PARIS — Islam and the Muslim minority in France are taking central stage in the annual congress of the French Roman Catholic Church, with the election of a new Cardinal raising questions about the future of interfaith dialogue in the country.
“This is the first time that the issue of French Muslims is discussed at great length at an official conference of French bishops,” Christophe Roucou, the director of the Church’s national office for relations with Muslims, told IslamOnline.net on Tuesday, November 6.
He said the six-day conference, which wraps up on November 8, has three committees that tackle three major issues related to Islam and French Muslims.
“They discuss Muslim-Christian marriages given their increasing rates in France,” Roucou elaborated.
According to unofficial estimates, there are around 90,000 inter-faith marriages in France, making up some 28 percent of all marriages.
Roucou said two other committees are taking up conversion to and from Islam in France as well as training bishops and church officials on Islam and Islamic culture.
The Interior Ministry has recently put at 50,000 the number of French Christians who embraced Islam.
France has an estimated Muslim minority of six million, the largest in Europe.
Roucou said the Roman Catholic Church is dealing with Muslims as a fact of French life.
“They are no longer mere immigrants who came to study or work,” he explained.
“It’s a reality that should be dealt with seriously and we should engage in a genuine dialogue with French Muslims.”
But the French bishop contends that any dialogue should steer clear of religious issues.
“It should deal with everyday life,” he explained. “When we talk about French Muslims we mean their burning issues like mosque building and freedom of religion.”
Roucou said the conference’s organizers have circulated among the bishops copies of a letter signed by 38 scholars from across the Islamic spectrum inviting Christian leaders worldwide to a constructive dialogue.
The initiative has so far been welcomed by Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, Lutheran World Federation head Bishop Mark Hanson, World Council of Churches head Rev.Samuel Kobia, but received an apathetic response from the Vatican.
“Father André Armand Vingt-Trois is known for encouraging dialogue with Muslims,” said Roucou of the just elected Cardinal of French bishops.
“He will follow in the footsteps of his predecessor.”
Born in 1942, Vingt-Trois served as Archbishop of Tours from April 1999 until February 2005, when he was appointed Archbishop of Paris.
He will be elevated to the College of Cardinals in the consistory at St. Peter’s Basilica on November 24.
“I don’t want to jump to conclusions, but the new Cardinal is known to have had close links with late Cardinal Jean Marie Lustiger, who made no secret about his opposition to interfaith dialogue and was a staunch supporter of Israel,” bishop Michel Le Long told IOL.
He recalled that Vingt-Trois visited Israel this year at an invitation from the government, disregarding Israeli aggressions against Palestinians.
“The visit raised the ire of French Catholic bishops, prompting Vingt-Trois to embark on another visit to meet Palestinian officials and priests.”
Le Long hoped the new Cardinal would take practical steps to promote dialogue between France’s Muslims and Christians.