Archive for May, 2010

BLUEFIELDS, Nicaragua, FEB. 28, 2010 (Zenit.org).- Nicaragua is a country that has been ravaged by civil war, dictatorships and natural disasters. Today it is one of the poorest countries in the Western world.

Capuchin  is the auxiliary bishop of the Vicariate of Bluefields, which serves almost all of the eastern half of the country, including what is known as the Mosquito Coast.

The 62-year-old prelate is a native of East Chicago, Indiana, and he recently spoke of the life of the Church in Nicaragua with the television program “Where God Weeps” of the Catholic Radio and Television Network (CRTN) in cooperation with Aid to the Church in Need.

The transcription of the interview will appear in two parts. Part 2 will appear Monday.

Q: Bishop can you tell us, how did a Polish-American ended up in Bluefields, Nicaragua?

Bishop Zywiec: My grandparents were the ones who came over from Poland about 100 years ago. I was interested in becoming a priest and I was attracted to the Capuchins. They seem to be a very happy group.

I went to the seminary and I heard stories about the missions in Nicaragua, and so I volunteered. My superiors responded, “We need you there.” I was ordained in June 1974, and in January 1975 I was in Nicaragua.

Q: What was your first impression when you arrived?

Bishop Zywiec: When I arrived I was a little surprised. I came with a classmate of mine. We came driving down in a jeep that was a donation. We were bringing it down to Nicaragua and I thought we’d get a kind of heroes’ welcome.

But the thing is, about a week before we came there was a kidnapping and the president imposed Marshall Law and a curfew in the country. We didn’t know that. So, we arrived at about 9 p.m. We are crossing the border right before it closed.

The other Capuchins said: “What! You’re coming in at this time? Don’t you know that there is curfew? Some half-crazy soldier could have shot you and left you for dead on the side of the road.”

So it was a realization of the violent reality there, and that was our first impression.

Q: Have you ever been threatened or felt threatened at all during your time in Nicaragua?

Bishop Zywiec: Well, one time when I was working in the jungle. When I first arrived they sent “the older missionaries to the towns, the younger ones to the jungle.”

That was also at the time the Sandinistas, the organization rebelling against the government; they were hiding there [in the jungle], and I heard there were bombings over there and I was kind of afraid.

I said to myself, “My mom and dad are paying taxes to help the U.S. government, and the U.S. government is helping the Nicaraguan government, and they are dropping bombs on this area here, against the guerrillas.”

Well I never saw any of these bombs, but it made me a little afraid. But God is good, and I am here right now.

Q: What was the most difficult thing that you had to overcome or adapt to in your new life in Nicaragua?

Bishop Zywiec: I arrived in 1975, and this was right after the Second Vatican Council. When I went through the seminary — studying theology — I felt pretty good, you know, because we had new theology, something about pastoral counseling. I felt I was up-to-date compared to these old missionaries.

But then the government army came and took some of the people prisoners and tortured them. Some “disappeared,” or we found out later they were killed. Over a two-year period of time we found that there were 300 people who were missing because of the government.

What do you do in situation like that? We never even had training for that!

Q: You never dreamt to you would confront this.

Bishop Zywiec: No, we never talked about this in theology class! We talked about pastoral counseling, and youth apostolates and so forth, and this was a crisis. The only thing I was able to do is just take the information and pass it to the bishop — Bishop Schlaefer — and I felt very supported by him.

Q: In the Bluefields Vicariate there is what is called the “Mosquito Coast.” Where did this name come from?

Bishop Zywiec: The Eastern part of Nicaragua, which is in the Bluefields’ Vicariate, was never conquered by the Spanish, and so the Miskito Indians who lived there were autonomous.

And they also were able to, you might say, have an empire that went all the way from the Caribbean Coast of Panama through Costa Rica along Nicaragua into Honduras. So they were powerful back then, in the 1700s.

Q: Vicariate Apostolic of Bluefields is an area of 22,825 Square Miles. It’s enormous! What does a typical pastoral visit look like for you in your travels to the villagers — in seeking out your parishioners?

Bishop Zywiec: Usually what I tell the people is that I like four things: I like time to hear confessions. Then I celebrate Mass and then a confirmation or some other sacrament is requested, such as a baptism or a marriage.

And then I like to have a meeting with the church board: It gives me more of a chance for dialogue.

