolerance towards each and every person. I believe that Catholics are fostering the country's development by assisting the elderly, the homeless and the needy." 58-year-old Rasim Musaffarli, who is married with two daughters and works as an editor, says he gets on well with Catholics. And adds: "I believe that genuinely religious people (of different religions) who live together in peace can help others to understand that tehre is One and Only God. In my opinion, co-existence between faithful in Azerbaijan is able to contribute to this country's progress, helping to liberate occupied territories." The life of the Catholic communityWhen the Salesian fathers arrived in 2000, a small chapel dedicated to Christ the redeemer was erected. After John Paul II's visit in 2002, the government gave the community a land on which the Church of the Immaculate Conception was built: the Sheikh, whom Fr. Fekete describes as "a very open man", wanted to contribute to its construction with a personal offering of $10,000. Over the years, a pastoral centre and the oratory were added onto the church,w here daily masses are celebrated. Social and educational projects"We also seek to develop social and educational projects," Fr. Fekete says. "Society is slowly coming to understand that the Catholic Church does not only look after its "own" but seeks to serve everyone - wherever it is based - showing special attention to the most vulnerable. We currently provide assistance to the poor who turn to the house of the Missionaries of Charity for help. We have also opened a rehabilitation school with teachers, including Muslim teachers, attended by 400 youngsters and have launched a long-distance adoption programme for daughters of single women or couples in need." Pope Francis' encouragementPope Francis' visit, Fr. Fekete continues, "brought great joy to Catholic faithful, who happily hastened to meet him: there was a high level of attendance at the solemn mass. The Pope, with his informal and affectionate way of being, encouraged us to go on with faith, without fear: his words were an important stimulus for us." Rasim Musaffarli is positive about the outcome of the Pope's visit and Gunduz Babayev concludes by saying that the Pope's presence in Azerbaijan was an historic event. Francis visited a Muslim country, he spoke to faithful int he mosque: he is a crucial example of interreligious dialogue."
Feb 1 17 7:15 AM
Responding to Trump's ban, top Catholic bishops pledge solidarity with Muslim refugees The nation’s two top Catholic bishops released a statement on Monday pledging solidarity with Muslim refugees, and called on Catholics to take action to support migrants.“The bond between Christians and Muslims is founded on the unbreakable strength of charity and justice,” Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the conference, and Archbishop José Gomez, the vice president, said in the statement.President Trump said in an interview this past weekend that Christian refugees should be given priority over people of other faiths, a position the bishops seemed to reject in their statement.“The Church will not waiver in her defense of our sisters and brothers of all faiths who suffer at the hands of merciless persecutors,” the archbishops said.The executive order gives priority to “religious minorities” experiencing persecution who are seeking entry into the United States.The statement comes after a weekend of protests and statements from other Catholic officials who expressed concern over the executive order that bans Syrian refugees from coming to the United States and which places a temporary hold on resettling migrants from other countries.“Over the past several days, many brother bishops have spoken out in defense of God's people. We are grateful for their witness,” the archbishops said in their statement. “Now, we call upon all the Catholic faithful to join us as we unite our voices with all who speak in defense of human dignity.”They said that their desire was to steer clear of politics, but said the issue of welcoming refugees is at the heart of the Christian faith.“Welcoming the stranger and those in flight is not one option among many in the Christian life. It is the very form of Christianity itself,” they said. “Our actions must remind people of Jesus.”“The actions of our government must remind people of basic humanity,” they continued. “Where our brothers and sisters suffer rejection and abandonment we will lift our voice on their behalf. We will welcome them and receive them. They are Jesus and the Church will not turn away from Him.”
Mar 5 17 5:15 AM
The Monk Who Saves Manuscripts From ISISWhy a Christian wants to rescue Islamic artifactsRescuing the world’s most precious antiquities from destruction is a painstaking project—and a Benedictine monk may seem like an unlikely person to lead the charge. But Father Columba Stewart is determined. Soft-spoken, dressed in flowing black robes, this 59-year-old American has spent the past 13 years roaming from the Balkans to the Middle East in an effort to save Christian and Islamic manuscripts threatened by wars, theft, weather—and, lately, the Islamic State.“Given what’s happened in the last years since the rise of ISIS, it’s very clear that things are really endangered,” Stewart said. “It’s imperative to make sure that these manuscripts are safe, because we don’t know what will happen to them.”As ISIS militants have destroyed countless artifacts, Stewart has attempted to counter them by working with Christian and Muslim communities in hotspots such as Iraq and Syria. He has trained local teams to photograph centuries-old books with the help of the non-profit organization he directs, the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library (HMML). Based out of Saint John’s Abbey and University in Collegeville, Minnesota, HMML is dedicated to preserving endangered manuscripts on microfilm and in digital format. So far, it has managed to photograph more than 140,000 complete manuscripts, for a total of more than 50,000,000 handwritten pages, according to the organization’s website.But digitization is only the last stage in a slow and sometimes frustrating process. Getting in touch with the various religious orders, cultural organizations, and families that hold manuscript collections can require years of traveling and a lot of diplomacy aimed at gaining trust—with no guarantee of a positive outcome.Many of the communities Stewart approaches have been scarred by years of war, persecution or displacement, and are wary of outsiders. Some are especially skeptical about granting Westerners access to cultural treasures, given the tens of thousands of manuscripts looted during the colonial period and now housed in various museums and libraries around Europe. This is where Stewart’s reputation as a monk comes into play.“Everybody knows about the Benedictines—manuscripts and learning, this is part of our identity, a brand which is somehow universal,” he said. Indeed, his involvement with manuscripts began almost accidentally when, in 2003, he was asked to join an HMML preparatory field trip to Lebanon due to his monastic connections. “Being a monk puts me in a very different category. People understand I am not representing a big business or an imperialist cultural agency.”Also crucial to this understanding is HMML’s policy of training local people, who keep total physical control of the manuscripts. “We never touch the manuscripts,” Stewart explained. “They are the ones doing the work and getting paid for it. They feel proud because they can say ‘We did this,’ which is true.”In Jerusalem, where HMML has been digitizing four Islamic and Christian collections, the process is handled by Shaima Budeiry, who studied manuscript preservation in Dubai. She has spent the past several years photographing thousands of pages, including those of her family’s private collection.“I feel very proud of what I am doing,” she said, showing me a beautiful manuscript decorated with gold, owned by the Budeiry Library. She wore gloves to avoid damaging the delicate pages. “I like this job because this collection belongs to my ancestors.”Stewart visits Jerusalem yearly, and it was there that I recently observed him meeting with stern Orthodox Syrian monks, influential Armenian patriarchs, and cosmopolitan Palestinian families. One morning, as the sun shone on the domes of the minarets of the Old City, I followed him through the narrow alleys of the souq. Stopping in front of an iron door surmounted by a stone arch, he entered the gate of St. Mark’s Syrian Orthodox Monastery. A group of monks sitting around a white plastic table greeted him warmly. After some small talk and a few sips of cardamom coffee, a frail, bearded man led him upstairs into a dusty room. Waiting in wooden cabinets were rows of priceless manuscripts dating back to the sixth century.Stewart carefully opened one manuscript, lingering over the elegant calligraphy of its yellowed pages. It was written in Syriac, an ancient Middle Eastern language. “Isn’t it beautiful?” he said.Many Syriac Christians have been persecuted and forced to flee their homes in Syria and Iraq in recent years. Their manuscripts are one of the remaining embodiments of their cultural identity. So, when Stewart approached the monastery in 2011, the monks saw him as a chance to save their history.