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Middle Eastern Priest Explains Islam (Part 2)

Interview With Father Samir Khalil Samir by Annamarie Adkins

BEIRUT, Lebanon, MARCH 5, 2009 (Zenit.org).- Father Samir Khalil Samir, a native of Egypt and longtime resident of the Middle East, says he does not fear Muslims.

Knowing their faith and knowing the Gospel, the Gospel cannot fear the Koran, in his expert opinion.

The
Jesuit priest teaches Catholic theology and Islamic studies at St.
Joseph University in Beirut, is founder of the CEDRAC research
institute and is author of, most recently, “111 Questions on Islam” (Ignatius).

Father
Samir spoke with ZENIT about his true concerns: indifferent Christians
who don’t know their faith, and Christians who don’t realize that
Muslim immigration to the West may be the perfect opportunity for
evangelization.

Part 1 of the interview appeared Wednesday.

Q: What are the most common preconceptions about Islam you encounter among practicing Christians?

Father
Samir: The most common preconceptions are rather negative: Muslims are
not modern people; they are not open to others; Muslims are a violent
group — things like that.

You find the same negative
preconceptions when you hear what Muslims say about Christians: They
are unbelievers, pagans, immoral; they are aggressive.

What you
hear about the United States is also very negative: It is
imperialistic, it uses its power to dominate other people, etc.

This
is common in humanity. Each one looks at the other from his point of
view and notices what is different, and the difference is often seen as
negative. As Christ said in the sixth chapter of Luke, verse 41: Why do
you take note of the grain of dust in your brother’s eye, but take no
note of the bit of wood which is in your eye?

So, we have to learn that some differences are negative, some are positive.

We
have different approaches to many things. For instance, the Trinity in
our dogma is the deepest expression of communion with God himself — he
is loving and self-giving. But to Muslims, it is seen as something
awful: three gods.

It makes them think Christians are like the old pagans, seemingly believing in more than one god.

Q: What question are you asked most often in your presentations about Islam?

Father Samir: Mostly, I hear questions about whether a good Muslim can be modern and faithful at the same time.

In
Europe, especially in France, the question is whether Islam is
compatible with a secular society. Another question is whether Islam is
violent; this comes regularly. They wonder if this is something
inherent to Islam, or simply a problem we have today.

Q:
Historically speaking, Muslim lands rarely revert to Christianity or
any other religion, and are generally intolerant of Christianity. Today
we see explosive Muslim population growth in traditionally Christian
lands such as Europe and North America. Should Christians fear the
growth of Islam? What is the proper Christian response to the
constantly expanding Muslim umma?

Father Samir: Muslims rarely
convert to Christianity or other religions — this is true. Even if
we’ve seen in the last 10 years a change, in Algeria they are making
laws against conversion to Christianity. But this does not stop the
conversions.

The same is happening with less intensity in Morocco. In southern Africa, there is much more conversion.

You
can see on YouTube an Al Jazeera clip in Arabic about the conversion of
Muslims to Christianity. The response of the Libyan imam, who is
responsible for the propagation of Islam in Africa, was wondering how
to stop conversions to Christianity, saying that there have been 6
million Muslims converting to Christianity in Africa.

Why is Islam growing in Europe and America? Because Muslims have children.

Recently,
I met one of my former students, an Algerian Muslim, and I asked him
whether he had married and had children. He said he and his wife had
three children, but this was just the beginning of their family.
Meanwhile, you have Western people having one or two and saying that
it’s enough.

What I fear really is the indifference of many
Christians to their own faith. You hear a lot of Christians saying that
it doesn’t matter if you are Christian or Muslim or Buddhist, the main
thing is to love each other.

This is partly true, but you have
to ask yourself, “How do we love each other better? If I really am a
Christian, and living according to the Gospel, I will love better.”

I don’t fear Muslims. Knowing their faith and knowing the Gospel, the Gospel cannot fear the Koran.

Q:
Have you seen an increase in interest among Christians since Pope
Benedict’s famous Regensburg address to gain knowledge and foster
dialogue with Muslims? Is the reverse true as well?

Father Samir: I think the famous address of Pope Benedict at Regensburg was a very important step in the last decade.

The
first reaction was very negative by Muslims; many Christians and
Catholics said it was a mistake. After a while, when all this noise
disappeared slowly, Muslims started to rethink it. Christians also
started to ask themselves why the Pope quoted this sentence from the
14th century.

We all started, Christians and Muslims, to reflect
on what he really said in this address. There was one sentence that was
not wrong but difficult to explain — because you have to go back to
history — but the address was eight pages.

