In contrast to their often bitter and violent relations in much of the world, Christians and Muslims in Lebanon recently shared in the Feast of the Annunciation as a national holiday, thanks to the efforts of the secretary general of the Christian-Muslim Committee for Dialogue, Mohammad Al-Sammak, who was interviewed by Tony Assaf of the ZENIT News Agency while he was in Rome for a conference on the theme, 'The Future Is Living Together: Christians and Muslims in the Middle East in Dialogue.'
The conference was organised by the Sant'Egidio Community, an international Catholic organisation that focuses on prayer, spreading the Gospel, ecumenism, and dialogue with other religions and non-believers.
Al-Sammak is 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, 25 March, a holiday for both Christians and Muslims. The Lebanese authorities have now issued a decree making that day a national feast day.
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.
What could the future of the Middle East be if the Christians disappeared?
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.
To what extent are Muslims aware of the danger of a disappearance of Christians from the Middle East?
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.
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?
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 behaviour of some Islamic extremists in the Western societies and when I speak of unacceptable behaviour, 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 marginalised from social life; and to develop their own personality they cling to the traditions that they practised 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.
The basis of this social behaviour practised 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.
There is a growth in the currents of Islamic extremism. What is the impact of this growth on the Christians of the Middle East?
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 monopolise the truth and an attempt to monopolise God and to monopolise 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 in some Muslim countries.
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.
What do the Muslims of the Middle East expect from the next Synod of Bishops? Will you participate?
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.
In your opinion, is there a continuity between the path taken by John Paul II and that of Benedict XVI?
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 honour 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.
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?
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 organising on 25 March a Muslim-Christian gathering centred 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 25 March 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 25 March a national holiday and a day of celebration: a day of [interreligious] work for both Muslims and Christians.