The Crescent on the World

Traces begins here a continuing, multi-part exploration of the complex world of Islam. The problems, contradictions, and possibilities for peaceful co-existence under the sign of true ecumenism. For us this is a necessary deeper study toward a consciousness of history whose purpose is the glory of Christ


Islam is the religion that has spread more widely than any other during this century. This is supported by statistics, as the map on this page documents analytically. The growth trend is caused both by a significant increase in the birth rate in the Islamic countries and among emigrant Moslem communities, and by the success of the dawa, the mission for the dissemination of the faith which "generates" numerous conversions and is one of the strong characteristics of this religion. But Islam is also culture, society, and state, and it presents itself on the international scene as a protagonist capable of effecting a synthesis between these elements and of challenging modernity and secularization. The relationship with the variegated realities of the Islamic world is one of the most controversial and at the same time fascinating aspects against which Christians throughout the world measure themselves, beginning with the lands of the Middle East where the three great monotheistic religions have their historical origin. With this issue, Traces proposes a serial journey of discovery of the challenges and problems, but also of some significant experiences of co-existence between Moslems and Christians. The first part, published here, is devoted to Europe, where Moslem communities that have been established for centuries have been joined by others resulting from the influx of immigration to the continent beginning with the period after World War II. What kind of integration is in store for the followers of Mohammed in secularized Europe? What does a dialogue with them mean to Christians? We speak of this here with two scholars who give us an introduction to an understanding of the problems involved: Dr. Andrea Pacini and the Egyptian Jesuit Fr. Samir Khalil Samir.

Andrea Pacini

Foundation Agnelli

Dr. Andrea Pacini is the scientific director of the Laboratory of Research and Cultural Relations at the Agnelli Foundation in Turin. He is the author of ComunitÓ cristiane nell'islam arabo, la sfida del futuro [Christian Communities in Arab Islam, the Challenge of the Future], and L'islam e il dibattito sui diritti dell'uomo [Islam and the Debate on the Rights of Man], published by the Agnelli Foundation in 1996 and 1998

Islam is by now our next-door neighbor, even if it is often perceived as a foreign body. Eleven million Moslems in the European Union, around 700,000 in Italy, almost all of them immigrants. What can we do to prevent conflict and to foster their insertion into society?
The recipe is not easy to prepare, but it is called integration. The European countries must promote an education of their citizens which can act as a barrier to the creation of ghettos based on ethnic and religious reasons and can contribute to the creation of an open society, in which cultures can express themselves while respecting common rules. For the younger generations, the role of the schools is fundamental, as they are the place where the process of integration begins in terms of language and culture; but more generally speaking, it is necessary to incentivize all the measures that draw immigrants closer to the civilian society, to its services, to its ways of feeling, because it is not enough to have a house and a job, it is not enough to "be" in Italy in order to feel a part of it. On the other hand, it is easy to fall into demagogy, but this must be avoided: granting citizenship in juridical terms (which some have vaunted as the panacea to all ills) is only the end point of a process of integration; it cannot become a label that we attach to people to "declare them" legally integrated.

What are the critical points where the distance between culture and mentality is felt to be the greatest?
Given that the laws in Islamic countries are very different from ours, I believe that the greatest difficulty comes in the conception of marriage and the family, in the relationship between men and women, which is not conceived on a level of equality but gives the dominant role to the husband, who can unilaterally repudiate his wife, and also in questions of inheritance, which favor males over females. But the fundamental question is another one: while the European civil and penal codes sanction rights and duties that are assigned to the individual, Moslems, following Islamic law, reason in terms of the community. Thus, the danger is that society be reconstructed on the basis of belonging to religious or ethnic groups, instead of starting from rights that belong to persons as such. But freedom cannot depend on the profession of a religious creed; either it is for everybody or it is not freedom. Here is a meaningful instance: the so-called "March for the Chador" held in Turin at the end of October. The real aim of this initiative was not to permit women to have their pictures taken for their identity cards wearing their veils (this possibility has been recognized for years by a Ministry of the Interior circular, so long as the facial features are recognizable), but a demand for greater elasticity in the granting of residency permits. This is a civil question, regulated by specific laws that go above and beyond religious considerations. Yet the march in Turin ended under the Prefect's windows with a recitation of an Islamic prayer and the shout "Allah is great." Now, what would you say if a group of Filippinos organized a demonstration for residency permits, carrying in procession a statue of the Virgin Mary? You see, Moslems have to face the unresolved question of a secular state, which does not mean relegating faith to a private dimension, but rather not letting it determine the behavior of institutions to the point where religion, society, and the state overlap as in Islamic countries, causing numerous problems .