Then I say: “I’d like something to eat.” Generally, you know, when the bishop comes — since there is no electricity — lots of times they’ll kill a cow or a pig because there is no refrigeration. So there is food for everybody, and everybody eats!

Q: Vicariate Apostolic of Bluefields is almost half of all of Nicaragua. You are 25 priests. Are you not a bit overwhelmed?

Bishop Zywiec: Yes, that’s a problem. We have roughly 1,000 chapels and 14 parishes. A small parish would have one priest with about 30 chapels to take care of. There is a priest from north of Milwaukee; he is in his late 70s and he visits over 100 chapels.

Every Sunday in the chapels, we’ll have a celebration of the Word, so those who lead these celebrations are called “Delegates of the Word.” Usually we’ll have two of them in each chapel so in case one gets sick or one can’t make it, we always have a back up.

Then we have a catechist for baptism, a catechist for first Communion and confession, catechist for confirmation, and catechist for marriage.

We have training courses usually once a year for these different catechists. Some parishes will have courses for musicians. And then there are movements — we call them retreat movements — and it’s a way of helping the faith grow, you know, preparing leaders. So we depend a lot on the laity.

Q: How many missionaries are you? You mentioned that you have a number of missionaries that are getting older. Where is the new generation of priests coming from? Are there vocations coming from Nicaragua?

Bishop Zywiec: The priests that we can count on would be the priests who come from the Vicariate of Bluefields; there are missionaries and there are people who help, but our native diocesan priest are the ones we are able to count on more, and we find that a lot of our vocations come from families that are leaders in the community.

For example, where there is a married deacon, or a Delegate of the Word, there is this Christian commitment and that’s fertile ground for vocations, not just to the priesthood but also to the religious life. For example, in one town of about 10,000, in the past 20 years, 15 girls have gone to the convent. I think that’s a beautiful thing to see something like that.

Q: What expressions of popular faith or devotions are there in the vicariate?

Bishop Zywiec: We have lots of processions. In my experience in the United States processions are usually held inside, but in Nicaragua it’s a warmer climate and the people are use to having processions outside, such as during Holy Week.

For Holy Week in some of the towns they have processions for the Way of the Cross, and for the Easter Vigil there is the blessing of the Pascal candle outside and then the procession into the church.

For our patronal feasts as well we have a procession with the statue of the patron saint going through town, singing songs, praying the rosary. This is a normal, normal part of church life. We just pray it doesn’t rain too much.

Q: Other than the size of the territory, what would you say is the greatest challenge to evangelizing the Miskito people?

Bishop Zywiec: Although the territory is big, it is perhaps not so much a problem of size, but of transportation and communication. I think in that whole area, we have about 100 kilometers (62 miles) of paved road and the rest is gravel road. It rains a lot, and lots of times there are places where you get stuck.

Another thing is that of the 1,000 chapels, 100 are Miskito-speaking; the rest are Spanish-speaking. They are mainly farmers — subsistence farmers — involved in dairy farming or cattle farming.

Perhaps one of our main concerns is that people are not only able to receive the sacraments — to be baptized — but also that they learn their faith and what it means in their daily lives to live a deeper evangelization. I believe too, vocational promotion is an important thing for us so that we have available priests for the future.

And human promotion is an important thing in the form of schools, in the form of our health programs so that people not just hear the Word of God, but are able to live a human life and be able to be involved in the national life, and not be, you might say, forgotten — to be able to participate and participate conscientiously.

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This interview was conducted by Mark Riedemann for “Where God Weeps,” a weekly television and radio show produced by Catholic Radio and Television Network in conjunction with the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.

By Father John Flynn, LC

ROME, FEB. 28, 2010 (Zenit.org).- In recent years, religion has come to be seen as a problem or a threat to national or international security. One strategy for countering religious extremism has been to attempt to banish faith to the purely private sphere. This is a big mistake, according to a report released Feb. 23 by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

The report, “Engaging Religious Communities Abroad: A New Imperative for U.S. Foreign Policy,” was authored by a task force of 32 experts, ranging from former government officials, religious leaders, heads of international organizations, and scholars.

Currently, the authors of the report argued, the U.S. government does not have the capacity to fully understand and effectively engage religious communities. There have been improvements in the past years in recognizing the role religion plays in global affairs, but this process is still far from complete.

