Catholics Ponder Muslim Coexistence

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While summer tourists floated through Venice's timeless splendor this week, the city was also hosting some visitors with little time to waste. Among them was the bishop from Jerusalem warning of the "hemorrhaging" of Christians from the Holy Land. Another prelate told of a letter sent last month by pro-Taliban elements to 50 Pakistani Christian families in the Afghan border town of Charsadda, offering them the choice between converting to Islam or being killed. And, amidst the mass exodus of Iraqi Christians and the recent killing of two priests by Muslim radicals, the Archbishop of Kirkuk had to cancel his trip to Venice, although his RSVP email was read aloud: "We don't have Christian militias to defend ourselves," wrote Archbishop Louis Sako. "The situation is getting worse, and I must stay with the faithful during these bad times."

It was the challenge of Christian coexistence with Muslims that formed the focus of this week's gathering of 15 Catholic leaders and scholars from Islamic-majority countries who made it to Venice this week. And nowhere is that challenge more acute than among Christians living in Muslim countries. Says Fouad Twal, Coadjutor Archbishop of Jerusalem: "We ask that when Western leaders make decisions concerning the Middle East, they also consider the presence of Christians there. Rarely does anyone ask our opinion, for we can be of great help," says Twal. "We are rooted in the region. The Muslim world is our world."

One Western leader who has made a point of listening to the concerns of the Christians of the Muslim world is Venice's Cardinal Angelo Scola, host of the two-day encounter at the 17th century Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute. Scola is rapidly becoming Catholicism's most influential voice — beyond the Pope himself — on matters related to the Muslim world. From Venice, which for centuries has served as a bridge betweeen civilizations, the Cardinal founded Oasis, a cultural and study center and twice-annual journal that gathers perspectives from Catholics in Muslim countries. The initiative is both as a way to safeguard the rights of Christian minorities, and to promote mutual understanding between the Church and Islam.

"We gain knowledge about the different forms of Islam by starting with what the Christians living in these various realities suggest to us," Scola said. In the past, many in the Vatican hierarchy believed it was too risky to raise the issues of religious liberty and violence in Islamic countries. "Sometimes we have been too timid," Scola said. "We can't stay quiet. We want the encounter. It is vital to distinguish fundamentalism not just from the so-called 'moderate' Muslims, which can be an ambiguous term, but from the masses in the Islamic world."

Scola hopes that working with Christians in Islamic countries will also help Europe better face the challenges post by its growing Muslim immigrant population. Focused on what he calls the "hybridization" of cultures that comes with mass migration, Scola says the challenge is finding a balance between integrating new populations and maintaining the identity of the native culture.

The current level of political tension in a number of different Muslim countries placed much of the event's attention on issues of security and violence. Several of the prelates asked not to be identified by name or country, fearing reprisal. One bishop said: "Extremists are very much still in the minority, but the situation is deteriorating, and there is more and more intolerance. Being here and listening to others, a similar picture emerges. The fundamentalists are networking."

Though controversial, Pope Benedict XVI's speech last September in Regensberg about faith, reason and violence continues to be cited as a turning point in the Muslim-Christian debate. Scola, who has known the Pope since 1971, expands on the ideas in the Regensberg address. "Violence is not in itself a sign of the absence of religion. It occurs when the worst poisons of the surrounding culture have infested religion," says Scola. "You need a strong link between faith and reason in order to purify religion."

Cairo-born, Beirut-based Professor Samir Khalil Samir, a Jesuit expert on Islam, says that Benedict is "going fartherů(and) deeper" in his approach toward the Muslim world than Pope John Paul II. "He does not want to reduce or to chill the dialogue," Samir says of Benedict. "But he is looking for a dialogue that is real, rather than diplomatic. We are not looking for conflict, but we're also not going to avoid the hot points."