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These early days of 2011 are shaping up to be an interfaith challenge with all sorts of messages, clarifications and critiques of current events between Christians and Muslims. The latest, noted here, is a statement given by the Pope’s ambassador, the Apostolic Nunccio to Egypt, Archbishop Michael L. Fiztgerald, M. Afr. The Nuncio,73, is a former head of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. The statement was given in response to a request of the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate clarifying the Pope’s January 2nd statement against the attacks against the Coptic faithful.

The statement of His
Holiness Pope Benedict XVI with regard to the tragic attack on the Church of
the Saints in Alexandria has met with some criticism. It may therefore be
helpful to give an account of what the Pope actually said and of his recent
teaching on the way to peace.

As is well know, the Pope recites a prayer with people in St Peter’s Square every Sunday. On Sunday 2 January, after reciting the prayer, he said: “Yesterday morning I received with sorrow the news of the serious attack against the Coptic Christian community in Alexandria, Egypt. This despicable act of death, similar to that of placing bombs near the houses of Christians in Iraq in order to force them to leave, offends God and the whole of humanity.” He continued: “In the face of this strategy of violence aimed at Christians, but with consequences for the whole of the population, I pray for the victims and their families, and encourage church communities to persevere in faith and the witness to non-violence that has its source in the Gospel.” 

Two things are worth noting here: first the recognition that the attack on Christians has an effect on the whole population, and then the appeal to respond to the attack in a non-violent way.

On the previous day, 1 January, while celebrating Mass in St Peter’s Church, Benedict XVI recalled the tradition of offering prayers for peace on the first day of the year. He said: “For this reason, especially by means of our prayer, we wish to help every person and all peoples, and in particular those who are responsible for government, to walk ever more decisively along the road to peace.” He called upon people not to give way to discouragement or resignation in the face of the negative forces of egoism and violence, going on to point out: “Words are not enough; there needs to be concrete and constant action on the part of those responsible for Nations”, while adding that every person needs to be imbued with the spirit of peace.

He referred on this occasion to the Message for the Day of Peace which he had issued and which is entitled Religious Freedom, the Path to Peace. It is true that this Message starts with a reference to the attack on the Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Baghdad which caused the death of many Christians. Yet the Message speaks also of “more subtle and sophisticated forms of prejudice and hostility towards believers and religious symbols.” Although Christians are held to be the “religious group which suffers most from persecution on account of its faith”, the Message extends its reflection to all believers. The Pope speaks about defending religion: “Religion is defended by defending the rights and freedoms of religious communities. The leaders of the great world religions and the leaders of nations should therefore renew their commitment to promoting and protecting religious freedom, and in particular to defending religious minorities; these do not represent a threat to the identity of the majority but rather an opportunity for dialogue and mutual cultural enrichment. Defending them is the ideal way to consolidate the spirit of good will, openness and reciprocity which can ensure the protection of fundamental rights and freedoms in all areas and regions of the world.” It should be noted that these words are not concerned with Christians only, but apply to all religions.

Finally, after the mid-day prayer on 1 January, Pope Benedict recalled that October of this year would see the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Day of Prayer for Peace held in Assisi at the initiative of Pope John Paul II. Benedict announced that he would make a pilgrimage to Assisi and that he intended to invite Christians of different traditions, the followers of other religious traditions, and, ideally, all people of good will to renew the commitment to live their religious faith in such a way as to serve peace.

From these statements of the Pope it is surely clear that he is not encouraging interference in the internal matters of any particular State, but that he is appealing to all, both individuals and governments, to respect the religious beliefs and practices of different communities and thus promote harmonious and peaceful societies. 

Archbishop Michael L. Fitzgerald, M. Afr.

Apostolic Nuncio to the Arab Republic of Egypt – Ambassador of the Vatican