Page 9, 19th March 1999

19th March 1999
Page 9
Page 9, 19th March 1999 — The Christian faith in Muslim lands

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The Christian faith in Muslim lands

ARCHBISHOP CAREY'S recent Catholic Herald interview was widely reported not only in this country but in America and throughout Europe — for his forthright warning that he and Cardinal Hume would not be attending the inaugural ceremonies at the Millennium Dome if these celebrations contained no space for Christian prayer.

His remarks had clearly been well prepared. Less well remarked was a potentially much more important undertaking, equally thoroughly premeditated: his intention to speak out soon on the issue of what he called "reciprocity" of toleration between Muslims and Christians. "Here in Britain and in Western Europe," he told The Herald, "Muslims have freedom to build their Mosques and to have their schools. They are free to worship. Christians are free to convert to Islam if they so wish. In places like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, other parts of the world, Muslims may not convert to Christianity, and Christians are suffering."

Now, at the "Thanksgiving Assembly" of world faiths, currently taking place in Dallas, Texas, Dr Carey has developed his ideas on toleration. He has repeated his demands for reciprocity in admirably forthright language. "Why", he asks, "should it be regarded as wrong for a Pakistani or Egyptian Muslim to convert to Christianity if they so wish without personal harm? Why should not Christian churches be free to share their faith in predominantly Muslim countries?"

Dr Carey's project has been well thought out, and, as he told The Herald, developed in consultation with Cardinal Arinze, President of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue. We may be sure that the Holy Father has not avoided this thorny topic in his recent conversations with President Khatami of Iran.

Persecution of Christians is not, of course, confined to Muslim countries. Under the present aggressively Hindu government of India, hundreds of violent attacks on Christians — including the rape last year of four Catholic nuns in Madhya Pradesh — have been carried out with impunity. But the problem is most widespread in Muslim countries, most obviously because there are more of them.

Violent confrontation between the two faiths is not, of course, a new problem. The Crusades on the one hand and the attempted Islamic conquest of Europe on the other will always form part of the inherited memory of Christians and Muslims when they attempt to build a new understanding.

Another important part of the continuing problem is that both faiths see it as belonging to their fundamental nature to convert the unbeliever. So we will always be rivals. There are, nevertheless, in both religions, traditions that can be built on. Islam is a warlike faith, but it has also shown tolerance, historically, for Jews and Christians as "people of the book". As Fr John Rooney, a missionary in Pakistan, wrote in The Herald last year, the law of Sharia towards Christians can be interpreted in a tolerant sense. "A benign administration", he wrote, "might strengthen the Christian community. A bigoted administration would be dangerous. Christians fear the latter outcome". So far, the story of our times has borne out these fears, not only in Asia, but in Africa and the Middle East too. There are still countries in which Muslim converts to Christianity are stoned to death.

Nobody asks that either Christians or Muslims should renounce their character as proselytising faiths. But they each have a right to demand of the other that they should be faithful to what is best and holiest in their respective histories, and not to what is most violent and degrading.

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