In a phase of history in which European states recognize (or are getting ready to recognize) the rights of millions of immigrants coming from Islamic countries, shouldn't this be accompanied by a commitment on the political and diplomatic level to promoting religious freedom in those countries, in the name of reciprocity? And what role can the European Union play in this direction?
More than reciprocity in a strict sense, I prefer to speak of recognition of the fundamental rights of man, among them freedom of religion. I consider it reductive to propose, as some do, to link recognition of the rights of Islamic immigrants to obtaining analogous treatment for Christians in Islamic countries, which turns into things like: if you want to build a mosque in this Italian city, you have to let me build a church in your country. We have to find the courage to go to the root of the problem, demanding respect for the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Man and the subsequent conventions signed also by many Islamic countries, but ignored in practice. In the name of this, we must require not so much reciprocity as equality of treatment for everybody. To stay close to home, I recall, for example, that the Euro-Mediterranean Conference in Barcelona in 1995 committed the states who signed it (including the twelve with shores on the south side of the sea) to promote democracy and human rights in their respective legislations. Another card to play is to tie the agreements for economic cooperation being drawn up in this period to guarantees of democratic evolution and freedom (including the religious dimension) in the countries receiving economic aid. The European Union and Europarliament, too, should be more forceful in this sense, for example tying the development programs in favor of certain countries to the promotion of civil and religious rights for all their residents. Instead, on these topics, I fear I have to note a practically total absence also on the part of political figures in Europe who claim to follow Christian ideals. The Pope is still one of the few who continue to call for freedom for all.

Samir Khalil Samir


Fr. Samir Khalil Samir teaches at the UniversitÚ Saint-Joseph in Beirut and the Pontificio Istituto Orientale in Rome. He is one of the world's leading experts on Arab-Christian culture. He has been studying the relationship between Islam and Christianity for more than forty years and is director of the series "Patrimonio culturale arabo cristiano" ["Arab-Christian cultural heritage"] published by Jaca Book

Dialogue is a word as important as it is misused and misunderstood. What are the conditions for creating a fruitful dialogue between Christians and Moslems?
Given that, more than a hobby for a few intellectuals, dialogue is a necessity dictated by history, which every day brings millions of followers of the two faiths together throughout the whole world, I believe that this must be "demanding" and respect certain conditions, failing which it remains, instead, anonymous and unproductive. Weak broth doesn't appeal to anyone; what is needed instead is a strong charge of authenticity on both sides. Presenting only a part of one's faith or reducing its depth out of a fear of offending, disappointing, or dividing-as is done by certain Christians, who basically are acting out of an inferiority complex-is like telling a lie, and could reinforce in their Moslem counterparts the conviction (widespread in the Islamic countries) that the Christian is a believer who has not yet accomplished the journey toward the full truth, revealed only in the Koran. On the Christian side, it is important to testify that faith and modernity are not enemies, that the Church cannot be assimilated with the image of a West that is hostile to the Arab world or to Islam, that democracy is not opposed to religion, that the principle of citizenship granted to individuals brings with it also the protection of minorities, without however becoming a sort of faceless, undifferentiated multiculturalism in which identities are erased. I am convinced that if all this becomes the heritage of the Moslems who have put down roots in Europe, over time it could bring about important changes in the mentality and social organization of their home countries. But on the part of Christians, there must not be equivocal attitudes or misunderstanding, as has happened in recent years, even in good faith, also in Italy.

To what are you referring?
I will give just one example, but it's a fairly meaningful one. In the name of brotherhood or hospitality, rooms in parish halls or even space in churches have been given to Moslem communities, forgetting that the mosque is not a Moslem church. For the followers of Mohammed, it is much more than a place of worship: it is the site of social gathering, of reinforcement of their common identity, of making judgments on society and of re-examination of all that happens in the light of the Koran, and often also of transmission of political beliefs and orders. And we must not forget that according to Islamic thought, once a place has been made sacred it can no longer be deconsecrated: in Egypt groups of fundamentalists have gone at dawn onto land owned by the Coptic Church, spread their prayer rugs and prayed, consecrating that spot to Islam and making it de facto impossible to build a church there. You see how everything risks becoming terribly equivocal, to the point of leading people to believe that making space available for prayer is the equivalent of abdicating one's faith and implicitly recognizing the superiority of Islam.