For better or worse, religion is playing an increasingly influential role in politics, the report observed. The trend to globalization along with new media technologies has facilitated the spread of extremist views. This is not about to go away, the report noted, and it urged the U.S. government not only to improve its knowledge of religious communities and trends, but also to develop better policies to engage believers.

It’s important to realize, the report commented, that religion is not some kind of a secondary human experience without any bearing on political developments and that we can therefore ignore. “Religion — through its motivating ideas and the mobilizing power of its institutions — is a driver of politics in its own right,” the report affirmed.

The report also warned against viewing religion solely through the focus of terrorism, as this would lead to overlooking the positive role of religion in dealing with global problems and promoting peace.

It’s also necessary to move beyond a focus just on the Muslim world and to take into account other religious communities, the report said.

Global

While attention is often focused on the Middle East when it comes to the interaction between religion and politics the report pointed out that religion is a factor in many other countries.

China, for example, has a number of indigenous new religious movements such as Falun Gong as well as a rapidly-growing sector of legal and underground Christian churches and Muslim communities.

Buddhist monks have justified, and even promoted, conflict against Tamils in Sri Lanka, as well as marching against a repressive regime in Burma. Tensions between Christian and Muslims exist in Nigeria, and Indonesia, but also in European cities like London, Amsterdam, and Paris.

In India political debates are often influenced by different visions of Hinduism and the proper relationship of Hindus to other ethnic and religious communities.

The rise of Pentecostalism in Latin America and of Christian churches and preachers in Africa and Asia are other important religious developments that warrant attention, the report added.

And while religion has fomented bloody conflicts in countries such as Bosnia and Sudan, it has also promoted peace and forgiveness in South Africa and Northern Ireland. Alongside religious extremists there are other figures such as Pope John Paul II and the Dalai Lama, the report noted.

“The many examples of religious contributions to democratization and of religious leaders who help provide foreign assistance, implement development programs, and build peace are emblematic of how religion can play a positive role everywhere in the world,” the task force affirmed.

Patterns

The members of the task force identified six principal patterns in the role religion plays in international affairs.

1. The influence of religious groups — some old and others new — is growing in many areas of the world and affects virtually all sectors of society.

2. Changing patterns of religious identification in the world are having significant political implications.

3. Religion has benefited and been transformed by globalization, but it also has become a primary means of organizing opposition to it.

4. Religion is playing an important public role where governments lack capacity and legitimacy in periods of economic and political stress.

5. Religion is often used by extremists as a catalyst for conflict and a means of escalating tensions with other religious communities.

6. The growing salience of religion today is deepening the political significance of religious freedom as a universal human right and a source of social and political stability.

In more concrete terms the report pointed out how these trends can present challenges in making policy decisions. For example, while the United States supports the spread of democracy, in some countries the introduction of popular elections could give greater power to religious extremists who often have anti-American views. So there needs to be a reconciliation between the promotion of human rights and democracy with protecting national interests, according to the task force.

The report also pointed out that the promotion of religious freedom as part of the foreign policy of the United States needs to be done in a way that is not seen as some kind of challenge by Western society on local religions or customs.

Recommendations

In dealing with religion’s role in public affairs the report advocated that the best way to counter extremism is through a greater engagement with religion and religious communities.

This means listening carefully to the concerns and fears they have and then entering into a substantive dialogue with them. At the same time it’s important not to overstep this dialogue by intervening in theological disputes or by trying to manipulate religion, the task force warned.

One of the most important things the United States must do, the report noted, is to learn how to communicate effectively. Therefore, in addition to listening to what religious communities are saying government needs to be more effective in presenting America’s own views. It’s also vital to keep in mind that actions often speak louder than words, so government policies must back up its media strategy, the report added.

Among the measures proposed in the report was the need to give a comprehensive instruction to diplomats, military personnel and other officials, on the role of religion in world affairs.

The report also recommended that the United States continue to promote religious freedom. “Imposed limitations on religious freedom weaken democracy and civil society, poison political discourse, and foment extremism,” the task force commented.

Healthy cooperation

Religion’s role in politics was a theme touched upon by Benedict XVI in his Jan. 11 address to the members of the diplomatic corps.

