Africana Plus

No34 February 1999.2

Wars of Religion

Holy War or Holy Peace ?

"Dear Prime Minister, at this beginning of this new year I come before you, in my own name and in that of my brother Canadian bishops, and in solidarity with our brother bishops in India, to ask you to intervene without delay with the governmentof India concerning the many attacks suffered by Christian communities in India in 1998. In particular, the violent incidents over the feast of Christmas in the Dang district of Gujarat are disquieting evidence of renewed hostility against minority Christian communities." These words were recently addressed by Cardinal Jean-Claude Turcotte, Archbishop of Montreal, to M. Jean Chrétien, Prime Minister of Canada.

Religious people seem to be getting caught up more and more in wars, often enough dressed up as "wars of religion". We may ask how such things are possible today. The answer is that, whether we personally like it or not, religion is central to human life. Its imminent disappearance has often been confidently predicted, but it remains an important feature of our world, at both the individual and the community level. There have been healthy developments. We have today inter-religious dialogue and common efforts for peace and development. But there has also been retrogression in the rise of various forms of fanaticism.

On 4 December 1998, 23 million Christians in India protested against the growing violence against religious minorities. The protestors refused to work, dressed in mourning, prayed and processed through the streets. Archbishop Alan de Lastic of Delhi was at the head of the demonstration. He recalled the growing violence experienced by Christians over the last two years and blamed it on the passive attitude of the government. Indian citizens of all religions manifested their solidarity with Indian Christians. The Prime Minister of India, Atal Behari Vajpayee, dissociated himself from the violence, declaring that "in India every citizen has the right to practise his own faith, as long as it does not prevent others from doing the same."

Some weeks earlier in Jakarta, capital of Indonesia, religiously-motivated violence had left six people dead, and six churches burned down or damaged by Islamic militants armed with sticks, knives and spears. The reason for these attacks was that Muslims from a neighbouring mosque wanted to close down a Catholic establishment belonging to people from Ambon, capital of the Moluccas, on the grounds that organized gambling was taking place on the premises.

On 14 January 1999 sixteen Westerners were seized as hostages in the Yemen. One of the kidnappers declared: "The War of the twenty-first century will be the war between Islam and the Crusaders". Proudly proclaiming his membership of the Islamic Army of Aden and Abyane, he said that its aim was to wage a holy war against Christians: "I am an Islamic militant. The situation of Muslims, especially in Iraq and the Sudan, is getting worse. Our duty is to wage the Jihad, beginning from Yemen and progressing towards Mecca and the Arabian peninsula."

Abdelfattah Amor, a Tunisian lawyer and member of the UN Committee on Human Rights, has for a long time been studying the impediments to freedom of worship throughout the world. He said recently in an interview with the review Jeune Afrique (14 Dec. 1998): "For political reasons, or sometimes out of simple ignorance, some Muslims make Islam responsible for the worst insanities. You must know than no country has the monopoly of intolerance. Countries which claim to be Muslim are as guilty of intolerance as those claiming to be Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist...There is unfortunately no earthly paradise of human rights. Violations of religious freedom are not found in only one state or in only one religion."

There are many other examples of the persecution of religious or ethnic minorities. We might think of the aborigines of Australia and of the Indians of America, who were not only deprived of their land but also saw their native spirituality despised. Nor can we forget the war between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland.

In Africa on the other hand the real problems are not religious. Africa has a long tradition of tolerance. Within certain countries and certain tribes people with quite different beliefs live peacefully together. In one Senegalese family, for example, the father practises the traditional religion, the mother and one of the sons are Muslims, and another son is a Protestant. This is not however to say that religious quarrels are unknown in Africa. There are proselytisers, both Christian and Muslim, and their activities can sometimes provoke armed conflicts. We might think of the murdered monks of Tibhirine in Algeria, and of the four White Fathers killed in Tizi Ouzou, again in Algeria, because they were Christians.