“These books were left by our Holy Fathers,” explained Shimon Çan, the 65-year-old librarian, calligrapher, and amanuensis of St. Mark’s, and one of the most enthusiastic supporters of the digitization project. “It is our duty to open these treasures to the world and let our youngsters understand the wisdom they exude.”Dealing continuously with the worries of such endangered communities can be emotionally draining. By sunset, Stewart’s energy was starting to wane. “I am almost 60 and I won’t be doing this when I will be 70,” he told me.Under Stewart’s direction, HMML has expanded its activities to India, where it recently photographed 10,000 palm-leaf manuscripts, and to Ethiopia, where it digitized the Garima Gospels, believed to be the oldest surviving Ethiopian manuscripts. The organization has also worked in Middle Eastern countries like Egypt, Lebanon, and Turkey, photographing thousands of manuscripts of all confessions and languages, from Coptic to Maronite and from Greek to Latin.In 2013, the organization decided to start digitizing Islamic material as well. In Mali, HMML is currently digitizing more than 300,000 Islamic manuscripts, which risked being destroyed when Islamists associated with al-Qaeda took over the city of Timbuktu in 2012.With the rise of ISIS, 2,000 out of the 6,000 manuscripts that HMML managed to digitize in Iraq between 2009 and 2014 have been lost or destroyed. Other manuscripts digitized in Syria may have suffered the same fate.“I try not to think about that, because if I do I get really upset,” Stewart said. “But it would be more painful if I heard of something that was destroyed that we didn’t photograph, because that would be totally lost.”While making digital surrogates of manuscripts can be fairly easy, preserving the originals from physical deterioration is a whole different matter. Because old pages are vulnerable to mold, worms, and insects, manuscripts have to be wrapped and stored in acid-free papers and cartons, sometimes in a climatized environment free of excessive humidity. Once a manuscript becomes seriously damaged, restoring it is a costly process.“We recently spent $70,000 to restore around 100 manuscripts,” lamented Khader Salameh, the septuagenarian librarian of the al-Khalidi Library in Jerusalem, where a collection of 1,200 Islamic, Ottoman, and Persian manuscripts is currently being digitized by HMML. The works span the gamut from medicine to astronomy, from Quranic exegesis to philosophy and poetry. The oldest manuscript, a text on early Islamic history, dates back to the 10th century.“Although most of the manuscripts are connected with the Islamic religion, they also make you also understand the culture of the society at the time they were written,” Salameh said. “These works do not belong only to Arabs, Muslims or Palestinians. They are a heritage for everyone in the world.”Stewart, whose ultimate goal is to create the single most comprehensive collection of digitized manuscript material, knows that the main beneficiaries will be scholars. But he also hopes that the collection can contribute to a better understanding between Christians and Muslims.“If we don’t find deeper affinities, we will always be stuck on our superficial differences. We will remain afraid and suspicious of each other,” Stewart said. “Relations were not always easy in the past, but if we learn from places where they lived together, we might learn how to live together.”
Mar 10 17 2:00 PM
A Gift to humanity and an opportunity for sincere" friendship " in a historical juncture crossed by tensions and discrimination, reminding us that, 'either there is war or there is dialogue". With these words, Jean-Louis Tauran, president of the Pontifical Council for interreligious dialogue, described the seminar hosted on 22 and 23 February Al-Azhar (Cairo), the most prestigious institution of Sunni Islam. Leader of the Vatican delegation in the Egyptian capital for a date that marks the official resumption of relations between the Holy See and the Islamic institute after the misunderstandings of the past years, Tauran added, “The past is now behind us, today’s emergencies as in the violence of the so-called Islamic State, the issue of education, the issue of migration, must overcome any distrust of interreligious dialogue, which the French cardinal emphasizes, "is the best antidote to violence, but also to relativism. " We must strive together for world peace as believers belonging to two great religions. Eminence, your visit to Cairo marked the reopening of dialogue between Al-Azhar and the Holy See: What is your final evaluation? Have you discussed about the “past’s pause” mentioned in Benedict XVI’s famous Regensburg speech? How do you expect this relationship will develop in the future? "In Cairo, the two sides agreed it was time to turn the page, so we sat around the table to see what we could do for today and tomorrow. Among the delegation of Al-Azhar I found persons of great intellectual qualities and very open on a human level. It can be said that there was a climate of friendship, of great mutual respect for other’s opinions. It truly was a very nice atmosphere. There is awareness of the difficulties that today religions face, that they can be scary, and of the need to be consistent believers. I hope that such initiatives will continue in the future because there is no alternative: either war or dialogue. " The Grand Imam, Sheikh Ahmad Muhammed Al-Tayyib, said in a recent interview to La Stampa, that "with the concept of "citizenship" instead of that of "minorities", Al-Azhar is reviving an old practice that the prophet himself had adopted in the first Islamic society in Medina”. What are its implications for Middle East Christian communities? Could it also be a "key" when addressing the issue of Christian persecution in the Middle East? "This idea of citizenship is much discussed within the Islamic world, especially among its most open component. It is good, first because every believer is a citizen: not just a citizen or just a believer, but citizen and believer. And this puts aside the notion of "minorities": if we are all citizens of a country we all cooperate for the common good, both individually and through the religious community to which we belong. We appreciate this understanding of citizenship. When one feels respected in their religion one will collaborate more willingly to society’s project. " More generally, in the background of Daesh, the so-called Islamic state, what is Al-Azhar’s role in the Muslim World? How do you evaluate commitments such as the training of imams, also in Europe, and the revision of the school textbooks to eliminate those deviations added by, in Al-Tayyib’s words, "those who use violence and terrorism and by armed movements that claim to work for peace"? "Education is important both in school and college. Therefore, by being a prestigious cultural institution, Al-Azhar can change attitudes. To me this seems to be a priority. Imam training is also very important, because they influence the way one thinks and acts. As to textbooks, you can not talk with great friendship and fraternity, and then find that in some books Christians are called "unbelievers." The teachers we met in Cairo have understood this. Whenever I gather with a group of Muslims I thoroughly insist on this: you cannot dialogue and at the same speak of Christians as unbelievers. From this point of view education is important. It is also very important the way the history of a country is accounted, because that's where the patriotic spirit is formed. Therefore, education and its sources must be credible. If the key to education are schools and universities, the content must correspond to the truth.The presence of Daesh is a serious threat to the dialogue’s credibility. As for these young people who are fighting in the ranks of this terrorist organization there is a problem of education in the family and in school. How are they raised? What are their future social projects? Reality is that most of these young people who fight in Daesh are frustrated kids. I always remember this interview of a young man from Melbourne who was fighting in Damascus. He explained his choice by saying: "My whole life have seen my dad come back exhausted from work. I do not want this life for me" Also in this case education is important. " The issue of Islam is intertwined, at least in Europe and the United States' political debate, with the theme of immigration and integration: did you address this issue in Cairo? What is your vision? Do you agree with Olivier Roy’s analysis which emphasizes more the "Islamization of radicalism" rather than "Islamic radicalization"? "I share Roy’s point of view on Islamization of radicalism, and would add that there is also an attempt of Islamization of crime. We addressed the issue of immigration issue in Cairo. In the final joint statement, we refer to the need to identify the causes of the phenomena of violence, to consider poverty, ignorance, the political abuse of religion and in the incorrect interpretation of religious texts. I think we