Many in the West then
realized it was very positive, in fact, that the Pope had put his
finger on something very important. Faith is disappearing in the West.
Reason is emptied from its original Greek spiritual meaning. People
think if you can’t prove physically something, it doesn’t exist. Now
people are starting to reflect anew on faith.

In the Muslim
world, the same thing happened. One hundred and thirty-eight people,
lead by Prince Al-Ghazi of Jordan, undersigned a very positive letter
in response to Regensburg — now 300 people have signed it, explaining
that Islam and Christianity have a common double principle: love for
God and for neighbor.

Two years later, in November of 2008, we
had a meeting to discuss the issues brought up in the Regensburg
address, with 30 Muslim and 30 Catholic representatives in Rome.

We
had a wonderful discussion. It was not always easy, but very deep and
open-minded, each person making a great effort to hear the other.

The
last day we had to write a common statement. We came to a point at
which it was impossible to go further — the conflict was so strong –
dealing with the liberty of conscience.

Right before the end of
meeting, before we were going to meet the Pope, Cardinal Tauran,
president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, said,
“Unfortunately, I have to announce something very sad; we couldn’t
reach a common agreement.”

But a minute later, the great mufti
of Sarajevo, imam Mustafa Ceric, representing the Muslim group, came
and said, “I have good news for you: we agreed on point five dealing
with the liberty of conscience.” He explained that it was found in the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights and was undersigned by most
Muslim countries, so there was no reason for the Muslim representatives
to refuse it now.

We made small steps for two days, and on the third day found something to agree on.

We have decided to have a meeting every two years, one time hosted by Muslims and the next time hosted by Catholics.

This is an answer to Regensburg, and it was a very positive one.

Q: What, in your experience, are the most fruitful ways for fostering peace and goodwill between Christians and Muslims?

Father
Samir: I as a Christian know that Muslims are loved by God. God loves
them. This is very important. They are not enemies, they are not
foreigners; they are, as sincere believers, members of our family.

Muslims
are religious people essentially, because a good Muslim puts God above
everything else in his life, normally. The same should be said for
Christians, but I must recognize that often, in the West, Christians
don’t put God above everything else.

When I have any encounter
with a Muslim, I know if I appeal to something religious in his and my
life, we will agree. We will agree on values because we say these are
coming from God.

I know we are all brothers. This is not a
simple assertion; it’s real. We are really brothers. We all descend
from Adam. The intent of Islam is to adore the only God, and they think
they achieve the mission initiated with Abraham through the prophets,
Moses and Christ — and Islam in the achievement.

It’s clear for
me as a Christian that the achievement is in Christ, because he is the
Word of God. After God sent his Word, he cannot send another word, the
Koran, to correct or fulfill his previous Word, Christ.

I
disagree with Muslims that the Koran is the last word of God, and that
Mohammad is the “seal of the prophets.” For me, the seal is Christ and
the Gospel.

Here we disagree, but this disagreement means a Muslim and I are seeking the perfection of God. This is not bad.

There
is no exclusion, but with one condition. I am convinced the perfection
and the achievement of perfection is in the Gospel, but I am also
convinced a Muslim is seeking the same aim and the same God.

In religion, deep belief fosters peace between mankind. That belief does not foster exclusivity.

I
am asking myself, “Why are Muslims spreading so much, are growing in
the Western countries? Why in Europe are there 15 million Muslims?
Would it be better if we didn’t have Muslims there at all?”

The
fact that Muslims are in North America and Europe means that they are
my neighbors. They can find a Bible and open it, and find Jesus Christ.
They can enter into a church; they can participate in prayer with us.

The tragedy is when they don’t find the real Christian who will help them there.

In
the past, we went over the ocean to convert Muslims and maybe it was
almost impossible. Now the Muslim is in my country, my neighbor, and we
don’t do anything.

This is for me a pity. After all of our
efforts for centuries to reach the Muslims, God has sent us Muslims at
home and we pass up the opportunity of sharing the most beautiful
reality we have, Christ and the Gospel.

The presence of Muslims
in the West is the greatest benediction we could hope for. The question
is whether we will open our heart and receive them as our brothers.

I
have a mission toward them, and they think they have a mission toward
me. They know the Koranic Jesus, and I have to show them the
evangelical Jesus.

This is our mission. It is something beautiful and should give us more hope than anything else.

Everything
is providential. There cannot be a very large movement of Muslims in
the world for only economic reasons. God is sending them. Perhaps it’s
the best way for them to discover the true image of God — that God is
love.

Our mission is to testify that God is love and only love.

http://www.zenit.org/article-25273?l=english

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On ZENIT’s Web page:

Part 1 of this interview: http://www.zenit.org/article-25265?l=english

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