Posts Tagged ‘peace’
Secretary of Justice and Peace Council Comments on Benedict’s Message
By Mercedes De La Torre
ROME, JAN. 10, 2012 (Zenit.org).- On the first day of the new year, in which the World Day of Peace was observed, Bishop Mario Toso, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, commented on the Pope’s message for the Day, titled “Educate Young People in Justice and Peace.”
Bishop Toso pointed out that the Holy Father trusts young people, because they show hope and are able to receive God in the midst of human history.
ZENIT spoke with the Salesian bishop, professor of social philosophy, former rector of the Pontifical Salesian University and Consultor for 20 years of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, about Benedict XVI’s message.
ZENIT: Why does Benedict XVI address young people in particular in this 45th Message for the World Day of Peace?
Bishop Toso: Benedict XVI wished to address this message in particular to young people who today live in a world of incessant transformation, in a world that sociologists describe as “liquid”: new projects are begun and are not solidified, so that youth live in a reality that changes constantly, and even those points that seem to be the most solid also seem to change.
In this context of swift changes and a lack of solid points of reference, Benedict XVI addresses young people, seeing them as a part of the human family that has great resources of hope. In fact, young people, especially in the World Youth Day that was held in Madrid, but also in other events that we have learned about in the media, are showing — also in reference to the fall of regimes and the need to erect democratic institutions — a young, fresh intuition, which helps adults to accept the fundamental values we must invest in and which can constitute the foundation of a more just and peaceful society.
ZENIT: Why does the Pope have confidence in young people as builders of peace?
Bishop Toso: Benedict XVI’s confidence in young people is based above all on two motives: the first is that young people, in face of life and the great responsibilities of the human family, believe in the possibility of a profound transformation, of the renewal of institutions, and their enthusiasm can be the engine for positive change in our societies, even becoming witnesses and leaders, enabling adults to question themselves.
The second reason is that Benedict XVI believes in the capacity of young people to intercept God, to receive Him in the midst of human history as the One who can help humanity to come out of the dark tunnel in which it finds itself. In reality, the dark tunnels that cause despair are different, disallowing even the possibility of a more just world. They are tunnels represented by the food crisis, the financial crisis, the crisis of appropriating essential resources, the ecological crisis and, above all, the anthropological, ethical crisis.
ZENIT: How can young people help to create a more fraternal society?
Bishop Toso: As the Message for the World Day of Peace acknowledges, young people not only have the task to be involved in the educational process, but they have a mission — Benedict XVI states clearly — to stimulate, to be an example to adults and to one another.
Young people especially have a youthful and genuine intuition in regard to great values and they make every effort and commit themselves enthusiastically in the small daily things as well as those that are important: respect for the environment, the fight against corruption and illegality, the implementation of justice, and dignified and respectful treatment of persons in the field of the economy, in the field of finance. With their example, they have the possibility of offering models of what could be the construction of a new society, and new human relations based on the values of fraternity, solidarity and mutual gift — values in which young people are particularly sensitive.
It is often said that today’s young people are the first generation that think that their descendants will live in worse conditions of life. However, I sincerely believe that young people of the age of globalization wish and know that they can contribute to the construction of a better, more united and solidary humanity, the humanity that Jesus Christ inaugurated with his Incarnation.
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.
“The Most Difficult Moment Was in Cairo”
ROME, SEPT. 16, 2007 (Zenit.org).- Though Cardinal Renato Martino wanted to be a missionary, his poor health prohibited him from following that dream. Instead, he joined the Holy See’s diplomatic service and in this way, he says, fulfilled his great desire to evangelize.
Cardinal Martino is now the president of two pontifical councils: the Pontifical Councils of Justice and Peace, and the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Travelers. This summer he celebrated the golden anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood, a vocation with which he says he is “still enchanted.”
In this interview with ZENIT, the 74-year-old prelate reflects on some of the milestones of his ministry.
Q: Your Eminence, how did you discern your vocation?
Cardinal Martino: I come from a family marked by faith and Catholic tradition, with a wonderful mother, who was also an artist. The holy card marking my 50th anniversary to the priesthood, with the Virgin and Child, was painted by her. [I had] a strict father and four brothers and sisters. A large family, totaling 56 people at Christmas gatherings; I have 13 nephews and nieces and 26 great-nephews and nieces.
Ever since I was a child, I wanted to be a missionary. I was fascinated by the Jesuit missionary preachers who came to Naples, to our parish.
Unfortunately, the dream very soon vanished, because I was too frail and the doctors told me clearly that my constitution would not endure in missionary lands.