must recognize that we do not know each other enough. The struggle comes from a shared ignorance, both from Christians and Muslims, and this is terrible. We must be way more interested in each other, because inter-religious dialogue presupposes a certain interest in the other, a certain "curiosity" to get to know the other better. I take this opportunity to say that interfaith dialogue is the best antidote to relativism, because the first thing one does is to witness their faith. When it is said that dialogue favors relativism it is not true, of course, the dialogue must be done right. " Stefania Falasca wrote in Avvenire that "the Pope might travel to Egypt. On 6 February, the patriarch Isaac Ibrahim Sedrak and the bishops in their ad limina visit to the Patriarchal Church of the Copts of Alexandria have submitted a formal written invitation to Pope Francis. An invitation that follows another invitation from other bishops, from President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, received in audience by the Pope on November 24, 2014, and from Ahmed Al-Tayyib, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar. " What is the meaning of such journey? "The Pope has been invited, one day or another, he will find a way to go to Egypt. This would be a journey that not only would support the local church but would also encourage interreligious dialogue especially the one promoted by Al-Azhar. " What is the Holy See's approach in the dialogue with Islam in a historical juncture in which Islam itself is crossed by tensions between Shiites and Sunnis? "We are in solidarity with the true Muslims who see their religion corrupted and betrayed by terrorist organizations such as Daesh. Moreover, Christians and Muslims account for 58% of humanity. If we want humanity to be at peace, the members of this 58% should be brothers and sisters. " The Osservatore Romano reported that the latest recommendations stated in the final joint statement concerning concrete actions to counter a realistic and feasible terrorism and terrorist organizations, included the cutting of its resources, stopping whoever supplies money and weapons and closing all access to social communications to protect young people from their destructive ideologies. Can you further deepen this point? "In my last words at the symposium at Al-Azhar, I insisted that the great Western crisis is a crisis of values transmission. We have been incapable of transmitting values such as peace, family, honesty, solidarity, so that now we are facing a generation of young people who are heirs without inheritance and builders without role-models. Therefore, I think that a meeting like the one in Cairo is a gift that we offer to all humanity and that allows us to understand that when we close the door or we impose ourselves with violence, even verbal, we are fostering extremism. "
Apr 11 17 5:42 AM
Could Islam learn from Jesus – and Pope Francis?On the one hand, Jesus is highly respected by all Muslims, for he is venerated in the Qur’an. On the other hand, most Muslims are unaware of the teachings of Jesus. One Islamic writer suggests a more serious Muslim consideration of Jesus could make strides for living together around the world in peace.“Jesus addressed the very problems that haunt us today and established a prophetic wisdom perfectly fit for our times,” Mustafa Akoyl, a Muslim journalist from Turkey, wrote recently in the New York Times. Considered a prophet in Islam, Akoyl suggests in his book, The Islamic Jesus: How the King of the Jews Became a Prophet of the Muslims, that Muslims today take a closer look at Jesus in the Koran for a more peaceful approach to conflicting visions of Islam. Akoyl, Senior Visiting Fellow at the Freedom Project at Wellesley College, talks about the idea and the book with Kathryn Jean Lopez.Lopez: What’s the vicious cycle “between Western-secularist Muslims and their nativist rivals?”Akoyl: It is the vicious cycle of dictatorship. In the Middle East, the state is a Leviathan with unlimited powers, and rival groups battle with each other to take control of it. (A bit like in Game of Thrones, if you watch that series!) When secular powers take hold, they typically oppress Islamic groups. When Islamic groups come to power, they become the new dictators, oppressing their rivals and imposing their values.Iran is a good example. The two subsequent Shahs in the 20th century were secularist dictators. The earlier one, Reza Shah (1925-41) went as far as banning women from wearing the Islamic headscarf. When Ayatollah Khomeini toppled his son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, this time the headscarf became compulsory by law. The Iranian society, in other words, never experienced freedom. It rather oscillated from one form of authoritarianism to another one.I was hoping that we finally broke that vicious cycle in Turkey. But, well, in the past few years, I got disillusioned with that hope. Now I see a light in Tunisia.“Son of God” is one of the clash points you consider. But it doesn’t need to be as much as it has been? Is this another misunderstanding?This is one of the bones of contentions between Christians and Muslims about which I want to bring some understanding. Typically Muslims find the term “Son of God” scandalous, because it is condemned in the Qur’an as an affront to God. When you look at the Qur’an’s relevant verses carefully, however, there is a nuance. The verses that condemn “those who say God has a son” use the Arabic walad, which is a biological son, rather than ibn, which can be a metaphorical son. What the Qur’an denounces, in other words, is the idea that God sired a child through sexual intercourse.When you look at the Qur’an’s context, this makes a lot of sense. Pagan Arabs, just like pagan Greeks, believed in carnal deities who had sons, daughters and wives. The Qur’an seems to be condemning their beliefs, rather than the Christian faith, in which Jesus’ sonship to God is certainly metaphorical, not biological. A few medieval Muslim scholars noted this nuance, which was later forgotten.Who is Muhammad Abduh and could his observations really catch fire?Muhammad Abduh was the late 19th century Egyptian Muslim scholar who was one of the pioneers of what we today call “Islamic modernism.” He admired achievements he saw in Europe, criticized the dogmatism and rigidity he saw in Islamic tradition, and argued for Islamic reform. Reform-minded Muslims still respect him, whereas ultra-conservatives see him as a heretic. (Goodness, now why does that sound familiar?)For me, he is also critical, because for the reform he wanted to initiate in Islam, he pointed to Jesus as a source of inspiration. Jesus called the Jews of this time to look at the moral purposes of law rather than its literal meaning, Abduh wrote, and that is what Muslims exactly need today.At one point in the book, you suggest “different religious traditions should ‘compete with each other in doing good,’ while agreeing to disagree about their differences, deferring the ultimate judgment to God, to be given in the afterlife.” What would that mean for evangelization/proselyting? We should be free to make the invite?Of course we should be free to make the invite - that is a part of religious freedom. But, theologically speaking, should we evangelize with the claim that only our faith represents the truth, all other traditions are in utter falsehood?My answer is “no.” I find a better answer in a maxim that the great Turko-Kurdish Islamic scholar Said Nursi (d. 1960) said about different sects within Islam. “You can say my school is the best one,” he wrote, “but you should not say it is the only good one.” I extend that to religions. We can all believe that truth shines in our religion more than in others. But we shouldn’t think others are in pitch dark.How much of an audience is there for the idea of Islam taking Jesus more seriously - especially among clerics and scholars with clout?On the one hand, Jesus is highly respected by all Muslims, for he is venerated in the Qur’an. On the other hand, most Muslims are unaware of the teachings of Jesus. The novelty in my book is to call fellow Muslims to learn those teachings by reading the New Testament Gospels.Is this a heresy? No, because the Qur’an itself praises the Gospels and refers to them. No wonder a few Muslim scholars in the past took that approach and studied Jesus by reading the New Testament. But it is an uncommon approach; hence I am trying to popularize it.You talk about Jesus and mercy. Pope Francis has emphasized this mercy, seemingly to the world. Do you feel a kinship with him in this effort? I do. Honestly, I like Pope Francis and his effort to make the Catholic Church more open and embracing. I also know the conservative argument against that: If you become too liberal, then you lose your essence and maybe your distinctive charm as well. But the opposite risk is to be too rigid and to push people away from the faith.In Islam, we are certainly on the more rigid side of this spectrum today. We would not lose but only gain by embracing more liberal theologies - and liberal jurisprudential reforms as well. I wish, therefore, we had more leaders in the Islamic world like Pope Francis.
