Interfaith Dialogue: December 2008 Archives

by Manuela Borraccino

Rome - December 9, 2008


Christians in the Holy Land face innumerable hardships, but one organization committed to helping ease their suffering - and those of other religions who are struggling - is the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, a pontifical agency for humanitarian and pastoral support. The organization's Secretary General, Msgr. Robert L. Stern, spoke with recently about the challenges facing Christians there, the Pope's planned visit to the Holy Land next year, the possible impact of a new American President, and the importance of international aid to the region.


Monsignor Stern, what are the main problems from your perspective?

Christians in the Middle East are in a sense strangers in a strange land, even though they have been born there, because if they live in Israel, they live in a Jewish state and society. In all the other countries, they live in a Muslim state and in Muslim society. So even though they are descendants of the original inhabitants of the land, still they are made to feel that they don't "fit" anymore. Sometimes, the way they live and talk encourages this because Christians identify with the West. The paradox is that sometimes in the Holy Land they say: you Christians don't belong here, you belong to Western Europe. And yet, this is where Christianity started.


So they are second class citizens?

In Islam, Christians and Jews are considered people of the Book, and therefore they are respected as forerunners of Islam but not fully conforming to the Will of God. And so they are second class citizens, but they have a unique status. In Israel of course, in a Jewish state, if you are not a Jew, even though it's a democratic society, you are in fact a second class citizen as well. So it's the very nature of being a Christian in that part of the world. And in that part of the world your religious identity comes first; in the West it's more your national identity that comes first.


In which countries is there discrimination against Christians?

If you don't identify entirely with all their values, then, depending on the countries, it varies. Let's take Egypt for example: to really succeed in many roles, in politics and business, your chances are better if you are Muslim. It doesn't mean that to succeed is impossible, but it's human nature...There's a kind of discrimination which is the way people act when they deal with someone who is not quite a member of their own group.   


0223114808.jpgWhat is the future for Christians in the Middle East?

Well, if you look at it very dispassionately, from a sort of sociological point of view (sociologists look at trends and the statistics of 500 years ago, 1000 years ago, 100 years ago), what seems to be happening is the exodus of Christians from all over the Middle East. Right now, Israel-Palestine has the smallest proportion of Christians than in any country of the Middle East...What we are really seeing over the centuries is an accelerating movement of Christians away from that part of the world.


What role can Christians play in those societies?


Christians as minorities are, generally speaking, well-educated professionals and compared to their numbers they have an important influence in each of the countries in which they live. And that's a contribution. I also feel that the Christians can be a sort of bridge because in most of the countries they are Arabs, but they are not Muslims. They can be a connection between the modern societies of the Western world and emerging societies in the Islamic world because they are Arabs and they are Christians.


What are your expectations for Barack Obama's presidency?

I guess my hope, especially as an American citizen, is that the new president will bring certain perspectives. If you grow up as a child of an American mother and an African father, if you grow up as a child of a Christian mother and a Muslim father, if you are born in Hawaii and you go to school in Indonesia, then you understand differences better - at least during his campaign he seemed to speak of that. So I hope that he would bring a type of perspective.


Next year the Pope will visit to Israel. Do you have any thoughts on that?

It'll be a great shot in the arm for them. It's exciting because when the Pope comes, the whole world follows him. I was there when Pope John Paul II came and, at that moment, everybody in the Holy Land - Muslim, Jew, Christian - everybody spent the whole day watching this white little man in a white robe praying and talking and offering Masses, visiting people. It was a moment of peace in the midst of the storm. In that period, and for a short while after, everybody seemed to be calm, and then, of course, the Second Intifada exploded and tensions renovated.  I hope that Pope Benedict will be the same. He's "Pontifex", the bridge-builder. I hope he's very "pontifical" when he's there. I hope that his presence, his words and his prayers will bridge these terrible gaps between groups, religions and politics.


What are your views on international aid to Christians in the Holy Land?

We have to be concerned about the people who live there, our brothers and sisters, and all the people who live there, not only Christians. Sometimes we say: charity begins at home. At least, we have to be concerned about our fellow believers and with them and through them be concerned about them. Yes, they need a lot of help. They need to know that somebody cares. That's the most important thing of all. They don't quite "fit" in their own societies, and they don't seem to have much consolation from their brothers and sisters elsewhere.



Dormition Abbey3.jpgJERUSALEM (CNS) -- Perched atop Jerusalem's Mount Zion, just outside the walls of the Old City, the Benedictine Dormition Abbey has long been a place of informal encounters among all residents of the city. Through its concert series held monthly in the basilica, the Benedictine monks have brought adherents of various traditions and many tourists to their monastery to be inspired by the beauty of the music and the monastery. They also quietly have hosted other ecumenical meetings, peace dialogues and interreligious gatherings over the years. But following the outbreak of the second intifada, the monks sensed an urgent need for a more formalized format for peace encounters as a response to the suffering in the Holy Land, said Benedictine Father Johannes Oravecz, a monk at the abbey and director of the new Beit Benedict Peace Academy. But with the increasing level of violence and the ever-growing impasse in Palestinian-Israeli dialogue, the monks felt an urgent need to do more. Thus, in 2003 at the height of the intifada when they presented their annual peace award to two young peacemakers -- one Israeli and one Palestinian -- the monks realized that they were in a unique position to create a peace academy where both Israelis and Palestinians felt safe and comfortable to meet.