My desire to carry the Gospel to the world took on another path. Through a number of circumstances, I frequented the Vatican Diplomatic Academy, the oldest in the world and, since 1962, I have worked with the nunciatures of Nicaragua, Philippines, Lebanon, Canada and Brazil.
Between 1970 and 1975, I was in charge of the section for international organizations in the Secretariat of State. Subsequently, on Sept. 14, 1980, the Pope at that time, John Paul II, sent me as pro-nuncio to Thailand, as apostolic delegate, to attend to the relations with Singapore, Malaysia, Laos and Brunei.
In 1986, I was appointed permanent observer of the Holy See to the United Nations in New York and, in that capacity, I took part in the major international conferences promoted by the United Nations during the 90s, particularly in New York, 1990, at the World Summit for Children; in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 1992, at the Conference on Environment and Development; in Barbados, 1994, at the Conference on Small Island Developing States and, that same year, in Cairo, at the Conference on Population and Development.
In Beijing, China, 1995, at the World Conference on Women; in Istanbul, Turkey, 1996, at the Conference on Human Settlements; in Rome, 1998, at the Diplomatic Conference of Plenipotentiaries on the Establishment of an International Criminal Court; in New York, 2000, at the Millennium Summit;
In Monterrey, Mexico, 2003, at the International Conference on Financing for Development. Also, in Madrid, Spain, at the World Assembly on Aging, and, that same year, in Johannesburg, South Africa, at the Conference on Sustainable Development.
Q: You have had to face many difficult situations, including frequent disagreements with United Nations offices and delegations that, particularly in the 90s, were especially critical of the Holy See, above all with regard to demographic policies, abortion, contraception … Could you comment on this experience?
Cardinal Martino: The most difficult moment was in 1994, in Cairo, during the Conference on Population and Development. President Bill Clinton’s administration, together with a greater part of the developed countries, were determined to get the conference to recognize abortion as an international right.
Some nongovernmental organizations even requested that the Vatican delegation be expelled from the United Nations. But with the Lord’s help and thanks to the support, on that occasion, of Latin American and Islamic-majority countries, we succeeded in rejecting the attempt to approve abortion as a contraceptive method.
As head of the Vatican delegation, I managed to obtain the support of 43 delegations and to ensure that paragraph 8.25 of the final document adopted by the conference should declare that “on no account may abortion be invoked as a family planning method.”
This regulation remains in force to this day, despite frequent and continuous attempts to eliminate it. So far, voluntary interruption of pregnancy, which, unfortunately, is still a dramatic phenomenon these days, has never been approved by any United Nations body.
Q: What mission to you look back upon with most satisfaction?
Cardinal Martino: From May 15 to 21 this year, at the express request and in representation of the Holy Father Benedict XVI, I visited Ivory Coast, a country torn by a long period of strife and bloodshed.
During my stay, I celebrated the Eucharist in several cities and parochial communities; I met with the bishops and highest authorities in the country. Particularly, I attended a meeting with the President, Laurent Gbagbo, who appointed as his prime minister former rebel chief, Guillaume Soro, a brilliant 34-year-old Catholic.
In order to give consistency and solidity to the peace agreements, I invited both of them to the solemn Mass I celebrated in St. Paul’s Cathedral, in Abidjan, on May 20.
The cathedral was crowded with faithful, together with the bishops and civil authorities. I encouraged the people of Ivory Coast to continue along the way of peace and to promote national reconciliation and the participation of all the country’s living forces, without any form of political, religious, cultural or ethnic exclusion.
When the time came to exchange a gesture of peace, I invited the president of the republic and the prime minister to come up to the altar to receive my peace gesture. After that, I invited them to exchange peace with each other: They hugged each other, assuring that this would last — a great gesture of reconciliation, before the applause of several thousand people.
All this was transmitted live by the national television channel. I instructed them never to forget that day, should difficulties arise in the future, because this was a historical gesture, a commitment of peace and concord sealed in the cathedral, before God. To all the people of Ivory Coast, to the numerous innocent victims, to the groups of those displaced, to those wounded, and to so many others, I expressed the spiritual closeness of the Holy Father and, in his name, I offered some financial help toward the primary needs of those in most dire hardship.
This was the most effective way of presenting the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, and its practical application.
I have also been thanked for this meeting and for the reinforcement of the peace process by the secretary-general of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, who I had met before he took on that position, because he represented South Korea before the United Nations during the same period as my stay in New York, where I attended to a group of South Korean Catholics.