No one has the right to cast the first stone. It may be that there will always be wars of religion, for there may always be madmen claiming to have the monopoly of truth. Anthony De Mello, an Indian Jesuit, tells a story which says more than many lectures on religious intolerance: "One day the devil was going for a walk with a friend when they saw in front of them a man bending down and picking something up from the road. 'What has he found?' asked the devil's friend. 'A piece of truth,' replied the devil. 'But does that not upset you?' asked the friend. 'Not in the least,' replied the devil. 'I will persuade him to turn it into a religious belief.'"
Intolerance is the fruit of thinking that I alone possess the truth, that I alone am right. It springs from those evil twin sisters, pride and foolishness, and has been responsible for wars and conflicts throughout history.

Even men and women who pride themselves on being people of dialogue can be infected by intolerance. Some, starting from their own conception of truth, organize encounters with others on that basis and easily fall into the trap of thinking that there can be no other way except theirs. When one thinks of the fears and insecurity created by certain exclusive religious systems, one may wonder whether there can really be such a thing as a single valid approach to religious truth. Many religious believers are afraid of the approach of believers from other faiths, often with good reason. Watch out for the new traps of the old trappers, said an Indian Muslim, speaking of Islamo-Christian dialogue. At the same time official Christianity has finally abandoned the ambition of conquering the whole world. There are countries in which Islamo-Christian dialogue has opened up the way to better mutual knowledge and sometimes also to common projects, as Pope John Paul II observed in his Appeal to all the Muslims of the Lebanon on 7 September 1989.

Father Christian Delorme, in charge of relations with Muslims in the French diocese of Lyons, said: "The Catholic Church achieved a real revolution during Vatican II when, in the decree Nostra Aetate, it recognized that all the great religious traditions of mankind were vehicles of divine revelation, manifestations of God in the world. It affirmed that it was unthinkable that God should have deprived whole peoples and cultures of his revelation. The change in the Reformation Churches took place at more or less the same time, and it is now one of the major preoccupations of the World Council of Churches." Thomas Ryan, a Paulist Father and director of the Ecumenical Centre Unitas in Montreal, has spoken of the contribution of the great religious traditions:

"We owe to Islam the stress on the greatness of God and the priority given to God in all things. Islam, or submission to God, brings peace and security in this world and in the world to come...
"We are indebted to Buddhism for its teaching on detachment, for its demand that we think of others, for its insistence on the ultimate vanity of all created things, for its remarkable code of ethics and its sense of individual responsibility, for the spiritual discipline of meditation to purify the spirit, for its compassion for all living creatures and its commitment to non-violence...
"In Hinduism we have a rich tradition of spiritual wisdom, an appeal to benevolence, the science of Yoga, a line of ascetic mystics...
"As for Christianity, we owe to it the sense of divine nearness and intimacy expressed in the Incarnation of Christ, the love of a Saviour who was made man and who freely gave his life for humanity..."

Any one religion's claim to spiritual superiority must be received with great caution. There has to be humility. Every group of believers has its share of saints and sinners. No one can say that he or she is nearer to God or to human perfection simply on the grounds that he belongs to a group which regards itself as blessed and chosen. It is the acts which flow from religion that count, not its profession.

This mutual recognition and acceptance helps everyone to widen his cultural and religious horizons. On 27 October 1986, Pope John Paul II summoned the religious leaders of the entire world to Assisi to pray for peace, each according to his own tradition. Complementing in this way the work of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue, the Pope achieved a truly prophetic gesture whose effects are still being felt. To religions always tempted to seek power, he offered a different vocation, that of showing to modern man a new way of living, a way of concord in respect for differences, of tolerance amid differing convictions, of peace amid variety of cultures. Dialogue between religions is recognized today as an essential ingredient of peace.

There is no such thing as a holy war. Only peace is holy. This was the theme of the final declaration of a meeting on "Men and Religions" organized by the Roman community of Sant'Egidio and held in Bucharest in September 1998. The meeting brought together several hundred delegates from thirty-four countries and from ten different religious confessions. It issued a strong appeal for peace, declaring that to talk about war between religions is an absurdity and a blasphemy in the sight of God. The name of God can never be invoked in favour of war and hatred. For his real name is peace.

Michel Fortin, M.Afr.

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