“We all know that peace is a gift from God, but it’s also the product of our own efforts. When we pray and we fast for peace we acknowledge peace as a gift as well as a commitment.” Mons. Khaled Akasheh, head of the Islam Office at the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, commented on the wish expressed by the Pope at the Angelus prayer past Sunday to establish “a day of prayer and fasting for peace, extending the horizon of participants also to the sisters and brothers of other Christian confessions and of other religions.” Prayer and fasting – said Mons. Akasheh – “are practices present in all religions, certainly in different ways, but prayer always involves raising our minds and hearts to the Almighty, while fasting prepares our body to receive this gift.” The representative of the Vatican Dicastery for Interreligious Dialogue is attending the 5th meeting of national delegates of Bishops Conferences in Europe for Relations with Muslims ongoing in Scutari. Participants in the three-day meeting discussed initiatives for dialogue promoted in the different Countries, ongoing challenges and problems, with the purpose of overcoming stereotyping and fears for a future marked by increasing pluralism throughout European cities. Today 25.8 million people in Europe are of Muslim faith, representing 5% of the overall population. France is the Country with the highest number of Muslims, amounting to 5.7 million, i.e. 8.8% of the overall population, followed by Germany (4.9 million, representing 6.1% of the overall population), Great Britain (4.1 million, amounting to 6.3%) and Italy (2.8 million and 4.8%).
Mons. Akasheh, peace is imperilled, and in Europe it is being threatened in the name of God.
Peace in Europe is threatened in different ways. It is threatened by violent extremists in Islam’s name. The list of the attacks is far too long to be mentioned here. However, it is equally threatened by all those who view otherness as threat, on ethnic, religious and cultural grounds. The reaction to what is perceived as a threat is one of defence, and in some cases even one of aggression. But this is a sign of weakness, shallowness and of easy shortcuts. In fact, dialogue is possible when one’s religious, cultural and national identity is clear. People arriving into Europe are not challenging or threatening us, they are simply asking for help. Those in situations of need have the right to be helped. At the same time, those who are welcomed ought to respect the welcoming Country, its rules, culture, and its religious communities.
In the message to European delegates for dialogue with Islam, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, highlighted the need for “renewed efforts by both parties to prevent ‘hate speech’, the underlying cause of mutual mistrust, discrimination, exclusion, marginalization and resentment.” In your experience, is Islam capable of undertaking this work of purification?
Unfortunately hate speech is not confined to Muslim extremists. Hate speech, ambiguous discourse and incitement to violence are sadly widespread. Hate causes mistrust, exclusion, yearning to exclude or even eliminate the other person. Religious discourse that is respectful of its true identity and mission does not incite to contempt, for if we worship and love God we will love each one of our brothers and sisters that we meet along our way. Cardinal Tauran also says that dialogue must not be based on ambiguity: everything must be clear, straightforward, simple, transparent, so that no extremist or malicious person may find an opportunity to carry out his evil plans
You are deeply committed in the dialogue with the many expressions of Islam in the world. From your privileged perspective, could you tell us more about the role of Pope Francis in this respect?
The Pope is held in high esteem by Muslims and by members of other religions. It can be said that they consider the Pope a credible person, especially for his commitment in favour of weaker brackets, for his firm opposition and condemnation of the trafficking in human beings, of women in particular, for his rejection of violence, his appeals in support of migrants, asking that they be welcomed and integrated. He earned great credit for his simple and candid style, his heart and his arms open to embrace everyone. The Pope relentlessly says NO to violence, thousands times NO to violence committed in the name of religion, which is a serious offense against God, religion, and the human person.
What is your message to Europe? Islam raises fears but the faithful of other religions will increasingly be an integrating part of this ancient land. Believers must be knowledgeable of the content of their faith, and this is true for everyone, for Christians, Muslims, and for the faithful of every religion. They should also have knowledge of the religions of the people with whom they are living. Obviously not all of us are called to be experts in the different religions, but the basic concepts must be known. It is equally important to have a strong religious and cultural identity, in order to be able to engage in authentic dialogue with the other person and rekindle the values of fraternity, humanity, respect, compassion, mercy, and loyalty, in order to live out and promote peace all around us.