Apr 21 17 2:46 PM
Next week Pope Francis will visit Egypt, a majority Muslim country where Christians total 10 percent of its 90 million inhabitants. America spoke to Thomas Michel, S.J, a distinguished Islamic scholar, about the significance of the pope’s trip. Pope Francis will be in Egypt for two days beginning on April 28 where he will address the World Conference on Peace, sponsored by Al-Azhar University, the principal religious institution of the Sunni world. The peace meeting will include Al-Azhar’s Grand Imam Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb; Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual leader of the Orthodox world; and Pope Tawadros II, leader of Egypt’s Coptic Church.Born in St. Louis, Father Michel joined the Indonesian province of the Jesuits in 1969. After finishing Arabic and Islamic studies in Egypt and Lebanon, he received a doctorate in Islamic theology at the University of Chicago. From 1981-94, he served as head of the Office for Islam at the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (formerly the “Secretariat for Non-Christians”) during the pontificate of Pope John Paul II. He also served as Secretary for Inter-religious Dialogue for the Jesuits. He has taught in universities in Turkey, the United States (including Georgetown), Qatar and is currently teaching at the Pontifical Institute for Islamic and Arabic studies, Rome. This interview has been edited.How do you read Pope Francis’ visit to Egypt in terms of Christian-Muslim relations?I think it’s basically meant to restore the good relations that were there particularly in the time of Pope John Paul II. You remember when he died so many Muslims came to his funeral they couldn’t find a place for them all in St. Peter’s. Relations were really good then.But things got very testy after the talk Pope Benedict gave at Regensburg, Sept. 12, 2006. Then, shortly after that, while Muslims were still angry, the pope criticized the treatment of Christians in Egypt, following the bombing of the churches. So, Al-Azhar broke off relations with us.When Pope Francis was elected, he received greetings from Muslim leaders in Egypt. They said, “Let’s do our best to restore good relations between the two communities.”I think this visit is an effort in that direction. Of course, it’s complicated by political issues. The new government of President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi is much criticized around the world for its human rights record and the way it came to power through a coup and then carried out so many imprisonments and disappearances. That’s not to say that Mohamed Morsi’s government, though democratically elected, did not have its own bad record of human rights abuses. But that is what the pope is dealing with now. That’s why I think he is going mainly to Al-Azhar: to meet the religious leaders, not the political leaders.How important is his visit to Al-Azhar?Muslims around the world respect and consider Al-Azhar as one of their top institutions. But it has suffered in recent years because of a brain drain, with so many of their top professors being siphoned off to the Gulf states and going to Europe, the United States, the Arab Emirates, Qatar for various reasons, including better salaries and facilities. They’ve also lost a lot of people to the West, where there’s more academic freedom. So, Egypt being a poor country compared to these other places is naturally going to lose a lot of its best people.How can we live with Muslims? That’s the big question Christians are asking today, and, of course, Muslims, are asking the same question—how can we live with Christians?It is a sign that they trust him. They have been reading what he has been doing in the last four years and they think this is somebody who is honest, who is not going to use the conference for a hidden agenda or anything like that.The grand imam of Al-Azhar University, Sheik Ahmad el-Tayeb, visited the pope in the Vatican in May 2016. It was the first time such a meeting took place at the Vatican.They got on well, and he invited Francis to Cairo to participate in the Al-Azhar sponsored peace conference. What do you think the pope can achieve? Some worry he will be manipulated.I think there’s always a certain amount of manipulations when you’re dealing with organized government events. I think there’s that possibility, and I’m sure the pope is aware of that. I think we have to wait and see what the pope has to say. A peace conference is certainly something that’s much needed and I’m hoping he can give some sound suggestions on how peace can be achieved.Remember the Second Vatican Council said, in its document “Nostra Aetate,” that even though there have been many conflicts between Christians and Muslims in the past, the church urges both sides to go beyond the past and to work together in four key areas of modern life. The first of these is building peace together, the second is establishing justice, the third is defending moral values and the fourth is promoting human liberty.So according to the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, all the popes—whether it’s John Paul II, Benedict XVI or Francis—have to accept that the church looks upon Muslims as our collaborators, working together to accomplish these four tasks in the modern world. I think it is very consistent with the direction given by the Second Vatican Council that the pope would be going to Al-Azhar and doing this. And Francis is an intelligent person and not naïve, he knows the dangers and the possibility—you might even say probability—that this is going to be to some extent manipulated by the government.In this context, how do you read relations between Christianity and Islam over these last years?I don’t agree with the way you put it. Christianity and Islam are ideas, the relations are between Muslims and Christians, and there are different kinds of Muslims just as there are different kinds of Christians. The Second Vatican Council never addresses Islam, never uses the world “Islam.” It always says, the church has great esteem for Muslims. It talks about Muslims always, not about Islam. There is no dialogue with "Islam."How can we live with Muslims? That’s the big question Christians are asking today, and, of course, Muslims, are asking the same question—how can we live with Christians? So, our job is to find ways that we can live together—positive ways, not negative ones, to find things that we can do together for the good of humanity, not to be agents of hatred, destruction and death.How easy is it for Christians to relate to Muslims given there’s a split within the Muslim world between Sunnis and Shiites?You have many splits, not just between Sunni and Shia. In Egypt, for example, it’s a split between the supporters of Mr. Morsi and the supporters of Mr. Sisi—they’re all Sunni Muslims. You have Sunni and Shia fighting in Iraq, and you have Sunni and Shia living in Edmonton, Canada, and they go to the same mosque and they go to the same celebration of the feasts and there’s no conflict there because the context is not the same.It’s the same in Argentina.Yes, you cannot make a general statement that there’s always conflict between Sunni and Shia. It all depends upon the context. If there’s a conflict between some Sunni Muslims and some Shia in a place, reasons can be found—economic, political, ethnic—that explain it. Elsewhere, where those factors don’t apply, Sunni Muslims and Shi’a live quite easily together.The military have been in power in Egypt for over 60 years. What do you see as the possible points of understanding between the Christians and Muslims on that issue?I know so many Egyptians. Some are very strongly in favor of this government, other people that I know are very much against it. Most of the people I know in Egypt are Muslim, though some are Christians.I lived in a Coptic seminary in Cairo for a few years between 1973 and 1976, and I know a lot of people in the church there, and the thing that everybody is talking about is that they want a society with good government. They want a government that’s going to listen to the needs of the people. They want a government that’s going to provide education and health care, and a level of economy that enables people to have good decent life like people want in places like England, Australia or Japan.Is this the type of government that provides that? These are the kinds of things on which Egyptians are differing and when they get together to talk about it they’re asking what kind of government, what kind of people are going to provide us with the basic things?They want to be sure that when their children go out in the evenings they will not suffer violence or disappear returning home. Now some Egyptians feel that an Islamic state is the best way to achieve this; others say no, that has been tried and failed; we need a state that is going to be more secular where the radical Muslims are going to be controlled. These are the kinds of issues they talk about.You were the desk officer under John Paul II for relations with Muslims and Islamic organizations. As you look at the situation today how do you see the relation between Christians, the Holy See, the Catholic church and Muslims, in the light of your own experience then?John Paul II had a real respect for Muslims because he saw them as practicing worshippers of God who are trying to do God’s will. He looked favorably at what was happening in the Muslim world compared with what was happening in Western Europe, which he felt had abandoned religion and religious values. He tended to be quite positive towards their religion.At the time he died, Muslims felt that in this world where everybody is putting us down, here’s somebody, a thinker, who respects us and they really responded tremendously well to him. I was in several places where Muslims would come up to me and shake my hand, knowing that I was from the Vatican and they would not say, “How are you?”, they would just say, “John Paul, John Paul.”I think they were really shocked when things went worse under Benedict XVI, they felt that this relationship that they thought was so strong and was going to last, they realized that it was very fragile.But when Pope Benedict stood with his face towards Mecca in the mosque in Istanbul and bowed his head in prayer, that was the first time that Muslims thought “maybe we were too hasty in seeing him as just a Muslim baiter” and so they thought “maybe we should hang around and see what is going to happen.”Then when Pope Francis was elected, many Muslims said, “OK, it’s time for a new start, let’s try it again,” and you get people like the president of Al-Azhar sending him this very warm message of congratulations hoping to start things up again. So, there’s a lot of interest now. They’ve seen over these four years that Francis is somebody who is serious about Christians and Muslims living together and working together and making peace together. They see him as someone who seriously respects Muslims as the Second Vatican Council called him to do, and so they said, “Let’s invite him and see what he has to say.”