What is the reason for the Western fascination with Islam, which goes well beyond the conversions (in reality amounting to a few thousand persons) that have nonetheless taken place also in Italy?
Some time back, an authoritative Moslem sheik, Fadlallah, speaking on Beirut television during an encounter with Christians, said that the democratic system reigning in Europe represents the best chance for the spread of Islam throughout the continent. Freedom is a chance that anyone can use, but he must have a plan; it seems that Moslems have a social and political plan and Christians don't have one. I note that in Europe there is a new demand for strong proposals that transmit certainty and offer something new, while indifference is growing toward a way of living one's Christianity that is open to a thousand compromises; an indifference that no longer has the courage to say what is good and what is bad, and does not communicate certainty in a world where skepticism has become the rule, as instead Moslems seem to do, at times even boasting of more than they actually possess. You see, the principle of freedom of religion and, more in general, freedom of conscience, which is a conquest of the Western world, has been degraded into a misunderstood "tolerance" that can become religious indifference and is translated into an attitude by which all opinions have the same value, negating at its roots the mind's capacity to evaluate and to make a judgment. For European Christians this is the moment of a dual challenge that comes from Islam (especially in its radical versions) and from secularization: Islamists shout "faith" as though it were a magical formula and point to modernity as the devil that corrupts religious purity; supporters of a secular state reply that faith is an obstacle to modernity, a brake on the use of reason to its full capacity. The Christian who lives faith in all its dimensions is both secular and believer at the same time, and can testify that faith and reason go hand in hand, that the believer does not have to give up anything of modernity, except the claim that he can do without God, and that in order to believe, he has no need of a confessional State.

Bouteflika in Rome

Tuesday, November 16th, in a classroom at the La Sapienza University in Rome, the students met the president of Algeria. The topic: "Trialogue and Reconciliation in the Mediterranean." Among the guests was Senator Giulio Andreotti


A lesson on peace at the UniversitÓ della Sapienza in Rome. With a unique, highly authoritative teacher, Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Invited to the University of Rome by the students, Bouteflika (who the day before had been received by the Pope) explained to them how religion, the three monotheistic religions, sometimes hastily accused of causing conflicts both old and new in the area of the Mediterranean, represent instead an enormous mine of dialogue and a great potentiality for the construction of a lasting peace. But this can come about only if the decision is made to take action based on the true reasons for the conflicts: the exploitation of the south by the north, the development that has not taken place, the debt that is suffocating the poorer nations. His talk was clear, profound, and at times exciting. At the end of the talk, the students did not hesitate to respond to the invitation of Raffaello Fellah, President of the Association for Trialogue Between Catholics, Moslems, and Jews, by giving a prolonged standing ovation for the special and very welcomed guest. On the podium to greet the President were the students' representative who promoted the encounter, Angelo Chiorazzo; the Rector of the University, Giuseppe d'Ascenzo; and the Dean of the Faculty of Letters, Emanuele Paratore. Giulio Andreotti, greeted with applause by the more than 500 students crowded into the meeting room, took a place in the front row, next to the film director Gillo Pontecorvo, another guest of honor with something relevant to say, if for no other reason than the fact of having directed "The Battle of Algiers." The Rector, before beginning to speak, invited Andreotti, as an "illustrious ex-student," to his side, later passing the microphone to him. "Peace," said Andreotti, "passes through an understanding among the great monotheistic religions." He called for "a reciprocal overcoming of diffidence." The prophetic figure of Cardinal Duval comes to mind, a witness for the Church as Bishop of Algiers and a great worker for peace. Bouteflika spoke highly of him, even declaring himself willing to testify if a process of canonization is opened for the Cardinal. The Algerian President, who had stated at the Meeting in Rimini that he was proud of being a fellow countryman of St. Augustine, recalled how Mediterranean culture, "from Pythagoras to Seneca, from Aristotle to St. Thomas, from Pasteur to Descartes to Einstein, is so interwoven as to render any division artificial." And "even if we Algerians have to understand that development cannot be bought, and that the process is not brief," it is necessary to work together "to remove injustice, selfish interests, the true threat to peace." "But I ask myself," Bouteflika concluded, "where have the values of brotherhood of the great religions gone, if even though there are resources sufficient for all, there is still so much poverty and hunger around?"