Persecution of Christians in Islamic countries makes the news almost daily, and the Vatican is concerned. On 17 May Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo, secretary for relations with states in the Vatican's Secretariat of State, spoke to participants at the plenary session of the Pontifical Council for Migrants and Travellers.
After dealing with issues related to migration, Archbishop Lajolo turned to Islam. The faith factor, he noted, is becoming more and more important in the debate over migration.
He first addressed the issue of migration from Islamic countries. The Holy See, he noted, has often defended the need for migrants to be able to freely follow their religious beliefs. This freedom includes the possibility to practise their religion, or even to change their faith. For their part, migrants should respect the laws and values of the society in which they now live, including the local religious values.
Turning to the conduct of Islamic countries themselves, Archbishop Lajolo warned that we are not faced with a homogeneous situation, but with a religion composed of many different facets. There is, nevertheless, a recent tendency for these governments to promote radical Islamic norms and lifestyles in other nations. He named, in particular, pressures from groups in Saudi Arabia and Iran.
In Asia, until recently, Muslims and non-Muslims lived largely in peace. In the last few years, however, extremist groups have grown and religious minorities are the target of violence. The archbishop also expressed concern over Islamic expansion in Africa, and, to a lesser extent, in Europe.
The problems posed by the radicalisation of Islam range from Christians being unjustly subjected to trials by Islamic tribunals, to a lack of freedom in constructing places of worship and obstacles for the practice of faith.
Archbishop Lajolo criticised Islamic countries for ignoring the concept of reciprocity, common in relations among states, when it comes to matters of faith. Islamic countries, he pointed out, demand religious rights for their citizens who migrate to other countries, but ignore this principle for non-Muslim immigrants present in their own lands.
What should the Church do in the face of these difficulties? Archbishop Lajolo outlined the following recommendations:
* Faced with Islam the Church is called to live its own identity to the full, without backing down and by taking clear and courageous positions to affirm Christian identity. Radical Islamists, the prelate warned, take advantage of every sign they interpret as weakness.
* We should also be open to dialogue, whether with individual nations or within the United Nations or other organisations.
* An underlying problem in dealing with Islamic nations is the lack of separation between religion and the state. Part of the dialogue with Islamic religious and political authorities should be aimed at helping to develop a separation between these two spheres.
* A particularly sensitive point is that of respect for minorities and for human rights, especially religious rights. The Holy See will continue to speak out at international meetings for the human rights of migrants. For its part the international community should ensure that humanitarian organisations do not unduly pressure recipients of aid to change religion.
* The Holy See will continue to declare its firm opposition to all attempts to exploit religion by using it to justify terrorism and violence.
* The protection of Christians in Islamic countries is particularly difficult in the area ranging from Turkey to the Middle East. Solutions must be found for the many Christians who flee their country of residence in search of safety.
* Muslims who live in predominantly Christian countries should be integrated into these nations.
* The Catholic media can play an important role in educating Christians, including those living in Islamic countries.
* The Roman Curia together with bishops' confer- ences and local churches need to work closely together in these matters, including looking at the way to spread the Gospel in the Islamic world. This is our duty and our right, concluded Archbishop Lajolo.
Muslim-Catholic relations also prompted an expression of concern from Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor of Westminster.
During a speech on 16 May at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, he said the main obstacle to Christian-Muslim dialogue was "the failure, in a number of Muslim countries, to uphold the principle of religious freedom". It was, he added, "essential that Muslims can freely worship in Oxford or London, just as it is essential that Christians can freely worship in Riyadh or Kabul".
Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor called upon Muslims living in Britain to speak out when Christians are denied their rights in Islamic countries. "Where religious rights of minorities are disrespected in the name of Islam", he said, "the face of Islam is tarnished elsewhere in the world."
Zenit News Agency