Apr 30 17 6:53 AM
Popes are many things, including statesmen and diplomats, and sometimes grasping the message they truly want to deliver requires a bit of reading between the lines. Other times, however, a pontiff may decide that a situation is so urgent, or so unavoidable, that he simply tackles it head-on, without the usual word games or restraint.Friday in Egypt seemed to capture Francis in one of those “put it all on the line” moods.In effect, what Francis delivered on his first day of his brief stop in Egypt was almost his version of Pope Benedict XVI’s celebrated, (celebrated is hardly an appropriate word for it) and controversial, 2006 speech in Regensburg, Germany, in which Benedict stirred a firestorm of protest by quoting a line linking the Prophet Mohammed with violence.Francis avoided the incendiary quotation, but nevertheless delivered a clear and powerful call to religious leaders - which, in the Egyptian context, unmistakably means Islam in the first place - to reject violence in the name of God.“Let us say once more a firm and clear ‘No!’ to every form of violence, vengeance and hatred carried out in the name of religion or the name of God,” he said. “Together let us affirm the incompatibility of violence and faith, belief and hatred.”Addressing a nation gripped by a rising tide of Islamic extremism, and one in which the Muslim Brotherhood movement led a government as recently as 2013, Francis insisted that it’s urgent to “unmask the violence that masquerades as purported sanctity.”“We have an obligation to denounce violations of human dignity and human rights, to expose attempts to justify every form of hatred in the name of religion, and to condemn these attempts as idolatrous caricatures of God,” he said.“No act of violence can be perpetrated in the name of God,” he said, “for it would profane his name.” He was speaking to an international conference on peace hosted by Cairo’s Al-Azhar mosque and university, widely considered the most prestigious center of learning in the Sunni Muslim world.Several observers compared the atmosphere at Al-Azhar on Friday to the inter-religious gatherings launched by St. John Paul II in Assisi, Italy, in 1986, with imams and shamans, rabbis and Christian bishops, all gathered together in a show of common cause.Luis Badilla, the director of the “Il Sismografo” news site in Italy, noted the striking point that several Jewish representatives were invited to the Al-Azhar event, though representing Jordan and the rest of the Middle East as opposed to Israel.Christians make up a significant share of the Egyptian population, and frequently find themselves at risk for the pressures of a rising tide of Islamic militancy. Just two weeks ago, on Palm Sunday, bombs exploded at two Coptic churches, one in Tanta in the Egyptian Delta and the other in Alexandria, leaving 45 people dead.Ahmad al-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, seemed to capture the mood of the pope’s remarks, beginning his own address by calling for everyone in the hall to stand for a moment of silence for all the victims of terrorism and consolation for their families.While the Vatican and Al-Azhar have a standing mixed committee devoted to dialogue, and have developed a budding partnership in recent years after an interruption in relations under Pope Benedict XVI, critics have accused the Islamic clerical establishment at the university and mosque of playing an ambivalent role - preaching tolerance and pluralism to the outside world, but behind the scenes supporting extremist currents in Egyptian culture.In that context, Francis demanded that all religious leaders step up to counter what he described as the “incendiary logic of evil,” and said it’s past time to turn “the polluted air of hatred into the logic of fraternity.”Violence in the name of God, Francis pointedly said, is “the negation of every authentic religious expression.”That line drew strong applause, as did several similar statements from the pontiff along the way.“Evil only gives rise to more evil, and violence to more violence, in a spiral than ends by imprisoning everyone,” Francis said, stressing in particular the importance of educating youth in peace.Education has been a bone of contention in Egypt, as President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has called for a revision of school curricula to resist the rise of religious fundamentalism, a suggestion that’s been resisted by some elements of the Islamic establishment in the country.Rejecting what he described as an attitude of “rigidity and close-mindedness,” Francis called Egyptians to both “value the past and set it in dialogue with the present,” learning to include others as an “integral part” of Egyptian society.Francis knows that while the Egyptian constitution theoretically protects religious freedom, and while al-Sisi came to power in 2014 vowing to protect Christians and other religious minorities, in reality life is increasingly precarious for Christians in this overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim society.In that context, Francis didn’t appear to pull any punches in his advocacy for religious freedom and human rights.“Recognizing rights and basic freedoms, particularly religious freedom, represents the best way to build the future together, to be builders of civility,” he said.Arguing that religion has an intrinsic vocation to promote peace, “today more than ever,” Francis argued that religious leaders can’t simply pay lip service to dialogue and tolerance, but their actions have to be coherent with their rhetoric.“It is of little or no use to raise our voices, and run about to find weapons for our protection,” he said. “What is needed today is peacemakers, not fomenters of conflict; firefighters, not arsonists; preachers of reconciliation, not instigators of destruction.”Francis also warned against “demagogic forms of populism,” which in the context of the Middle East is often code for charismatic political and clerical leaders who play on sectarian conflicts. Likewise, he denounced “unilateral actions,” which typically refers to world powers asserting their own interests in the region, as “a gift to the proponents of radicalism and violence.”He also called for making a clear distinction between religion and politics - what Americans might call the separation of church and state.“The religious and political spheres are confused and not properly distinguished,” he said. “Religion risks being absorbed into the administration of temporal affairs and tempted by the allure of worldly powers which, in fact, exploit it.”Finally, in a typical flourish, Francis insisted that real peace is likely to remain elusive without an end to the “proliferation of arms.”“Only by bringing into the light of day the murky maneuverings that feed the cancer of war can its real causes be prevented,” the pontiff said.Al-Tayeb agreed, delivering his own broadside at the arms trade.“The arms trade and marketing that ensures the continuous operation of death plants and extraordinary enrichment resulting from suspicious deals backed by reckless international resolutions” is to blame for global conflicts, he said.“For the sake of that hateful trade, hotbeds of tensions are created, and religious seditions and racial and sectarian conflicts and differences among the nationals of the same homeland are inflamed, turning human life into an unbearable miserable hell,” he said.Al-Tayeb aggressively insisted that Islam itself is not to blame for atrocities carried out in its name.