Given that today's feast is of a saint who brought thousands to Christ, I thought reprinting a recent article about a rather high profile baptism this past year. It is no small thing that a Muslim accepts Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior and lives to tell about it. Magdi Allam's story is unique.


Converted Muslim Tells Story Behind Papal Baptism


By Luca Marcolivio

December 1, 2008

The high-profile baptism of Magdi Cristiano Allam at the Easter Vigil ceremony presided over last year by Benedict XVI has a story behind it. According to Allam himself, his conversion journey was possible because of great Christian witnesses.

One of the directors of the Milan daily Corriere della Sera, he spoke about his conversion and the experiences that led to it when he met with university students of Rome last week to tell the story of his path to Catholicism.

Starting from the Easter Vigil of 2008 -- which Allam called the "most beautiful day of my life" -- when he received baptism from Benedict XVI in St. Peter's Basilica, the Italian-Egyptian journalist spoke of his life journey and the reflections that brought him to embrace "a new life in Christ and a new spiritual itinerary."

Allam.jpg"This journey," he recalled, "began apparently by chance, [but] in truth was providential. Since age four, I had the chance to attend Italian Catholic schools in Egypt. I was first a student of the Comboni religious missionaries, and later, starting with fifth grade, of the Salesians.

"I thus received an education that transmitted to me healthy values and I appreciated the beauty, truth, goodness and rationality of the Christian faith," in which "the person is not a means, but a starting point and an arriving point."

"Thanks to Christianity," he said, "I understood that truth is the other side of liberty: They are an indissoluble binomial. The phrase, 'The truth will make you free' is a principle that you young people should always keep in mind, especially today when, scorning the truth, freedom is relinquished."

The journalist continued: "My conversion was possible thanks to the presence of great witnesses of faith, first of all, His Holiness Benedict XVI. One who is not convinced of his own faith -- often it's because he has not found in it believable witnesses of this great gift.

"The second indissoluble binomial in Christianity is without a doubt that of faith and reason. This second element is capable of giving substance to our humanity, the sacredness of life, respect for human dignity and the freedom of religious choice."

The journalist affirmed that the Holy Father's 2006 speech in Regensburg -- which caused uproar within the Muslim community -- was for him a reason to reflect.

Allam said: "An event, before my conversion, made me think more than other events: the Pope's discourse in Regensburg. On that occasion, citing the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus, he affirmed something that the Muslims themselves have never denied: that Islam spreads the faith above all with the sword."

He added: "There is a greater and more subliminal danger than the terrorism of 'cut-throats.' It is the terrorism of the 'cut-tongues,' that is, the fear of affirming and divulging our faith and our civilization, and it brings us to auto-censorship and to deny our values, putting everything and the contrary to everything on the same plane: We think of the Shariah applied even in England.

Allam2.jpg"The one called 'a great one,' that is, to always give to the other what he wants, is exactly the opposite of the common good, perfectly indicated by Jesus: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' That evangelical precept confirms for us that we cannot want good for the rest if we do not first love ourselves. The same is true for our civilization.

"Contrary to that principle is indifference and multiculturalism that, without any identity, pretends to give all kinds of rights to everyone. A result of multiculturalism was the imposition of social solidity and the development of ghettos and ethnic groups in perpetual conflict with indigenous populations."

The journalist recounted: "This led me to consider the third great binomial of Christian civilization: that regarding rules and values, a key for a possible ethical rescue of modern Europe. The old world, nevertheless, is a colossus of materiality with feet of clay. Materialism is a globalized phenomenon, unlike faith, which is not."

Responding to a question about a possible compatibility between faith and reason in Islam, Allam contended that "unlike Christianity, the religion of God incarnate in man," Islam is made concrete in a sacred text that, "being one with God, is not interpretable."

"The very acts of Mohammed, documented by history, and which the Muslim faithful themselves do not deny, testify to massacres and exterminations perpetrated by the prophet. Therefore, the Quran is incompatible with fundamental human rights and non-negotiable values. In the past, I tried to make myself the spokesman of an Islam moderate in itself."

Regarding interreligious dialogue between Christians and Muslims, Allam said that it is possible only "if we are authentically Christian in love, including toward Muslims. If we make dialogue relative, we will instigate our questioners to see us as infidels, and therefore as land to be conquered."

The journalist emphasized for the students the importance of an education that goes back to transmitting "an ethical conception of life, with values and rules at the center of everything." A negation of such principles, he contended, "is wild capitalism, which, paradoxically, has its maximum development in communist China."

"We cannot conceive of the person in 'business' terms," he concluded, "and we have to find rules of co-existence that are not founded on materialism. We should redefine our society based on being and not on having."

About the author

Paul A. Zalonski is from New Haven, CT. He is a member of the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation, a Catholic ecclesial movement and an Oblate of Saint Benedict. Contact Paul at paulzalonski[at]



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This page is a archive of entries in the Interfaith Dialogue category from December 2008.

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