2005: Celebrating Nostra Aetate as Riots Rocked France

The results have been extraordinary.

On Oct. 28, 1965, the Second Vatican Council issued its great Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate). Turning away from conflicts of the past, the council called for mutual patience, dialogue and cooperation among people of different religious traditions.

The last four decades have seen a vast improvement in Catholic-Jewish relations. Christians have worked to purify their faith of anti-Jewish prejudice and to rediscover the Jewish roots of their own religious identity. In fact, more honest interreligious discussion has occurred since the council than at any time in the previous 1,700 years.

But real dialogue requires a hunger for peace from all parties, a commitment to the truth and a desire to sincerely understand and honor other persons and their beliefs. Not everyone shares that goal. The global encounter between Christians and Muslims remains especially difficult.

On Oct. 26, 2005, almost exactly four decades after the release of Nostra Aetate, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, president of Iran, called for Israel to be “wiped off the map” in a talk to 3,000 chanting Islamic students. Of course, words don’t kill people. But in Ahmadinejad’s case, they spring from a tradition of invoking the concept of jihad in a way that can and does,

Three days after Ahmadinejad savaged the Jewish state, Muslim extremists in Indonesia beheaded three teen-age Christian girls and badly wounded a fourth.

The murders were the latest in a long history of bombings and assassinations directed against the Christian community in central Sulawesi, an Indonesian province. Similar patterns of anti-Christian violence and discrimination can be found throughout much of the Islamic world: Egypt, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sudan, Saudi Arabia and even in Muslim areas of the predominantly Catholic Philippines.

Islam is obviously deeper and richer than its periodic relapses into “holy war.” Nor can the vast majority of the world’s Muslims be held responsible for the inhumanity of a brutal minority. But at this moment in history, the temptation to violence in Islam is beyond doubt. It led Pope Benedict XVI to speak against terrorism to Muslim community leaders — with good will but also candor — in Germany during World Youth Day.

His words were prophetic. When massive rioting swept France in November, media analysts were quick to blame the unrest on social and economic injustices felt by the large French Muslim minority, many of them recent immigrants. That explanation is surely in part true. Unfortunately, it’s also inadequate and typically secular in its refusal to admit the power of religion in shaping human behavior.

Radical Muslim proselytizing has been going on in French prisons and among the country’s lower classes for years. In December 2004, nearly a year before the recent riots, French authorities voiced frustration at their inability to block a steady stream of television and radio hate-mongering being poured into France by outside Islamic sources.

The New York Times reported, as just one example, that “Al Manar, a popular Arabic channel run by the Hezbollah militia out of Lebanon, beams its anti-American, anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic messages by satellite into thousands of homes, restaurants and shops throughout France every day.”

Shortly after the 2005 French riots, musing on their religious implications, one influential European Catholic scholar wrote privately that:

“[Muslim immigrants] were accommodated on the calamitous assumption that they would be as easily assimilated as Italian, Polish, Spanish or Portuguese immigrants. That was wrong, of course, precisely because [of their religion]. But prevailing French dogma was that the secular republic could integrate just about anyone, and that religion made no difference. Islam is a post-Christian heresy, with a unique, transcendent divinity, but no Incarnation or redemption — a very strange blend of Far Eastern impersonal mysticism, watered-down Judaism and rigid formalism.

“This is a mystery that challenges our Christian understanding of global history. What no one dares face is that those people can and should become Christians. There are quite a few converts, though, and unexpectedly boys more than girls: something that deserves some meditation. But this is generally kept secret. The Church asks [converts from Islam] to keep quiet, and public opinion is not ready to confront this anyway. To put it otherwise: The French cannot yet think of any other kind of integration than conversion to the local variety of secularism — which, of course, is not so tempting.”

If the 40th anniversary of Nostra Aetate has proved anything, it’s that the task of building mutual respect and understanding between Christians and Muslims is more urgent now than ever before. But that can only be done in a spirit of truth. Downplaying or misrepresenting the very serious differences between the two religious traditions does not serve real dialogue.

The same week Iran’s president endorsed the annihilation of Israel and militants committed the grisly murders in Indonesia, I received an invitation in the mail from a local “Abrahamic Initiative” — a group of sincerely motivated local people seeking to build bridges among the three great Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It’s a vital, worthy cause. But the featured event was a talk on “Fundamentalism: Christianity and Islam.” On the invitation card was a cartoon equating a gun-toting Islamic extremist and evangelical pastor Jerry Falwell

Unless I’m mistaken, evangelicals don’t behead teen-agers. And real dialogue — the kind that leads to genuine mutual understanding — cannot proceed from falsehood.

Francis X. Maier is a former

editor of the Register.