“Islam is not a religion of terrorism for a group of followers [who] carelessly expedites to manipulate with Islamic texts and misinterpret them ignorantly.” he said. “Then, they shed blood, kill people, and spread destruction. Unfortunately, they find available sources of finance, weapons, and training.“Likewise, Christianity is not a religion of terrorism just because a group of its followers carries the cross and decimates people without distinction between men, women, children, fighters, and captives,” he said. ” Judaism is not a religion of terrorism just because a group of its followers employs the teachings of Moses, God forbids, occupying lands and extirpating millions of the indigenous defenseless civilian citizens of the Palestinian people.”(His line on the exploitation of Palestinians drew strong applause from the crowd at Al-Azhar.)The Grand Imam also thanked Pope Francis for his repeated statements defending Islam “against the accusation of violence and terrorism.” The two men embraced enthusiastically when al-Tayeb concluded, and Francis referred to him as “my brother.”Francis arrived in Egypt on Friday after a brief flight from Rome, meeting Sisi at Cairo’s presidential palace and then taking part in the peace conference at Al-Azhar. Later in the day, he was scheduled to make an address to political and civil authorities (set in a five-star hotel run by the country’s all-powerful Ministry of Defense), and then to meet Pope Tawadros II, the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, in an ancient Christian neighborhood of Cairo.On Saturday, Pope Francis will say a Mass and then meet with clergy, religious and seminarians ahead of his return to Rome.Although precise counts are elusive, somewhere between ten and twenty percent of Egypt’s population is believed to be Christian, amounting to somewhere between ten and twenty million people. It’s the most significant Christian community in the Middle East.Though Egypt is almost 90 percent Muslim, there were nevertheless signs of enthusiasm for Pope Francis’s visit on Friday. The streets of Cairo, for instance, were lined with posters declaring that the “pope of peace” is visiting the “Egypt of peace.”The Sisi government perceives a vested interest in playing up the significance of the trip, as it has branded itself as a secular bulwark against religious fundamentalism. That tactic, however, has drawn fire from critics, who see it as a way of deflecting attention away from the government’s contested record on human rights and political dissent.Gihane Zaki, director of Italy’s Egyptian Academy, said that given the role of Al-Azhar in the Muslim world, Francis’s visit will have consequences beyond the boundaries of Egypt.“It’s not just the Middle East,” she said. “Students from Africa and Asia come too, and if they can say they have a degree from Al-Azhar, it opens doors.“Egypt is a pillar of the Middle East and the entire Muslim world, and what happens there matters,” Zaki said. “For the pope and the Grand Imam to stand under its dome and hold hands … is an important new page for the future.“The entire scenario of the Middle East will be called into question during these two days of the pope’s visit.” she said.
May 2 17 4:23 AM
Professor Mohammad Sammak, the only Muslim to have participated in two Synods, is convinced the meeting in Cairo has marked a fundamental starting point. He emphasizes the importance of the Pope’s Arabic greetingsThe only Muslim to attend two Synods, the one on Lebanon wanted by Pope John Paul II and that on the Middle East wanted by Pope Benedict XVI, Lebanese Professor Mohammad Sammak, Secretary General of the Spiritual Islam Summit, who was also present at the Peace Summit of Cairo, sees the meeting set in the Egyptian capital as the culmination of the work previously done by Christians and Muslims. “That’s right, this meeting in Cairo was made possible thanks to work that has been previously done. From the Synod of 2010 on the Middle East two very clear urges emerged: the first on citizenship rights, that must be equal for all, and the second on religious freedom, or more simply on freedom. In the past few years the Al-Azhar University has produced two papers of absolute value on the indispensability of religious freedom and equal citizenship, the latter being the result of a meeting in Cairo at the end of February 2017. Reason why this peace meeting has taken place without the need for discussion or clarification on these two fundamental aspects. I would then like to point out two very fundamental aspects. This peace encounter, along with the very important presence of Pope Francis, has also seen the presence of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, other Christian world leaders, authoritative rabbis, prominent figures of Hinduism, Buddhism, and so on. And all this happened in Cairo, today’s Cairo. Let’s imagine the importance of such an event. As extremely important was that Pope Francis insisted on saying, “Salam aleikum,” which means, “peace be with you”, to all of us present at his speech. These words entail a religious duty for us: to wish for peace to the other ... And the Pope has said this to us all in our language. This really has touched the hearts and minds of, I really think I can say of all the participants.” Pope Francis also used an expression in his speech at the presidential palace that I believe dates back to the post-colonial Arab era: “al-din lillah wal watan liljami” – religion belongs to God and the nation to all”. Has this reference also touched people’s hearts? “Yes, this slogan, which I think goes back to the years before Egypt’s independence and has been used in every Arab country, has struck, because it refers to the misunderstandings that can be generated and the desire to overcome them. It is a constant reference to the risks of falling into opposites and the will to overcome them. That is why quoting this Arab saying was certainly important.” Pope Francis used very strict words against populism. What are your impressions on this explicit reference? “These were important words, which I think have been well understood by those, who like me, come from a Middle Eastern country, because even though referring to a particularly widespread phenomenon happening in European countries, it is a well-known and widespread phenomenon even here. Because populists are the ones who try to unite by excluding the other. So that of Pope Francis was a clear speech, understood and evaluated, I believe, by the whole audience.” After meetings like the one in Cairo, someone always perceives it as just being a photo-opportunity while others hope it was “the final turning point”. What impression did you have? “I want to be very transparent with you. The turning point we need is still ahead of us, the problems we face are enormous. But it is exactly for these reasons that, I think the meeting marks a starting point, a good starting point, which encourages us to move forward with similar determination.” One last point. There has been some controversy over al-Azhar’s being on some sort of double binary: on one way, he shows some kind of opening in the official documents, on the other, closure when it comes to al-Azhar’s curricula... “I have to say by direct experience that lately al-Azhar’s university has invested heavily in the renewal of its curricula and in opening up. And after the double tremendous massacre of the Coptic faithful in Egypt, the great imam al-Tayyeb said about these criminals: “Who of those terrorists or their mentors has graduated from us?” I think it’s right to acknowledge him with what has been done”.