“Sadly, in certain countries, mainly in the West, one increasingly encounters in political and cultural circles, as well in the media, scarce respect and at times hostility, if not scorn, directed towards religion and towards Christianity in particular,” he commented.

Echoing the views expressed in the Chicago Council report the Pontiff said that: “It is clear that if relativism is considered an essential element of democracy, one risks viewing secularity solely in the sense of excluding or, more precisely, denying the social importance of religion.”

Such an approach, however, only creates confrontation and division, the Pope pointed out. “There is thus an urgent need to delineate a positive and open secularity which, grounded in the just autonomy of the temporal order and the spiritual order, can foster healthy cooperation and a spirit of shared responsibility,” he urged. A cooperation that will greatly benefit efforts to promote peace in the world.

By Carl Anderson

NEW HAVEN, Connecticut, MARCH 1, 2010 (Zenit.org).- Having served for nearly a decade as a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, I know that there are few subjects as controversial in American society as those issues touching race relations.

Nonetheless, an article appearing this weekend in the New York Times — titled “To Court Blacks, Foes of Abortion Make Racial Case” — is worth considering.

Without getting into the controversy concerning the well-documented eugenic philosophy of Margaret Sanger (founder of Planned Parenthood), or the debate over whether or not African Americans are actually deliberately targeted by abortion providers today, several disturbing facts remain.

For one, as the New York Times pointed out, black women account for almost 40% of the abortions in the United States, though they make up only 13% of the population.

Regardless of the cause for that high rate, abortion is an especially large-scale tragedy for African Americans. There are no winners in abortion. There are only the dead and the wounded. And all involved need to be embraced with compassion and love.

Those in the black community who are most at risk for abortion must be offered concrete alternatives. Those who have experienced an abortion must be offered the message of healing and hope.

As we try to build a support of compassion, we should also remember Benedict XVI’s last encyclical, “Charity in Truth.” And as part of our charity, we must come to terms with the falsehoods which led millions to accept injustices as social necessities — and resolve to let the truth guide our charity, and let our charity be the spokesman of truth.

Legal limbo

Last month, the United States celebrated Black History Month. Sadly, there are legal parallels between the horrible legacy in the United States of denial of the rights of black people — and their treatment as less than human — and the current legal rights limbo of the unborn in this country.

For one thing, both the unborn and black community have been the victims of terrible jurisprudence. In fact, the Supreme Court decisions that enabled unrestricted access to abortion (Roe v. Wade) and established the segregationist principle of “separate but equal” (Plessy v. Ferguson) were both, as it happens, based on falsehood.

In Plessy v. Ferguson, the majority opinion asserted that segregation could in fact allow for equal treatment of black and white Americans. In the Court’s opinion, black Americans who saw this separation as “a badge of inferior,” created their own reality, not the reality assigned by the law. The Court insisted that any semblance of inferiority was “not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it.”

But as Justice John Marshal Harlan noted in his dissent in Plessy: “Everyone knows that the statute in question had its origin in the purpose, not so much to exclude white persons from railroad cars occupied by blacks, as to exclude colored people from coaches occupied or assigned to white persons.”

Unhinged

In Roe v. Wade too, a fiction was allowed to become the law of the land. In Roe, the court argued that it could not decide when human life begins.

Everyone, nonetheless knew at the time, and science has only made increasingly clear since then, that the unborn child before birth is precisely that — a child.

What is notable about both Plessy and Roe, is that the majority in each found it necessary to ignore the obvious to rule the way they did. At best, they bought into a lie. And sadly, whatever the motivations of individual judges, the black community targeted by Plessy, has also been affected disproportionately by Roe.

The majority’s decision in Roe could not have had a good outcome under any circumstances, but the current controversy is yet another example of how poorly adjudicated decisions tend to have unintended — and often terrible — consequences beyond those readily realized.

Of course, in the 1950s, many legal experts, law professors and politicians insisted that the segregation allowed by Plessy was “settled law.” Today, “experts” and politicians say the same about the abortion legacy of Roe.

But Plessy was unhinged from reality, and the courage of brave men and women such as Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rosa Parks unsettled this “settled law” and earned the respect of the judgment of history.

Roe too is unhinged from the truth that everyone knows. Needed are more brave men and women willing to stand up and demand that a nation’s law on abortion will never be settled until it is brought into conformity with the truth.

