After Verviers, some thoughts about our relations with Muslims

L_ordinazione_episcopale_di_Jean_Pierre_Delville_vescovo_di_Liegi_11The fear of terrorism and the danger of returning Jihadists from Syria and Iraq seems to be slowly creeping northward, following the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris. Yesterday, Belgian police prevented a terrorist attack on police officers and installation in the town of Verviers, southwest of Liège, which saw several arrests made and two suspected terrorists killed. As chance would have it, the Bishop of Liège, Jean-Pierre Delville, was in Verviers as the police operation took place. Yesterday, he gave the following statement.

“The incident took place when I was visiting the mosque on the Rue de Hodimont in Verviers. The friendship shown by the Muslim community of Hodimont sharply contrasts with the aggression of those who betray Islam with their blind violence. War only leads to war. Only dialogue and encounter can lead to peace.”

It almost seems more than coincidental that Msgr. Delville was visiting a mosque, of all places, at that time. But it does put him in the perfect place to comment on how this terrorism also affects Muslim communities.

The reactions in Catholic circles on the increased fear of terrorism and the recent attacks, as far as I have seen in social media, is varied. Most reactions make a distinction between terror and Islam, but there are also those who link the two, considering violence an inherent element of Islam. I wouldn’t know that,as I am not overly familiar with that religion, but I can understand these sentiments as the violence and terrorism perpetrated in the name of Islam is very visible these days. But that does not mean that those sentiments are correct. Following the Charlie Hebdo attack, I was struck by how quick many Muslims, including religious leaders, were to condemn it. We are on the same side against the evil that causes people to kill and destroy.

Islam is still something many in the west look upon warily. It is not something that is native to western Europe, and we don’t know a lot about it, in general. But what we do think to know and see, frightens us. Understandable as this is, it is not what we are asked to do as Christians. We are asked to follow the example of Jesus, who went to meet the people who did not share His teaching (or at least not yet).

There are those who do not like it when bishops visit mosques, as Msgr. Delville did, and to me it often seems as if they are afraid that he will come out “contaminated”, or that it is construed as an approval of Islam.

As Christians we do not share the faith of Muslims. Jesus did not share the thoughts and practices of the Pharisees, scribes and tax collectors, even condemned them, but he sat down and debated with them all the same. We must do the same: share what we have in common (and we do have things in common with Muslims) and meet the people and so allow them to meet Jesus through us.

Charlie Hebdo – Bishops react

Like almost every public authority figure, the Dutch bishops have also released an official response to the Charlie Hebdo massacre in paris, two days ago. It is a perfunctory statement, short and quite standard:

Logo Bisschoppenconferentie“The Dutch Bishops’ Conference is shocked and stunned by the reports about the violent attack on the offices of a magazine in Paris, in which twelve people were killed.

The bishops strongly reject the use of any form of violence to impose opinions or religious convictions. They also reject any form of violence aimed at denying people their right to express their own opinions.

The bishops’ sympathies go to the relatives of the deceased victims and also to the injured and their families. “We pray for consolation for them, but also for wisdom for the French authorities in approaching violence because of religious and philosophical opinions.

Furthermore, the bishops’ conference fully endorses Pope Francis’ reaction to the attack.”

More interesting are the reactions of individual bishops.

Bishop Jos Punt, of Haarlem-Amsterdam, sent an open letter to the editors of the major Dutch newspapers and, in extension, to all who work in the free press. In it, he writes:

kn_705396_punt“My thoughts are with your colleagues who have died and with their families, relatives and friends. But my thoughts are also with you and all your coworkers, who are used to be able to bring world news in freedom and rightly consider this a great good in the democratic principles we all cherish. That freedom is now again challenged and that makes you feel unsafe.

As bishop of the Diocese of Haarlem-Amsterdam I know that religions and their spiritual leaders, but also ministers, politicians and many others in public office or functions are sometimes targets for satire. That can go very far and cause protests.

But in the context of freedom of speech it must be possible to do so respectfully and must never lead to brutal murder, like yesterday in Paris.”

Bishop Punt also underlines the importance of dialogue between religions with mutual respect and good will, to foster peace and harmony in the world, and reminded that the forces of good are always stronger than the forces of evil. He closes his letter as follows:

“I wish you and your coworkers much wisdom and courage in the decisions you have to make now, perhaps forced by circumstances, in bringing news. But now you are supported by many who have shown their horror at this attack and sympathise strongly with you.”

mgr_hendriks2014_200Bishop Jan Hendriks, auxiliary bishop of the same diocese, shares the letter as well, and adds:

“The terrorist action which happened in Paris must be strongly condemned by every sane person. I hope that this will not lead to further violence, but to more attention for the importance of an honest and open dialogue to achieve peace and reconciliation.”

Bishop Gerard de Korte, of Groningen-Leeuwarden, gives advice on how to respond to the attack and its aftermath.

korte“The time for naivety is over. A small number of fanatics can seriously disrupt our society. Our governments have the task of eliminiating terrorists as much as possible before they can strike. But guaranteeing one hundred percent security is of course an illusion.

I think it is sensible to keep our heads cool. It is completely counterproductive to outcry ourselves in anger and fear. Now we especially need a strong and controlled reaction by society. Hysterics and blind hatred towards Muslims must now be avoided. Even in hectic times it is important to keep finding nuances. Citizens in our pluralistic society must seek out that which connects. As creatures of God we people belong fundamentally together, after all.

Bishop de Korte also warns that as Christians we must avoid taking the moral high ground in this matter:

“As Christians we should be humble.  For centuries Christians despised, hated and killed others. After the conversion of Emperor Constantine in the early fourth century, Christians have often wanted to violently enforce their vision of the truth. As far as I can see, we have left that unholy way only fairly recently. For our Church the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) also led to a breakthrough on this point. It’s no longer the right of the truth that is in the centre, but the dignity of every human. Christ is the truth in person and every man has the duty to find this truth. But that is only possible in full freedom and without any coercion or violence. We can not make holy God an instrument for our violent actions.”