For 18 years, I administrated confirmation to members of this group. I saw Ban Ki-moon in Rome, when the promotion of his candidature had not yet begun, and I told him I was sure of his election. He looked at me in surprise, incredulously. I assured him: We’ll talk about it after your election. I’m sure you will do a lot of good.
Q: On Oct. 1, 2002, John Paul II called you to Rome, to take over the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, but as head of this dicastery, you continued your travels throughout the world …
Cardinal Martino: Taking on the direction of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and, since March 11, 2006, also that of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Travelers, allows me to sustain and prolong the task of evangelization which I wished to carry out from the days of my youth.
The publication and diffusion of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church was a stimulating task. As I noted in the introduction to the volume, “transforming social realities with the power of the Gospel, to which witness is borne by women and men faithful to Jesus Christ, has always been a challenge and it remains so today at the beginning of the third millennium of the Christian era.”
I am fully aware that the announcement of Jesus Christ is not easily swallowed in the world today, but precisely because of that, the people of our time are in need, more than ever, of faith that saves, of hope that enlightens, and of charity that loves.
These are the reasons that move the Church to intervene with its teachings in the social field, in order to help and accompany Catholics in serving the common good.
Q: Is there something that you would like to accomplish but which you have been unable to?
Cardinal Martino: I have no regrets. I am still enchanted with the priesthood. I thank the Lord every day for the grace of the priesthood. I have celebrated more than 19,000 masses, and each one of them has been a real gift to me, because, even if my role had only been that of celebrating the Eucharist alone or for a small community, I would, however, be grateful to the Lord for having had the opportunity to serve him.
Beijing Faces a Faith Explosion
ROME, JUNE 28, 2007 (Zenit.org).- A new documentary, “God in China. The Struggle for Religious Freedom,” explores the best-kept secret of China: religion. According to the documentary, China is going through a massive resurgence of religious belief that the authorities of the atheistic regime are neither able to control nor contain.
Written and directed by Raphaela Schmid, director of the Becket Institute, and produced by Yago de la Cierva of Rome Reports TV News Agency, the documentary was previewed by students, professors and journalists in Rome.
With its new office in Rome, the Becket Institute is exploring ways to go beyond the conventionally academic means to educate a wider public about religious freedom.
“One such way is making topical television documentaries about religious freedom, based on the situation in various countries,” Schmid said.
While not a film exclusively about Catholic issues, the China documentary offers unprecedented insight into both sides of the divide between the “official,” or the government-controlled Patriotic Association of Catholic Churches, and the “underground” Church that remains loyal to Rome.
The film takes viewers across China where they meet believers of different faiths struggling for religious freedom, walking a thin line between toleration and persecution. In some places they discover new freedom, in others they suffer state control and even persecution.
From a rural underground parish to a clandestine seminary, from a state-sponsored Buddhist Academy to a mosque at the heart of Beijing’s Muslim community, Chinese people from all walks of life candidly tell their stories and offer their assessment of what the future may hold for them.
The film coincides with the first official admission that at least 30% of all Chinese declare themselves to be members of a religion. More surprisingly, 20 million of the 60 million members of the Communist Party confess belonging to a religion.
It also makes clear the limitations various religious communities, whether state-controlled or independent, continue to face. “During the Cultural Revolution, faith communities were driven underground,” Schmid explains. “In 1978, Deng Xiaoping’s liberalization program began to open doors for the return of religion to Chinese public life.”
Schmid said that some properties were restored and religious rights reaffirmed in the recently revised constitution. But even this limited sort of freedom came at a price: obeying the directives of the state-run Bureau for Religious Affairs.
In the case of the Catholic Church, the Catholic Patriotic Association was founded in an attempt to bring Catholic Church teaching in line with Communist party ideals.
“Those who refused to compromise had to remain underground,” Schmid said. Throughout the documentary, viewers are made aware of the dangers that still exist. Christians who do not surrender their faith to government directives are in danger of being arrested. Mass is celebrated secretly, and makeshift churches can be torn down by local authorities from one day to the next.
Schmid said that while the underground Church is less vigorously persecuted today, there are still many bishops and priests in prison. In addition to more obvious issues of freedom, the documentary explores more subtle problems, such as making the teachings of the Church accessible to the faithful.
“It’s important to understand that joining the Patriotic Association is not a mere formality for Chinese Catholics,” Schmid explained.
“The problem is that, under state control, the Church cannot speak up on important issues such as abortion, the one child policy, human rights, and the death penalty — and for this they must have leaders who do not acquiesce to a mutilated version of the faith, accommodated to the demands of the state.”