By Robert Moynihan

WASHINGTON, D.C., MARCH 1, 2009 (Zenit.org).- Since the moment on Good Friday when Jesus, speaking from the cross as he was about to die, said to the Apostle John, “Behold your mother,” the maternal role of Mary has been a central element of Christian faith and devotion.

The depictions of Mary’s sorrow in works of art such as the Pieta by Michelangelo have suggested a profound emotional truth: When any believer is confronted with great sorrow or suffering, we can turn to Mary, our spiritual mother, for consolation, because she experienced such great suffering.

The great Marian apparitions, especially at Lourdes in 1858 and at Fatima in 1917, suggest to thoughtful observers of the mystical life that Mary continues to “draw near” to the “little ones,” to children, to encourage them and to share with them a message of maternal comfort and exhortation.

Over the centuries, the theological reflection of the Church has come to grant special and particular titles to Mary, to make clearer who she is, and why she is worthy of our filial devotion.

Presently, the Church has proclaimed four dogmas regarding the Mother of Jesus: (1) her maternal role in the birth of Christ, the Son of God, making her truly Mother of God (“Theotokos,” Council of Ephesus, 431); (2) her Perpetual Virginity (First Lateran Council, 649); (3) her Immaculate Conception (Pius IX, “ex cathedra” proclamation, 1854); and (4) her Assumption into heaven (Pius XII, “ex cathedra” proclamation, 1950).

For almost a century now, there has been a small but growing movement in the Church in favor of the proclamation of a fifth Marian dogma regarding the role of the Blessed Virgin as the Spiritual Mother of All Humanity.

On March 25, the Vatican Forum of Inside the Vatican magazine and St. Thomas More College, in a meeting room close to St. Peter’s Square, will invite an international group of bishops and theologians to discuss whether now is the appropriate time for a fifth solemn definition or “dogma” to be pronounced regarding the Virgin Mary.

Years in the making

The movement within the Church for a fifth Marian dogma concerning the Virgin Mary’s role in our salvation is well over 90 years old. The Belgian Catholic ecumenical leader, Cardinal Désiré-Joseph Mercier, initiated it in the 1920s, with the support of the then Father Maximilian Kolbe.

Since that time to the present, more than 800 cardinals and bishops have petitioned various Popes for an infallible definition of Mary’s special maternal role in the salvation of humanity. In addition, more than seven million petitions from faithful throughout the world have been gathered by the promoters of this devotion.

The Popes who promulgated the two modern Marian dogmas, Blessed Pope Pius IX (1846-1878) and Pope Pius XII (1939-1958), both acknowledged in a positive way the role petitions from members of the hierarchy and laity had played in their respective Marian definitional “bulls.”

During 2009, cardinals and bishops from every continent have petitioned Benedict XVI to consider promulgating the dogma of Mary’s spiritual Maternity under its three essential aspects as co-redemptrix, mediatrix of all graces, and advocate. This came after five cardinals wrote to the world’s bishops in request of petitions to the Holy Father for the fifth Marian Dogma.

Those signing the request included Cardinal Telesphore Toppo, archbishop of Ranchi, India; Cardinal Luis Aponte Martínez, retired archbishop of San Juan, Puerto Rico; Cardinal Varkey Vithayathil, major archbishop of Ernakulam-Angamaly, India; Cardinal Riccardo Vidal, archbishop of Cebu, Philippines; and Cardinal Ernesto Corripio y Ahumada, retired archbishop of Mexico City.

Some bishops, particularly in the West, see a Marian definition as potentially counterproductive to ecumenism. Two of the five cardinals who in 2009 wrote to the world’s bishops for this potential Marian dogma, Indian Cardinal Telespore Toppo and Cardinal Vithayathil, archbishop of the Syro-Malabar Church, have responded publicly to this ecumenical objection by stating that proclaiming the whole truth about the Mother of Jesus will only bring about authentic Christian unity based on a unity of Christian truth and faith, coupled with the renewed intercession of Mary, Mother of unity, as a result of a papal proclamation of her role as universal spiritual mother.

John Paul II used the co-redemptrix title on at least six occasions during his papacy.

Benedict XVI, without using the title, has repeatedly emphasized the doctrine of Mary’s co-redemption or “co-suffering” with Jesus, particularly in his World Day of the Sick addresses and his 2008 prayer for the suffering peoples in China addressed to Our Lady of Sheshan.

