The New Evangelization, aided by the Muslims
Beirut (AsiaNews) - The migrations of Muslims in the West are a providential way for us Christians to rediscover our faith and to evangelize these communities. The Working Paper of the Synod on the New Evangelization speaks of the need to rediscover the faith and its reasonableness and at the same time highlights the new situations and new aereopagi in which the mission is being carried out today: among these are precisely those of the migrations.
Good News and proselytism
It must be said, however, that in the Muslim world the very use of the word "evangelize" is a problem. Still today, the Arabic word "tabshīr" is used by Muslims to express a negative type of proselytizing, an aggressive aspect of the mission. Often, speaking with my Islamic friends, I explain to them that the verb is also used in the Qur'an, with a very noble connotation. In the Muslims' holy book, this word is placed on Jesus' lips, who says, "I bring you the good news ("gospel") of a prophet who will come after me, whose name is Ahmad" (wa-mubashshiran bi-rasulin ya'ti min ba'di smuhu Ahmad = Qur'an, 61:6). In practice, according to the Qur'an, Jesus brings the good news prophesying the coming of Muhammad.
Muslims often quote this phrase, as one of their "dogmas" or the so-called "proofs" that demonstrate the superiority of Islam over Christianity, Muhammad being the last prophet sent by God to mankind, the "seal of the prophets" (khâtam al-nabiyyîn), as says the Qur'an 33:40. Years ago I taught Arabic philosophy at the University of Cairo. My students (18 in all) were all Muslims. One day, at the end of a course, one of them accused me: "You have come here to proselytize! (tabshir)". I told him that he was honoring me too much, because according to the Qur'an it is the prophets who perform tabshir and even Christ himself. He, a little confused, answered that he didn't mean to use that word in that sense. And I told him I didn't know of any other way except the way in which the word is used in the Qur'an.
Muslims and Christians with a message to the whole world
The discussion served to clarify our respective positions. You Muslims - I explained - have an obligation to make Da'wa; you have political and social institutions to make "the appeal" to faith, to invite non-Muslims to join Islam.
I think it's good that you invite people to become Muslims, because it's a sign that you believe seriously. But we Christians also have the obligation to announce the good news of the Gospel. As the Risen Lord says to his disciples: "Go into the whole world and proclaim the Good News (=Gospel) to all creation" (Mark 16:15). It is therefore a universal mission, valid for all men and women.
In short, we need to remind ourselves and the Muslims that to evangelize is not to find tricks to convert or manipulate the other, but the desire to make available to the other those beautiful things that we have discovered in our lives.
Truth and Freedom, out of love for the other
The problem is that Muslims do not allow this freedom to evangelize, on the grounds that no one is free to reject the Truth that is in Islam. But they use every means to make Da'wa, the Islamic propaganda. It takes just a moment to make the double proclamation of faith, the shahâda: "I declare that there is no God but God, and that Muhammad is his Prophet!"
Often I explain to my Muslim friends that freedom is the greatest gift that God has given to mankind. God leaves us free to do evil, he doesn't punish us every time we do wrong, indeed, he allows us to turn away from him. Certainly, He points out to us the path of the good, through the teachings of His Messengers, but he doesn't force anyone to follow it.
This means that God, too, considers freedom of choice to be fundamental! Moreover, what distinguishes man from animals is precisely his conscience. Animals are programmed with an instinct, which allows them to act instinctively in accordance with their own nature. Man is free: he can choose to do evil, he can choose to get drunk or to eat beyond measure, to the point of making himself sick. He doesn't have that instinct that guides him safely; instead, he has his conscience, which however he must refine and educate.
This means that it's necessary for him to have the freedom to choose the path he wants to follow. It's necessary to be free to proclaim the Gospel or the Qur'an to promote the act of freedom, so typical of Man. This also means that the announcement cannot be an act of conquest, but only an act of love towards the other.
Evangelization, a duty of love
The evangelization for us Christians is an evangelical duty and a duty of love (Matthew 28:19-20). But for sociological or other reasons, we are ashamed of doing it, maybe out of a false respect for the freedom of others. But if it is out of love that we evangelize, then I will find a way to convey the most beautiful thing I possess and will be ready also to receive the other's message.
An example: for me, every day, hearing the muezzin, I remember God and I start to pray in my heart with the Muslims who at that moment are raising their hearts to God, in an exchange of spiritual experiences. In fact, without knowing it, the Muslims are evangelizing us.
In fact, the Muslim is not afraid of presenting his faith; the Christian in the West is ashamed, thinking that his faith is a private value. Therefore, Christians in the West - looking at the Muslims - must convert to understand that religion makes up part of the spiritual realities of life, next to all the others and there is no need to hide it. We must learn to be proud of our faith, without falling into ostentation or into propaganda and proselytism.
