Beirut (AsiaNews) – On Sunday Lebanon’s Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, one of the world’s great Shia scholars, criticised a recent appeal by Benedict XVI for the evangelisation of the world. In his statement the Holy Father upheld the principle of freedom of religion in all of its aspects, whether moral, social or in terms of faith. The Shia leader spoke about the appeal in a four-point statement which we summarise here.
Although he did acknowledge that an appeal in favour religious preaching is a “natural thing”, the scholar noted that the evangelisation in question, which touches in particular “Muslim regions”, coincides with a “world campaign [. . .] designed to deform Islam’s image, [which is] presented as an enemy of civilisation and humanity’s progress.”
“One may wonder whether there is a convergence of interests and goals between the Pope’s appeal, the anti-Islam campaign and the military interventions in the internal affairs of various Islamic countries,” something which “brings back the memory of bitter experiences of past evangelisations that came to our countries on the tip of Crusaders’ swords.”
For the Shia leader, “the appeal to evangelisation launched by the Pope follows two other statements. The first one is misleading about the essence of Islam, which the Pope views as a religion that contradicts reason and liberty, whilst the second is about what Pope Benedict XVI calls the return of the Jewish people to its land after 3,000 years, when he should know that that entity is responsible for the most savage aggressions against the most elementary rights of man on his earth.”
Still the Shia scholar does recognise that the “appeal to evangelisation is part and parcel of freedom of expression,” but still wonders “why then so much noise is made when it comes to Muslim dawah (the invitation to follow Islam)?”
For Fadlallah “in general religious preaching must take place within a cultural framework that refers to reason and evidence, on the basis of respect for people and their convictions, and not rely on exploiting some of man’s weaknesses, whether economic or cultural.”
Lastly, in his opinion all the Muslims of the world must rid themselves of what he calls “Islamic religious illiteracy” and “face up to all the campaigns that describe Islam as a religion of violence, backwardness, terrorism, human rights violations and the elimination of others.”
“If I may, I have to take issue with the inaccurate information and the political spin given to a theological speech [made by the Pope] about the Church’s mission,” said from Beirut Jesuit Fr Samir Khalil Samir in response to Fadlallah’s criticism. Father Samir heads the Centre de documentation et de recherches arabes chrétiennes (CEDRAC) at the Université Saint-Joseph, one of Lebanon’s oldest and most prestigious universities.
“To be sure the Pope does say that the Church has an obligation to announce the Gospel and offer its message to the entire world, Muslim countries included. This inclusion has apparently struck a nerve with Imam Fadlallah. Then again if the Pope insists on including Muslim countries it is exactly because in these countries the right to announce the Gospel is denied and in many of them those who come to accept it face harsh penalties.”
“In linking the Pope’s appeal to the Crusades, we are taking a leap of a thousand years back into the past,” Father Samir said, “when in fact the Crusades were never part of a plan of evangelisation, whether in principle or in practice. They were rather part of plan of self-defence in accordance with a medieval way of thinking.”
“The imam claims that the Pope charges Islam of being in contradiction with reason and an apology for violence. Benedict XVI never said such thing, nor did it ever cross his mind. All that the Pope said was that there was a real danger in modern Islam that rationality, and the liberty that flows from it, may be rejected. Neither has the Pope fallen for the myth of the Jews’ ‘return’ to the Land of Israel for which he is chided. Let there be no misunderstanding, neither Benedict XVI, nor his predecessor ever used the term ‘return’. Let us not forget that the Vatican was one of the last states to recognised Israel and it did so only after Yasir Arafat recognised the ‘right of Israel to live in security within recognised borders,’ which he did in Tunis on 9 September 1993. In fact the Great Rabbi of Rome, Elio Toaff, reproached John Paul II for not explicitly recognising the State of Israel.”
“Freedom of expression”
“Having said this, Imam Fadlallah’s comment about the right to evangelisation and Muslim dawah is of great interest since both are a corollary of freedom of expression. It is vital that Christian and Muslim leaders assert this right and organise a common campaign to see it upheld in the constitution as well as in the legal system.”
“On the other hand, the imam’s claims about the conditions in which freedom of expression can be upheld are not really appropriate. Without a doubt the duty to announce must be part of a religious, moral and cultural discourse and should never try to exploit people’s economic or other needs. Instead the Pope’s appeal does bring to mind a dozen treaties by medieval authors who defined the criteria as to how one can accept religion in a disinterested manner. In plain words, Muslims and Christians must reject any act of proselytising that entails any kind of compulsion.”
“As for the imam’s concluding appeal, I think it is important. Indeed we do suffer, as he put it, from ‘religious illiteracy.’ Undeniably though, in the Middle East more than elsewhere we suffer from violence, backwardness and human rights violation. Hence is the question about campaigns against Islam or about a very specific reality showcased, sometimes in excess, by the media? If the media criticise the Muslim world on these grounds, there might be a reason. What we must be concerned about is that this complex, which is widespread in the Muslim world, of seeing ourselves as victims does not prevent us from seeing and facing our real problems and meeting our demons head on.”