Beginnings

In reflecting on the beginnings of this movement for a Marian dogma, it is worth noting that Cardinal Mercier (1851-1926), the archbishop of Malines, Belgium, from 1906 until his death, was a key Church leader in his time. In addition to the heroic leadership he demonstrated during World War I, Cardinal Mercier hosted the famous Catholic-Anglican dialogue known as the Malines Conversations, and obtained the establishment of the liturgical feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mediatrix of All Graces with its proper Mass and Office. His spiritual mentor was Blessed Dom Columba Marmion.

Here, in his own words, is the daily spiritual exercise Cardinal Mercier recommended. It still is valid today.

He wrote: “I am going to reveal to you the secret of sanctity and happiness. Every day for five minutes control your imagination and close your eyes to the things of sense and your ears to all the noises of the world, in order to enter into yourself. Then, in the sanctity of your baptized soul (which is the temple of the Holy Spirit), speak to that Divine Spirit, saying to Him: ‘O Holy Spirit, beloved of my soul, I adore You. Enlighten me, guide me, strengthen me, console me. Tell me what I should do. Give me your orders. I promise to submit myself to all that You desire of me and accept all that You permit to happen to me. Let me only know Your Will.’

“If you do this, your life will flow along happily, serenely, and full of consolation, even in the midst of trials. Grace will be proportioned to the trial, giving you strength to carry it, and you will arrive at the Gate of Paradise laden with merit. This submission to the Holy Spirit is the secret of sanctity.”

And it was this submission to the Holy Spirit, of course, which was the distinguishing mark of Mary’s life, especially at the moment of the Annunciation (March 25), when she said, “Let it be done to me according to Thy will.”

Dialogue

Panelists for the March 25 Day of Dialogue will include Archbishop Ramon Arguelles of Lipa, Philippines, president of the Marian-Mariological Society of the Philippines, Carmelite Father Enrique Llamas, president of the Mariological Society of Spain. Also presenting will be Dr. Judith Gentle, Anglican theologian, author, and member of Our Lady of Walsingham Mariological Society from the United Kingdom.

The morning session will constitute brief presentations by panelists discussing the issue of appropriateness of a fifth Marian dogma at this time, while the afternoon session will consist of a dialogue by panelists, press, and audience concerning the topic.

The Pontifical Marian Academy was invited to participate in the dialogue, but later notified Inside the Vatican magazine that members of the Academy would not be participating. The event, which is free and open to the public, begins at 10:00 a.m. at the Via Borgo Pio, #141.

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Robert Moynihan is founder and editor of the monthly magazine Inside the Vatican. He is the author of the book “Let God’s Light Shine Forth: the Spiritual Vision of Pope Benedict XVI” (2005, Doubleday). Moynihan’s blog can be found at www.insidethevatican.com. He can be reached at: editor@insidethevatican.com.

By Tony Assaf

ROME, MARCH 1, 2010 (Zenit.org).- Christians and Muslims in Lebanon are looking forward to sharing the Feast of the Annunciation as a national holiday, says the secretary general of the Christian-Muslim Committee for Dialogue.

Mohammad Al-Sammak said this in an interview with ZENIT while he was in Rome for a Feb. 22 conference on the theme, “The Future Is Living Together: Christians and Muslims in the Middle East in Dialogue.”

It was organized by the Sant’Egidio Community, an international Catholic organization that focuses on prayer, spreading the Gospel, ecumenism, and dialogue with other religions and non-believers.

Al-Sammak, who also serves as a political counselor to the Grand Mufti of Lebanon, became the first Muslim to participate as an active member in a Synod of Bishops in 1995 when John Paul II convoked a special assembly of the prelates of Lebanon.

Al-Sammak is also one of the 138 Muslim leaders who signed the open letter “A Common Word Between Us and You,” addressed to Benedict XVI and various heads of other Christian churches and confessions.

He worked for three years on a project with the Lebanese government to make the Feast of the Annunciation, March 25, a holiday for both Christians and Muslims. Last week the authorities issued a decree making that day a national feast day.

In this interview with ZENIT, Al-Sammak spoke about the past, future, and other elements shared by Christians and Muslims in the Middle East.