May 3 17 5:23 AM
The global growth of Islam and in particular the rise of Islamic extremism have forced recent popes to set out, with increasing urgency, a strategy for engaging the religion.As Pope Francis’ brief trip to Egypt over the weekend demonstrated, the most recent pontiffs have come up with starkly different approaches — though it’s not yet clear if one is better than the other, or if either will be effective.When Pope Benedict XVI addressed the question of Islamic extremism he did so during a speech at a university in his Bavarian homeland where, as a priest and professor, Joseph Ratzinger had worked decades earlier.That 2006 address in Regensburg, Germany, was a theological master class on the relationship between faith and reason. But it also angered Muslims who object to Benedict citing a 14th-century Christian emperor who claimed that the Prophet Muhammad had only brought the world things that were “evil and inhuman.”Moreover, Benedict also delivered his message to Islam from afar.Francis, on the other hand, has made it his business to try to build bridges with the Muslim world with the energy of a missionary.That approach was on display during his 27-hour trip to Egypt, viewed as the leader in the majority Sunni Islamic world, and a nation that is making a serious — though controversial — effort to crack down on extremist-inspired violence.So important to Francis, in fact, is the “personal encounter” with Muslims that the pontiff put his own safety at risk by going to Cairo, a trip that took place less than three weeks after 45 worshippers were killed in bomb attacks on two Egyptian churches.The pope even shunned a bulletproof vehicle and when he arrived at a sports stadium for an open-air Mass he greeted the crowds from an open-topped golf buggy.“Whereas previous popes — even in more secure places — have ridden in bulletproof vehicles, Francis showed his courage in Egypt, and his will to be close to the people, by this simple gesture,” explained Gabriel Said Reynolds, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of Notre Dame.Reynolds took part in a recent Vatican-Muslim forum at Cairo’s Al-Azhar university, a major center of Sunni-Islamic learning with global influence and expertise in interpreting the Quran. The dialogue that Reynolds is part of only restarted under Francis — who was elected in 2013 — after relations had soured under Benedict.Yet even as the current pope pushes for a personal encounter with Islam, his predecessor’s legacy of engaging Islam via a theological challenge to extremist elements among Muslims continues to hold some sway.Indeed, just as Francis was heading to Egypt a letter appeared from the retired pope to the president of Poland in which Benedict accused “radical Islam” of creating an “explosive situation in Europe.”Catholic defenders of Benedict’s Regensburg address insist that he correctly addressed some uncomfortable truths within Islam and they point out that the speech led 138 Islamic scholars to write to Benedict in 2007, a letter that paved the way for a new Catholic-Muslim dialogue initiative.Yet while it was Muslims who approached Benedict a decade ago, under Francis things are the other way round.Francis’ approach to Islam is characterized by a willingness to “cross over to the other side” — Egypt is the seventh Muslim majority country he has visited in his four years as pope. And a papal visit to Bangladesh, where almost 90 percent of the population are followers of Islam, is planned for later this year.This has always been his style. When he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, Francis — then Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio — became the first Catholic bishop to visit Argentina’s Islamic Center, and the Jesuit pope has continued to focus on building personal connections with Muslims.In Egypt, this was symbolized by his embrace of Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al-Azhar mosque, following the pope’s address to their peace conference.It was a powerful image of Muslim and Christian fraternity that had echoes of St. Francis of Assisi’s mission to Islamic leader Sultan Al-Kamil 800 years ago.This personal approach has been bolstered by Francis’ consistent refusal to link the Islamic faith per se to terrorism, and has made the Islamic world take notice.It also meant that when Francis issued one of his strongest and most detailed condemnations of religious violence during his Al-Azhar address, his speech was welcomed and frequently interrupted with applause.“He knows that the only effective way for his message of peace to touch the hearts of the larger global community is to speak together with leaders of other religious communities,” Reynolds explained.“He is counting on the prestige of Al-Azhar and its grand imam in particular, to join with him in broadcasting this message.”Al-Azhar, an influential 10th-century mosque and university, and its leaders are taking an active role to try and crack down on extremism in Islam. They are revered experts in interpretations of the Quran and that is key to countering the largely Sunni-inspired ideologues of the Islamic State, or ISIS, who use scripture to justify terrorist violence.But those religious leaders also face an uphill task and a power struggle with the Egyptian government over who gets to reform what.President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi has made it his business to keep a lid on extremist violence since taking power in a 2013 coup that overthrew the country’s first democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood.El-Sissi’s administration has, for example, tightly controlled the content of Friday sermons delivered at the country’s 100,000 mosques in an effort to curb growing fanaticism. It hasn’t, however, stopped ISIS from picking off disaffected members of the Brotherhood. This puts the pope’s attempts into perspective.“It is not clear what kind of an impact a Catholic pope can have in reaching the hearts of Muslims who are attracted by extremist ideology, even if the pope is speaking with the grand imam of al-Azhar,” Reynolds added.What all this underscores is how intertwined religious problems are with the politics of Egypt, a phenomenon that is common across the Arab world.That is also a special challenge to those in the secular West who think if religious faith was sidelined then the problems go away.Yet it presents an opportunity to the pope and the Vatican as leaders of an ancient Western religious institution that is also experiencing major growth in the developing world — precisely where Islam is growing, often in competition, but sometimes in collaboration.The risk for religion, Francis explained at Al-Azhar, is not just about finding a balance between faith and reason, as Benedict tried to explain. It is also about striking a balance between the public and personal realms.“Religion tends to be relegated to the private sphere, as if it were not an essential dimension of the human person and society,” Francis said.“At the same time, the religious and political spheres are confused and not properly distinguished,” he warned. “Religion risks being absorbed into the administration of temporal affairs and tempted by the allure of worldly powers that in fact exploit it.”In this context, the pope urged Egyptian Christians to be a positive force within society; to be people of dialogue who are “sowers of hope” and able to forgive those who wrong them.This is no easy task in a country where the ancient Christian communities suffer growing persecution and in some places are being driven out.Nevertheless, Francis told them that “true faith” makes people “more merciful, more honest and more humane” and that the only fanaticism for a religious believer should be that of charity.The increased vulnerability of Egypt’s 9 million Christians, the vast majority of whom are Coptic Orthodox — there are only around 272,000 Coptic Catholics — could be bringing them closer together.In Cairo, Francis reprised a favorite phrase about an “ecumenism of blood” between Catholic martyrs and Orthodox ones while signing an important joint declaration with the Coptic Orthodox pope, Tawadros II. In that accord, they recognized a common baptism among their believers.Perhaps even more significant, however, was the historic moment when Francis, Tawadros and Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, the leader of Eastern Orthodoxy, sat alongside each other during an ecumenical prayer service.It is believed to be the first time these leaders of three ancient streams of Christianity have shared a platform, and it represented an important — if symbolic — united front in defense of their flocks.In the end, however, Francis’ short Egypt trip will primarily be remembered for his willingness to take risks in the cause of peace and his demonstration that the Catholic Church can work with Islamic leaders on combating religious extremism.That the pontiff and the imams are on the same page can only be a good thing for peace, and a crucial step forward following the contested approach of Benedict XVI.But whether the extremists will heed any counsel other than their own is the real question, and one that may not have an answer anytime soon.
May 6 17 7:55 PM
Egypt's Al-Azhar university replaces head in apostasy rowThe head of Egypt's Al-Azhar university, the 1,000-year-old seat of Sunni Muslim learning, has been replaced after describing a leading Islamic researcher as an apostate, official media reports said on Saturday.Al-Azhar said its Grand Imam, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, had named Mohamed Hussein al-Mahrsawy, dean of the Arabic language faculty, as the university's acting president following the resignation of Ahmed Hosny and pending the appointment of a permanent successor.The ahramonline news site said Hosny had quit after being criticized for describing researcher Islam El-Behery, known for controversial interpretations of Islamic jurisprudence, as an apostate.The shake-up comes as the university, one of the most prominent Sunni academic institutions, faces criticism from Egypt's parliament and sections of the media, who say its clerics have resisted pressure to modernize their religious discourse to help the fight against extremism.Al-Azhar last month played host to Pope Francis, who visited Cairo to improve relations between Catholics and Muslims.
