A tremendous stir was made by the film that Ghanaian cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the pontifical council for justice and peace, showed to the synod fathers during the general assembly of Saturday, October 13. A film found on YouTube that harshly denounced, with unsubstantiated figures, the demographic advance of Islam at the expense of Christianity as well. The cardinal later apologized.
And a stir no less sensational was made by the announcement of the visit to Syria, at the behest of Benedict XVI, of a synodal mission led by cardinal secretary of state Tarcisio Bertone. The dates and agenda of the voyage are not yet known:
What has gone by unnoticed, instead, is what has been said by a number of prelates in reference to an issue that is usually taboo in the public discourse of the Catholic Church. That of conversions from Islam to Christianity.
The issue has been addressed by half a dozen prelates from as many countries, who have offered information and analysis that in some respects has never been heard before.
The first to speak of the question was the Assumptionist bishop Louis Pelâtre, apostolic vicar of Istanbul in Turkey.
"In certain circumstances," explained the prelate originally from France, "the proclamation of Jesus Christ is also possible. The Catechism of the Catholic Church was translated into Turkish as well as other publications. The young generation learns about the faith through the internet. Having practically no access to public radio or television channels, we can however use these private networks used more by the evangelical Protestants than by the Catholics. From this the need for well-prepared and qualified workers for the harvest that awaits us. This specific apostolate cannot be satisfied by good will and improvisation alone."
For his part, the Jesuit Paul Desfarges, bishop of Constantine, and of the ancient Hippo of St. Augustine, in Algeria, himself of French origin as well, noted that Islamic-Christian dialogue is indeed put to the test today "because of the fundamentalist currents," but also "because of a new situation, made of joy and suffering."
"In some of our countries," he explained, "we have been graced with a number of faithful coming from Muslim families. Generally, they had been questioning internally for a long time. These new disciples are sometimes rejected by their own family or must be very discrete. In time, however, they discover that their spiritual history with God began before their conversion and the Spirit had guided them through this or another Muslim person from their background who incarnated the spiritual and human values. These disciples remind us that the dialogue of life is at the heart of the witness of the Gospel."
The topic of conversions from Islam was also touched upon by the leader of the most substantial Catholic community of the Middle East, Maronite patriarch Béchara Boutros Rai, who resides in Lebanon.
"Evangelization is practiced in the Arab countries," he said, "in an indirect way, in other words in Catholic schools, universities, hospitals and social institutions belonging to the dioceses and religious orders open to Muslims as well as Christians. Indirect evangelization is above all practiced via the means of social communication, especially the Catholic ones, that broadcast the liturgical celebrations and various religious programs. We would like to point out some secret conversions by Muslims to Christianity."
Particularly well developed was the reflection of Archbishop Joseph Absi, auxiliary and protosyncellus in Damascus of the Greek-Melkites in Syria, who noted the the "openness of some Muslims to Christianity, undoubtedly helped by today’s means of communication" and the fact that "some of them have even reached the point of discovering in Christ the loving face of God the Father."
But since, he added, "The Muslims do not see the difference between Christians and Westerners, because they do not distinguish, themselves, between what is religious and what is political and social. What precedes the Westerners is perceived by the Muslims as preceding the Christians. Now, Western behavior, especially on the cultural and political level and in a general way, harms the religious and national sensitivity of the Muslims, their values, their ethics and their culture. Consequentially, this forms an obstacle to their openness to Christianity and to their possible evangelization."
In fact, he explained, "The majority of Muslims are convinced that the relaxing of mores, the exploitation of weak and poor peoples, the disdain of the Muslim religion that they feel from Westerners, comes from Christians. What can be done to stop the Muslims from confusing Christianity and the West, Christians and Westerners, and to not feel ridiculed and frustrated? The Synod, in its configuration of new evangelization, should lean towards this question, to learn how to avoid, as much as possible, tensions and misunderstandings and what to do so that the Muslims may be more receptive with regards to the Church and to the Gospel."
The approach or conversion of Muslims to Christianity was not only spoken of by prelates from Arab countries, but also by pastors from Africa and Europe.
The Italian Vincentian Cristoforo Palmieri, bishop of Rrëshen in Albania, in fact spoke of the urgency of the "evangelization of Muslim brothers who had and still have Christian roots, and who show themselves to be open to the proclamation."??While Raphaël Balla Guilavogui, bishop of N'Zérékoré in Guinea, revealed how at the diocesan youth days organized in his country "even some Muslims are present."
Particularly dramatic was the observation of John Ebebe Ayah, bishop of Ogoja in Nigeria, who emphasized how "many of our Muslim brothers and sisters long to convert to the Christian faith but cannot achieve this, for fear of losing their lives."
As can be seen from these contributions, the phenomenon of conversions from Islam to Christianity seems still to be rather limited in number and strongly opposed by a Muslim world that in almost all of its components is still incapable of tolerating the right to change religions.
In an interview on Vatican Radio in French on October 16, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, president of the pontifical council for interreligious dialogue, reiterated that "the great problem lies in the fact that in countries where Muslim law is that of the majority, as of now no Muslim accepts that the freedom to change religion, or to choose it, should be inscribed in a legal text."
And he added: "In all of my conversations with Muslims, many of them well-disposed, this has been a taboo subject."
The right to change religions has, on the other hand, been tranquilly incorporated into the world of Christian tradition. With sometimes surprising results, like the spike in conversions to Islam that is being seen in Haiti, pointed out by the Associated Press and a news item also in "L'Osservatore Romano."