ZENIT: What do you think of the crisis in Islamic and Christian relations in the Middle East and the fact that after 14 centuries of living together we are once again participating in a conference on dialogue?

Al-Sammak: Basically, the Muslims and Christians in the Middle East are condemned to decide to live together.

There is no third way: either they choose to live together or they are forced to live together.

Let us say that the coexistence between Christians and Muslims is not something premeditated but it is a choice. And since we have built a common life on the basis of a choice, we must be aware that there are differences between us and create a culture founded on respect for these differences and acceptance and living with them.

Neither of us can abolish nor impose our own way of life on others.

The diversity and plurality of our Arab societies — Christian and Muslim — are a vital and fundamental component and even an historical component. At the same time, they are also a formula for the future if there is a future for this region.

ZENIT: What could the future of the Middle East be if the Christians disappeared?

Al-Sammak: There is no future for the Arab region if the Muslims and Christians do not live together.

What is happening now in that region in regard to the diminishment of the number and role of Christians is a disaster not only for Christians but also for Muslims, and will lead to the disintegration of that society and the loss of the wealth of diversity and the scientific, economic, intellectual and cultural expertise of the Christians who emigrate.

Emigration is not so much a loss for the Christians as it is for the Muslims and at the same time it is a defeat for Islam-Christian coexistence.

ZENIT: To what extent are Muslims aware of the danger of a disappearance of Christians from the Middle East?

Al-Sammak: I must admit that the Christian preoccupation for the future is greater than the awareness that Islam has of this danger.

It must be our duty to broaden the circle of Islamic consciousness about the emigration of Christians and the gravity of the exodus of Christians for Islam in that region and the rest of the world.

The Christian exodus brings an indirect message to the world: that Islam does not accept the other and cannot live with others.

At this point the other world, or the Western world in general, following this logic, would have the right to say: If Muslims do not accept the presence of Christians among them, in reality an authentic and historical presence, why must we accept [Muslims] in our societies?

This reflects negatively on the Islamic presence in the world and so it is in the interests of Muslims, for the image of Islam in the world and for the interests of Muslims in different parts of the world, to maintain the presence of Christians in the Arab world and to protect this presence with all its might not only out of love for Christians but because this is their right as citizens and inhabitants of the region, who were there before Muslims.

ZENIT: Speaking of Muslims in the world, especially in the Western world, one often hears talk of Islamophobia. What, according to you, are the causes and solutions to this phenomenon?

Al-Sammak: Some of these causes stem from historical circumstances inherited from Western culture, which has a negative vision of Muslims that has its roots in literature and is reflected day after day in the media in one way or another.

But what feeds this phenomenon is the behavior of some Islamic extremists in the Western societies and when I speak of unacceptable behavior, I am not necessarily talking about terrorism, which is in itself dangerous, negative and catastrophic, but I am also talking about the confusion between religion and tradition.

Tradition is not religion and some of these persons of whom I am speaking unfortunately come from Muslim societies [that have] local customs and traditions that they say are part of the religion even if they are not, and perhaps they are contrary to the religion itself.

They live in Western societies clinging to those traditions because through them they think that they are expressing their independent personalities. And so they come to these Western societies that do not accept them, and they understand themselves to be different in culture, in language, in religion, in food in “halal” and in “haram,” etc. and begin to feel themselves marginalized from social life; and to develop their own personality they cling to the traditions that they practiced in their countries and sanctify them, that is, they elevate them to the level of the holiness of religion in such a way as to give the impression to Westerners that if this is Islam, one cannot live with it.

But this is not Islam, these local traditions that come from African countries, from Pakistan, from Afghanistan, from India, etc.; the confusion between what is really religious and what is a social tradition to which a religious identity is given, leads to an increase in Islamophobia, understood as hatred of Islam based on ignorance.

Because ignorance about Islam derives from two things: The first is an erroneous interpretation of Islam by some Muslims and the second is the lack of understanding of Islam by some non-Muslims.

The basis of this social behavior practiced by some Muslims who come from underdeveloped or poor or primitive societies is not only in the fact that they ignore the social traditions of the West in the societies where they go to live, but that they also and above all ignore a large part of the constants of their faith and they negatively project this in such a way as to cause this situation of Islamophobia.

ZENIT: There is a growth in the currents of Islamic extremism. What is the impact of this growth on the Christians of the Middle East?