The Muslim immigration, an act of divine Providence
Also the presence of Muslim groups in Western and European countries requires urgent evangelization. In Islamic countries it is almost impossible to invite a Muslim to discover the Gospel. Almost everywhere, even in those Muslim countries called "secular" (Turkey and Tunisia for example), conversion from Islam to Christianity is not, in practice, a trivial or permitted act. This difficulty is due to the fact that Islam, being a political-military reality as well as a religious-spiritual one, considers conversion a betrayal of the "Muslim Nation" (the Ummah), and prohibits evangelization under penalty of imprisonment or death.
But immigration has changed the face of the matter. In Western Europe, there are about 15 million Muslims. Too often we see their arrival as an invasion, and perhaps it is to a certain extent, because it is changing the structure of society too quickly, and is likely to radically change society in the future.
But there is another possible reading. If this immigration, mainly for economic reasons, were an act of divine Providence that is sending the Muslims into a more liberal and neutral territory. Thus, instead of seeing immigration as an aggression, we can see it as an opportunity for encounter and to exchange values: they present their spirituality, and we have the opportunity to freely present our spirituality. It seems to me more constructive and positive to change lens and see this immigration as a gift from God.
Simplicity and courage to declare ourselves believers and to announce the love of God in Christ
But in fact it seems to me that we Christians are the ones who are lacking. Muslims - perhaps with their sometimes excessive way of displaying their religion - push us to rediscover our spirituality and the courage to proclaim ourselves believers with simplicity: once we even crossed unknown seas to preach the Gospel; now we say that even in our own country "it is impossible to announce [the Gospel]" because "the social environment does not allow it" or because "you have to be cautious," or out of a false "respect" for the other.
Instead, in Europe, now a Muslim can enter a church whenever he wants; if he wants to read the Gospel, he can buy it in a bookstore (it is forbidden to bring the Gospel into some Islamic countries). We must look at this situation of freedom as a great opportunity for evangelization, and with infinite respect for their freedom. We must not be unrealistic, but we have to change our attitude towards Muslims, thinking that they too are waiting for the infinite love of Jesus.
How to evangelize Muslims?
How do you evangelize Muslims? The primary thing is friendship. Evangelizing is not attacking, but creating friendship with no other purpose than friendliness, welcoming, fraternity. And this can be done anywhere: on the street, with our neighbors, at school, at work, on the bus, on the train ... And in speaking, in addressing the problems of life, of one's children, everyone communicates their own vision, witnesses to their own values and the foundation of their faith.
For example, sometimes I find myself with some Muslims who observe the pure and impure foods, and feel disgusted to see me eat pork. I explain to them that for us Christians "Everything is pure to those who are pure", as Paul says (Titus 1:15), in accordance with the teaching of Jesus: "Not that which enters into the mouth defiles a man, but that which comes out of the mouth defiles a man!"(Mt 15:11). So, for us, there are no restrictions on food. This little thing shows that even in everyday things, we can offer the sign of the Christian newness.
Or when two mothers share their experiences regarding their sons and daughters, there's the message of the Gospel that passes through seemingly mundane exchanges... if we are penetrated by the Gospel. Evangelization begins with ourselves, with letting ourselves be enthused by Christ to live more seriously the ideal of the Gospel.
In Europe there are migrants of the first or third generation, who do not feel accepted: this fraternal closeness, full of testimony is important. Evangelization is not a course in theology on the Trinity, it doesn't require specific studies. Evangelization is a pure witness of fraternal life, done in solidarity.
We are also evangelized by the Muslim
At the same time, in such a secularized Western society, where money has become a god (the Mammon of the Gospel) (Matthew 6:24, and Luke 16:9-13), where sex has become a trivial thing, almost a game or an animalistic outlet, certain of the Muslims' attitudes concerning modesty are important for us, too. And the Muslim's daily recalling of the divine oneness: There is no other divinity but God: not money, nor sex, nor power... only God counts, this brings us back to the essentials of the Christian faith.
Too often in Europe I meet bishops and priests who are too cautious in their witness and evangelization towards Muslims. They prefer to leave each one in his own religion, because anyway "everyone is saved in their own tradition" ... and someone adds "as Vatican II taught"! In reality, what's at stake here is not final salvation (which is God's concern), but the desire to share the joy of salvation now. And love consists in communicating what I have received to the other.
In Christianity in Europe today there is a lack of conviction in the Gospel. The exchange and coexistence between Christians and Muslims can help us to discover the richness of the Christian faith. When a Muslim speaks to me of the beauty and the practice of his faith, or of prayer, of adoration, etc. ... it awakens in me similar elements present in my tradition. Through the Muslims we can rediscover the value of the sacred in life and rediscover the richness of our tradition. Diam's, the French rapper of Cypriot origin, Mélanie Georgiades, converted to Islam because she discovered how important prayer is for Muslims.
Muslim immigration in some cases certainly has an aggressive character, especially when Muslims demand to follow their customs and value standards in the West, with little respect for the customs and rules of the country of immigration. It's an everyday reality - though not a widespread one - that must be observed carefully.
It seems to me more important to look at migration not as an aggressiveness not to be feared, but as an opportunity to exchange profound experiences, and especially as a providential opportunity. It helps us to overcome secularization, it leads us to the rediscovery of the Gospel and urges us to announce it.