French Catholic-Muslim conference concerned about future for dialogue

October 4, 2013

Fr Christophe Roucou, head of the French Catholic Church’s Service for Relations with Islam in Paris, Sept 28, 2013/Tom Heneghan

Catholic-Muslim dialogue has led to extensive ties of friendship and cooperation in recent decades in France, but enthusiasm for interreligious contacts seems to be waning and some younger religious leaders from both faiths question its usefulness and even show some hostility, according to Catholic and Muslim speakers at a conference in Paris.

Meeting to mark the 40th anniversary of the French Catholic Church’s Service for Relations with Islam (SRI), several speakers recounted how they went from strangers to friends through the interreligious dialogue that was launched by the reforms of the 1962-1965 Second Vatican Council.

Muslim and Catholic dialogue delegates from around the country told of how they got to know each other’s faith, launched joint projects like soup kitchens and helped mixed-faith couples prepare for marriage and navigate possible cultural tensions after the wedding day.

But several speakers, especially on the Catholic side, could not hide a certain disappointment at the lack of more progress of interfaith relations here and in the Muslim world.

“Faced with its slow progress, with violence and persecutions (in Muslim countries), some judge the results disappointing,” said Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. “The big problem is ignorance — we don’t really know each other. At the same time, dialogue is a necessary.”

One danger is that dialogue could become reserved for a select few, he said. “If we let dialogue become the work of specialists, it will become hostage to the latest fashions.,” he said.

France has the largest Muslim minority in Europe, numbering about five million, and the French Catholic Church has the most extensive dialogue program in the region. The SRI in Paris and designated experts in 70 dioceses across the country support dialogue with Muslims and help with pastoral issues.

SRI director Fr. Christophe Roucou is a fluent Arabic speaker, having studied at the Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies (PISAI) in Rome and worked a decade in Egypt.

The French-born Cardinal Tauran said SRI had had close friendly ties with Muslim leaders in France and that contacts between Rome and the Islamic world had slowly progressed in recent years.

The election of Pope Francis should lead to a renewal of the Vatican’s dialogue with al-Azhar University in Cairo, Sunni Islam’s highest authority. Al-Azhar cut bilateral ties in January 2011 after now retired Pope Benedict spoke out against violent attacks on churches in Egypt, Iraq and Nigeria.

“There was a kind of psychological obstacle with Pope Benedict,” Tauran told Reuters, recalling that Muslims interpreted his 2006 Regensburg speech as insulting to them. He was sure contacts would resume but could not say when because it was up to al-Azhar to make the next step.

But despite progress, Tauran added, religious freedom — especially the freedom to convert to other faiths — is still a taboo topic in the Muslim world, Christians can’t practice their faith freely in Saudi Arabia and schoolbooks in Gulf countries still describe Christians as infidels.

Tareq Oubrou, grand imam of Bordeaux, recalled that Nostra Aetate, the Second Vatican Council’s declaration on relations with non-Christian religions, introduced a “Copernican revolution” in Rome’s relations with other faiths.

But he said some Muslims still had “a medieval Catholic Church in mind” while in the Catholic Church there were still “traces of anti-Islamism left over from the pre-Vatican II period.” Both religions, he said, were “threatened from inside” by their extreme fringes.

Muslims in Europe must realise that Europe, despite its widespread secularisation, still remained marked by Christian traditions, said Oubrou, who recently published a book-length dialogue with Fr Roucou entitled Le prêtre et l’imam (The Priest and the Imam).

They had to adapt to life on the continent, he said , and the problem they face is “what should we conserve and what should we sacrifice from our traditions?”

Azzedine Gaci, a leading imam from Lyon and active participant in interreligious dialogue, said some younger clerics in France were hostile to cross-faith contacts. This was true for both priests and imams, he said, “but people talk less about the priests who are opposed to dialogue.”

There was a lot of fear of and ignorance about Islam in France, especially after the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington, and interfaith dialogue was a necessary response to this. “We have to learn to respect the other because God wanted him to exist,” he said.

Sana de Courcelles, a Muslim married to a Catholic, told how she and her husband counseled mixed couples before marriage. “Our faiths are strengthened because they are discussed openly,” she said. “We tell the couples that love is complex and a mixed marriage is a meeting of two families and two cultures.” Their goal is to help mixed couples live in peace and respect without having to compromise their faiths.

Several speakers said many majority French still did not know their Muslim neighbours. “There’s a fear there,” said Georges Jousse, a dialogue delegate in Bordeaux. “It’s harder now. People ask us what we’re doing. We have to give an account of our work.”

Although there were promising initiatives by younger French Catholics and Muslims, in general most participants in interfaith dialogue were older believers. “We’re getting older and there aren’t many of us,” he said. There are fewer young people.”

This was partly due to the different atmospheres in which different generations grew up, he said. When he was young, Jousse said, the Church was like a strong citadel and young Catholics wanted to go out to meet the world. Now there were much fewer believers, he said.

Among worrying signs for the future of dialogue is the fact that no Europeans are studying now at PISAI in Rome, the Vatican institute dedicated to the task of preparing Catholics to work with the Muslim world.

“We have to invest in training people for dialogue,” said Tauran, who said the lack of priests was mostly to blame for the lack of European students at PISAI.

Tauran noted that Pope Francis, when he was still Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, appreciated the value of training Catholics in dialogue with Muslims. “He came to see me three years ago and sent an Argentine priest to learn Arabic in Cairo so he could have someone who understands Islam and could play a role in interfaith dialogue.”

He said Islam and the Arabic language of its scriptures were foreign to Westerners and there was much ignorance about them. “We have to invest in education,” he said. “There should be courses in seminaries about world religions, especially Islam. Dialogue takes place between people who have the same skills to discuss what they have in common.”

Still, he said, the violence in the Islamic world showed that Muslims and Christians needed to know each other better. “There is no alternative to dialogue — it’s dialogue or war,” he said.

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