May 8 17 5:01 AM
AP/Crux - The leader of an Islamic State affiliate in Egypt vowed to escalate attacks against Christians, urging Muslims to steer clear of Christian gatherings and western embassies as they are targets of their group’s militants.“Targeting the churches is part of our war on infidels,” the unidentified leader said in a lengthy interview published by the group’s al-Nabaa newsletter on Thursday. He said that churches, security posts and institutions, as well as places where “crusader nationals of western countries” gather were all “legitimate targets.”He also called on Muslims who don’t join jihadists to carry out lone wolf attacks across Egypt, and complained that a large number of Egyptians were antagonistic to his group’s call and mission.“This is an apostasy from Islam and they have to hurry up and repent,” he said, urging Egyptians who oppose the group to either harbor, support, or join them. He also decried the public condemnations of the group’s attacks. He added that when authorities carry out security campaigns against the group they “backfire” and, as such, have a “positive impact on the Mujahedeen.”The group claimed responsibility for twin suicide bombings that struck two of the country’s Coptic Christian churches last month, killing over 45 worshippers and prompting the president to declare a three-month state of emergency.Egypt’s Copts, the Middle East’s largest Christian community, have repeatedly complained of suffering discrimination, as well as outright attacks, at the hands of the country’s majority Muslim population. Over the past decades, they have been the immediate targets of Islamic extremists. They rallied behind general-turned-president Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi in 2013 when he ousted his Islamist predecessor Mohammed Morsi, who hails from the Muslim Brotherhood group. Attacks on Christian homes, businesses and churches subsequently surged, especially in the country’s south.The IS leader in the interview stated that his group is different from the Sinai-based IS branch which for the past years has been carrying out near-daily attacks against police and the military in the peninsula. He described relations between the two factions as marked by “brotherly love and loyalty.”
Jun 3 17 6:29 AM
Philippine sectarian bloodshed unites Muslims and ChristiansDespite Islamist militants’ attempts to cause division, their violence has prompted selfless interfaith compassionThey were devout Christians, but it was Islamic prayers that would ultimately save their lives.Islamist militants in black masks were stationed on bridges – the only way out of the besieged city of Marawi – looking for Christian hostages. A priest had already been kidnapped. Risking his own life, a local Muslim leader had hidden dozens of Christians in a rice mill.“He was giving them an orientation,” said the city’s bishop, Edwin de la Peña. “How to respond to questions, to recite prayers, to wear their veils, how to say assalamu alaikum (peace be upon you).”The plan worked, but others were not so fortunate, de la Peña said. “When they were asked if they were Christians, they said yes readily. So they were pulled out. And we just heard that they were killed and thrown down into a ravine.”Residents of Marawi, on the Mindanao island of the Philippines, were fleeing a surprise takeover by fighters claiming to be Islamic State supporters. They left a burning cathedral and corpses in their wake.Stories such as these of brutal sectarian bloodshed, but also selfless interfaith compassion, have rippled across the Philippines. The country feels like it is on a precipice, pushed there by pockets of militancy in the south and a president with a self-declared, lifelong leaning towards violence.The government says the Maute, a local criminal group turned Islamist militia, had planned its assault for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan to impress Isis’s Middle Eastern leadership, and attract foreign funds and fighters.Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippine president, has declared martial law across Mindanao, the country’s southernmost island of about 20 million people, and made a promise to soldiers who are battering Marawi with airstrikes and artillery that he will protect them if they commit crimes including rape.As a leader who regularly praises the country’s former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who ruled for much of his two decades with martial law, Duterte has said he may extend army control to the rest of the island nation. “I will not allow the country to go to the dogs,” he said. “My orders are: spare no one.”On Friday, as the country was still reeling from the bloodshed in the south, a gunman stormed a casino in Manila, five minutes from the international airport, and doused poker tables with petrol. Thirty-six trapped guests and workers suffocated from smoke.Isis claimed responsibility for the attack, but police said it was a botched robbery because the man, described as a foreigner, did not shoot anyone. The fire department suggested he had gambling debts.Yet the result was the same: the Philippines is on edge. The direction the country takes may be determined by how it reacts to Marawi, where helicopter and tank strikes have been unable to dislodge the fighters for nearly two weeks.The vast majority of the city’s 200,000 inhabitants have fled, many walking for hours down lush tropical hills to Iligan City, 24 miles (38km) away on the coast.Both cities, the first 95% Muslim and the other majority Christian, have a fractured past. Spanish and American colonisers squeezed the local Muslim and indigenous populations with overwhelming Christian settlement and mass conversions.At its most ugly, in the early 1970s, Marcos was accused of encouraging bloodthirsty Christian extremists to fight against a Muslim separatist insurgency. The Ilaga (meaning rat) Christian paramilitary group was accused of several massacres. The most well-known case was the slaughter of more than 70 people by militants throwing grenades into a mosque.Marawi, its full name being the Islamic City of Marawi, is part of an autonomous region of Mindanao that has its own government, with shariah law for Muslims and taxation separated from the state. Iligan is run by the Christian-majority central government.Lingering mistrust still pervades the two communities, but many on both sides remember the dangers of division. The Catholic church in Iligan has put up signs welcoming the displaced.“Our prayers and best wishes to all our Muslims brothers and sisters as you observe the holy month of Ramadan,” reads one hung at the main cathedral. Below stands a statue of Mary, and worshippers light candles.The militants have sought to spread hate in the communities, but de la Peña said the opposite has happened, especially as people learn of Muslims helping Christians flee. The citizens of Iligan are sheltering hundreds of families. “This is something that [the militants] did not expect. They tried so hard to divide us, but in the end, the strategy brought us together,” he said.The bishop spoke to the Observer from a church-run warehouse where canned food, rice and hygiene kits were being stored, ready to send to Iligan schools that have been converted into camps for the displaced.Edgar Aguillar, a volunteer who flew down from Manila, said aid organisations had had to shift the focus of their programmes away from natural disaster relief.“We realised that we couldn’t cook food with anything we’d used before. It wasn’t halal – the pots had been full of pork. We needed new pans and knives,” he said at a school that was sheltering families from Marawi.The response from locals had been inspiring, he said. Businesspeople had provided discounts on chicken and, behind him, the owner of a rickety private bus normally used by commuters had donated his time and vehicle.Internecine killings during the Marcos era nearly emptied both cities of minority populations. Since then, priests and imams in the area have pushed for reconciliation.The mufti of Marawi has declared the militants un-Islamic, while de la Peña said the fact that Muslims sought refuge in Iligan was proof that the communities had moved forward, even if some “deep-seated prejudice” remained.In previous times of conflict or during tropical storms, Muslim evacuees would flee to the mountains and Christians would move towards the coast, he said. “But now, they are all here. They feel safer here. That indicates a type of trust that has built up. Forty years of reconciliation, we cannot just put that aside,” said de la Peña.The few hotels in Iligan have their corridors filled with Marawi residents, often more than 10 crammed into one room.Sitting in an old jeep with his seven children and wife, Jamel Abdul Panaraag, 40, said they walked for seven hours to escape Marawi. He returned later to get the car.“The Christians help us,” the construction worker said. “Also, some are afraid. They accuse of us links to the terrorists.”Iligan’s vice-mayor, a priest who has taken a leave of absence, said the city had increased security patrols and a curfew had been implemented amid concerns of an impending attack by militants posing as refugees.“We knew already that there was this plan of the terrorists,” Jemar Vera Cruz said. “We want to see to it that there are no bad elements in our city.”Concerned about a “prevailing culture of prejudice” against Muslims, he was heartened by residents’ responses.“People’s hearts are like gold,” he said. “I have a friend who has only enough food for his family. He accommodated 20 evacuees in his house that is only good for two people.”Accounts of Muslims protecting Christians in Marawi and the response of Iligan to the displaced has brought the two cities together in a way not seen for four decades.“In some ways, it has united a lot of people,” he said. “If you come in Iligan, we will take care of you.”
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