Vatican City (AsiaNews) In a meeting with the participants to the plenary assembly of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, Pope Benedict XVI said that Catholics must welcome Muslims and engage them in dialogue, adding however that they must uphold the "Christian proposition" whilst respecting their own identity and the principle of "reciprocity".
Speaking about the assembly's topic of discussionMigration and Itinerancy to and from Predominantly-Muslim Countries, the Pope noted that it is an increasingly important social phenomenon, one that requires greater reflection, "not only in terms of numbers but especially because the Muslim identity is unique in its religious and cultural traits."
"The Catholic Church is increasingly aware that interfaith dialogue is part of its commitment to humanity in today's world", he added.
"This firm belief has become our 'daily bread' as it were, especially for those who work with immigrants, refugees and itinerant people.
"We live in an age in which Christians are called upon to nurture a dialogue on religion that is open, but one in which they do not forsake the 'Christian proposition', and remain coherent with their own identity. Increasingly, reciprocity is part of this dialogue, something that the Instruction Erga migrantes caritas Christi rightly considers a 'principle' of great importance. It is a 'relationship based on mutual respect' before it is an 'attitude of heart and spirit' (nº 64).
"The importance and fragility of this commitment is best exemplified by the efforts made in many communities to forge ties with immigrants based on mutual respect and awareness of one another. These efforts appear very useful in overcoming prejudices and mental walls."
Benedict XVI talked extensively on how Christians welcome migrants and itinerants and engage them in dialogue. In his view, their constant point of reference remains Christian love, which, "by its very nature, comes first. This is why believers are called to welcome people with open arms and hearts, from any country, leaving to the authorities the responsibility of determining what the best laws are to ensure how people can live together". Love, he stressed, must be "especially shown to the poor".
"It is obvious," he said by way of conclusion, "that we must hope that Christians who emigrate to predominantly-Muslim countries will be welcomed and find respect for their religious identity."
The situation of Christians in Muslim countries was one of the issues examined by the assembly of the Pontifical Council. In his report, Fr Maurice Borrmans, M.Afr., who taught at the Pontifical Institute of Arabic and Islamic Studies (P.I.S.A.I.), stressed the plurality of situations.
In the five countries of the Maghreb, "Christians are outsiders except for a tiny minority in Algeria. They are guests; some temporary, other permanent as a result of the rapidly growing tourist sector (especially in Tunisia). Although the legal status and autonomy of the Church has now been guaranteed in law in these countries, the situation of Christians in the region remains precarious."
Five of the six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) "have had a welcoming attitude [towards Christians] and respected basic religious freedoms". The 1.7 million Catholics living in these countries can rely on "flourishing parishes and numerous Catholic private schools that welcome both Christian and Muslim students".
The one exception is Saudi Arabia, GCC's most important member. In the kingdom "any form of worship other than Islam is banned. The 1.2 million Catholics (out of a total population of 20 million) who live in the country have access only to underground pastoral care, something that is risky and full of perils. [By contrast,] in Yemen, there are few foreigners and only some 3,000 Catholics whose spiritual needs are adequately cared for by priests and nuns."
In Sudan, "whose current situation is amongst the most difficulty, two million Catholics face a unique situation after years of civil war and government policies designed to impose Sharia on the whole country. Recent peace accords should lead to reconciliation and normalise the situation despite the trying event of the Darfur."
"In sub-Saharan Africa, the separation of state and religion inherited from France and Great Britain has given Christian minorities substantial opportunities, the more so since they provide services appreciated by host societies.
"Still, we must be cognizant of the fact that in this region reform-oriented Muslim associations and Wahhabi charities are making important efforts to islamise these societies. Adherents to more 'quietist' forms of Islam are thus tempted to impose the Sharia. This has been especially true in many states in northern Nigeria."
In South Asia, where half of the world's Muslims live, the fate of Christians varies from country to country. "Some 3.8 million Christians (1.2 million Catholics) live in Pakistan, a country of 156 million people. Here, they constitute a separate electoral college, and are subject to 'blasphemy' legislation. An affront to the Qur'ân, Muhammad or Islam, however small, can land any Christian before a court and exposes all Christians to the danger of public vengeance."
In Bangladesh, for 1,5 million Christians (235,000 Catholics) out of 129 million people, "the situation is somewhat similar".
In the Federation of Malaysia, "one can find Christians only in the local Chinese and Indian communities who migrated to the country long time ago. Oddly, non Muslims are legally restricted in using the Malay language for religious purposes".
Indonesia, with a population of 212 million including 27.8 million Christians (5.7 million Catholics), can "rightly claim to be a pluralistic society inspired by the principles of Pancasila. However, anti-Christian activities have taken place on the Maluku and Sulawesi islands. And no one can forget what occurred on East and West Timor."
"In the great Indian Federation, whose population exceeds a billion people, there are 107 million Muslims and 62 million Christians (15.5 million Catholics) who live together in relative peace and engage in positive collaboration."
Most of the Philippines' 60 million people are almost all Catholic, but there are 3.27 million Muslims. Despite their right to Muslim personal status, they are cause for concern on the islands of Mindanao and Sulu".
According to Father Boormans, the future of Christians in Muslim land is not encouraging. "Past sectarian strife in Lebanon, the current conflict between Jews and Palestinians in the Holy Land, events that followed the terrorist attacks in New York, Madrid and London, the military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, have all made 'living together' more precarious.
"Minorities are always made into scapegoats on the basis of quick generalisations and simplistic associations which breathe new life into old prejudices and dreams of crusades or jihad.
"The relative success of more or less violent Islamic fundamentalist movements is forcing moderate Muslims and state-controlled Muslim institutions to accentuate their Islamic identity more than ever.
"The danger is that Saudi Arabia might appear to be the perfect model of a Muslim society in which everything is ruled by the Qur'ân, the Sunnah, and the Fiqh according to its more dogmatic 'Wahhabi' interpretation.
"In fact though, each state organises Islam and interprets its principles in its own ways. In retaining control over the dominant religion, it gives its society an overall Islamic character and in doing so non Muslims can feel at times marginalised.
"Nonetheless, there are other views that shape public opinion as well. There are in fact 'enlightened Muslims', reformers and modernisers who believe that Islam can be reconciled with democracy and humanism."