Al-Sammak: I think that these movements have already gone beyond the growth phase and that perhaps today we are witnessing the beginning of the phase of their decline.

This growth reached its height a short time ago but the drop in numbers has begun.

These movements do not only have an impact on Christians in the Middle East but above all they have an effect on Muslims.

Extremism is an attempt to monopolize the truth and an attempt to monopolize God and to monopolize the sacred; it is also an attempt to interpret religion according to the interests and concepts of certain movements and so the way of relating to Muslims is determined by these interpretations that are a threat to Islam, for Muslims and for Christians.

Thus we need a process of correction of these concepts through cultural and educational projects, and I can say that Arab countries are already conscious of this aspect after having paid a high price for the spread of the extremism that has begun to fade due to the courageous steps taken by different countries like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Algeria and others.

All of these countries have begun a new and courageous reflection to revive the practice of the true faith in a correct and positive way.

ZENIT: What do the Muslims of the Middle East expect from the next Synod of Bishops? Will you participate?

Al-Sammak: I participated in the previous Synod and I am grateful to His Holiness John Paul II not only for inviting Muslims to a Synod but also for having insisted on us participating as active members and not just as observers.

I, personally, was a member of working commissions and this was a fact without precedent in the history of synods in general and in the history of Muslims at Christian meetings.

In reality, the next Synod is very important because it will discuss the topic of Christians in the East; and this is not an issue that only regards Christians but an issue that is also of interest to Muslims because they have the same fate in the East.

What affects Christians in the Middle East also affects Muslims.

Therefore we are very interested in what will happen and what will be decided in the next Synod. So far we have not received any invitation to participate but I hope that this will happen and I hope too that the Islamic participation will bring about something similar to what it did in the Synod on Lebanon.

Also because if we Muslims participate, we will assume the responsibility for implementing what will be decided at the Synod in view of a common Christian-Muslim responsibility.

We have said this many times because we are responsible for implementing what was established by the post-synodal declaration, at least for what regards Lebanon. A similar declaration will also be issued by this Synod and so the Muslims could have a responsibility for implementing it.

ZENIT: In your opinion, is there a continuity between the path taken by John Paul II and that of Benedict XVI?

Al-Sammak: I think that in restoring the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, which was once annexed to the Pontifical Council for Culture, Pope Benedict XVI wanted to return to dialogue with the other religions, including the Muslims.

In fact, we have all seen how the Pope welcomed the Islamic initiative “A Common Word Between You and Us,” which regards love in Islam and Christianity. I had the honor of being among the first signatories of this document.

The Pope’s visit to Palestine and Jordan and his conversations with Muslim leaders opened new and broad perspectives to reactivate the dialogue launched by John Paul II in Assisi in 1986.

We have followed this work and we consider it among the most important missions that the Vatican is undertaking in relation to the Muslim world. We cannot however not take account of what is happening in some Muslim countries such as Nigeria, Indonesia and Malaysia.

There are some pathological aspects of Islamic-Christian relations that can only be dealt with through a culture of dialogue and a culture of respect for differences.

The role that the Vatican can play is clear in the process of openness toward the Islamic world to encourage and promote this culture and establish it in Islamic societies.

ZENIT: The Lebanese government decreed the Feast of the Annunciation as a common feast for Christians and Muslims. In what measure can such initiatives, especially when they are promoted by the state, promote coexistence?

Al-Sammak: This is one of the achievements that we are proud of and that we have been working on for the past three years.

For three years we have been organizing on March 25 a Muslim-Christian gathering centered on Mary, reciting verses from the Gospel and from the Qur’an that regard Mary, seeking to show what is common to Islam and Christianity.

Last year from the podium of the former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, I personally declared his agreement and his approval of the declaration of March 25 as a Muslim and Christian feast day. The idea was that on this day everyone must continue to work, because the former prime minister said: “I want the Lebanese to work one day more not one day less.”

My brothers and I of the Christian-Muslim Committee for Dialogue (of which I am the secretary general) accepted the decision, because we wanted in any case to dedicate this day to Muslims and Christians.

Last week we met with Prime Minister Saad Hariri and we again proposed this idea to him, and he immediately supported it. And 48 hours later a decree was issued that declared March 25 a national holiday and a day of celebration: a day of [interreligious] work for both Muslims and Christians.