Reflecting on her experience in China, Schmid said, “What struck me most during the filming of this documentary in China was the generosity and kindness of the people we met, particularly those who did so at great personal risk.”
The film on China is the team’s second venture. The first project was about religious freedom in Turkey and was filmed shortly before Benedict XVI’s visit there last November.
* * *
Learning Peace in Bethlehem
Within the Israeli-built wall that segregates Bethlehem from its neighboring communities, Bethlehem University of the Holy Land is a haven for some 2,500 students.
The university, supported by the Vatican’s Congregation for Eastern Churches and staffed by the De LeSalle Christian Brothers, is the only Catholic Christian institution of higher learning in the occupied Palestinian territories.
Brother Daniel Casey, vice chancellor and chief executive officer of Bethlehem University, was among the 100 or so members of the Vatican agency that coordinates funding to Eastern Catholic Churches that met in Rome last week for their annual meeting. The agency, known by its Italian acronym ROACO, is under the Congregation for Eastern Churches.
Founded in 1973, the university opened almost a decade after Pope Paul VI’s historic visit to the region when Palestinians expressed their desire for a Catholic University in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza.
Throughout its 30-year history, the Christian brothers, educational leaders, and the local Church have all supported the university and the ever-increasing numbers of students who receive practical training and an education in an atmosphere of true Christian dialogue.
Despite the recent infighting between Fatah and Hamas, and increased tensions in the Holy Land, Brother Casey said the culture and ethos of Bethlehem remains Christian.
“Bethlehem is in a unique position, in that it is the town that Jesus was born in, and the Christian population here, along with the two neighboring towns of Beit Jala and Beit Sahour, is nearly a majority,” Brother Casey said.
“It is very different here than in Gaza where the number of Christians is infinitesimal,” he added.
Christian-Muslim dialogue is a high priority in the region, said the vice chancellor. The university and other area agencies educate both Christian and Muslim students to know and understand each other, know their religions, and to work together. “I believe we are successful at this,” Brother Casey said.
There are very encouraging signs, he added. People in the area respect the university’s Christian ideals and long-standing traditions. “We still adhere to a Sunday Christian day of worship. We are one of the few places that is closed on Sunday and open on Friday, the Muslim day of worship,” Bother Casey said.
Moreover, Christian and Muslim students actively participate in their faiths and attend worship services. The university Mass is well attended. The Orthodox Christians also hold regular services, and a room for prayer is provided for the university’s Muslim population.
Benedict XVI has expressed deep concern for the Christians and others in the entire Middle East. In addresses both to ROACO as well as the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, the Pope urged both respect and charity as principles for dialogue.
Against a backdrop of tension that pervades the whole region, Brother Casey said that the university does its best to maintain normalizing influence.
“There is a definite fear no matter where you live. In casual conversation I often hear people express gratitude for another day but unease at what the night will bring,” Brother Casey remarked. While fear is inevitable, the university continues to hold international conferences, regular academic sessions, and to turn away applicants that exceed its capacity.
The past year presented special challenges. The crippling embargo, recently lifted, prevented the Palestinian Authority from providing much-needed aid to all of the region’s institutions, including universities.
But, Brother Casey said, grants provided through UNESCO by the World Bank and Saudi Arabia allowed the university to continue to operate. “We did not experience the dire financial consequences that other sectors did,” Brother Casey said. “Hundreds of families in the area had no regular income.”
Students at the university also face unique challenges on a regular basis. Surrounded on all sides by the Israeli wall, most Palestinian towns, including the small town of Bethlehem, are virtual prisons. Students traveling to school from outside of Bethlehem are subject to random gate closures, military harassment and security checks that can cause long delays.
“I’ve experienced this myself, even as a foreigner,” Brother Casey said. “There are people who have not been out of Bethlehem for five years. Living in Bethlehem is like living in a prison.”
“This has an awful effect on people,” he added. Brother Casey believes the violence the world witnesses among Palestinians is oftentimes a reaction to what is happening in their own lives.
“Young men who have no opportunity for employment, who have not made university admission, have absolutely nothing to do. They are naturally angry at their lot and are prey to the political situation. It breeds a violent reaction,” Brother Casey said.
In addition to fostering positive relations among young people of different faith backgrounds, the university offers hope to many young people. As always, Brother Casey said Palestinians are looking for the way forward. With the lifting of the embargo and another new government, he said there is some hope.
“The idea of prayer has never been so pertinent as now,” he said. “I hope people will pray for peace in the Holy Land.”