London Calling: Dialogue In A Time Of Terror

Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald's job involves dialogue amid danger.

In our day and age, easy assumptions about other religions are being challenged as never before. In the wake of the July 7 London transit bombing, reports of British street gangs targeting Muslims showed that some blamed all Muslims — not just terrorists — for the attacks.

Register correspondent Edward Pentin spoke to Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. The archbishop is England's leading curial official.

What kind of toll has the last few weeks taken in England?

We feel very much for all the people who have been personally affected by these tragic events, who have lost members of their family, or who have people in their family or friends who are seriously injured, and we assure them of our prayers. We pray that this may not weigh on their hearts, that they will come out of this with peaceful sentiments, with a feeling of gratitude of those who have taken care of them — so many of the public services have been wonderful in how they've gone about things — and to be full of gratitude for the lives that have been spared. We pray they will take this as a resolve to build up a more humane community.

So you think the moderate branches of Islam could come into closer relationship with the Church following such events?

Since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, many Muslims have felt the need to explain what Islam is. As they reject what certain Muslims are doing, so they feel the need to explain that Islam is really a religion of peace, and they are looking for help from Christians in that explanation. This has been going on in different parts of the world and this will only reinforce these attempts.

So good can come, even from this?

That is very often what happens from sad events — they help to create solidarity. We saw the solidarity evoked by the recent tsunami, and even by 9/11. But of course there is that element of suspicion, and that is where the interreligious dialogue comes in, to facilitate contacts between people, so that suspicion can be overcome.

I've only felt that [suspicion] once in my own life, being of Irish origin, and that was at the time of the Birmingham bombs [an atrocity committed by the Provisional IRA in 1974] and I think it was the only time one felt that because you were Irish, you were suspect. It's very rare. We know from our Muslim brothers and sisters, particularly those of Middle Eastern origin, [that they] are very often subject to this sort of suspicion. Of course we shouldn't be naïve about this, but certainly a blanket suspicion is unjustified.

But most people realize that it's a very small minority, don't they?

I hope so, yes.

Some experts in Islam say Muslim religious leaders need to do more than just condemn these atrocities, and take more concrete action. Do you agree?

I think action has been very often taken by Muslims, but it doesn't always get the publicity. I remember that after 9/11, the mosque council in Britain sent a letter to all the mosques asking them to be careful and to be sure about the people who come to the mosques. That didn't get any publicity at all. They really wanted their communities to be communities of prayer and not to be centers of intrigue and terrorist cells.

I think the Muslim communities are aware of this. There are Muslims who are speaking out, but very often they are not listened to on a wider scale. I suppose all of us have more to do — declarations about poverty are not enough. We have to take action as well. Here, maybe the same thing applies.

Yet some say these attacks point to something defective in Islam — even some Muslims have begun to question their faith because of them. What is your view?

Well they're not the only ones doing this [committing such atrocities]. You have bomb attacks in Corsica, you also have ETA placing bombs [in Spain]. We don't say there's something defective in Christianity because they're doing this. The difference is that Muslims that are doing this are appealing to Islam to justify their action. But as we know, other Muslims will say that is not legitimate — it's a misuse of Islamic principles and the Koran.

So just as Christianity can be abused, so is Islam in these cases?

Most of the terrorist activity perpetrated by Christians is not done in the name of Christianity, so that's one of the differences. But there are terrorist attacks and kidnapping of civilians — it's going on all the time. You only have to think of Latin America, where there are armies fighting against the forces of government. We don't think of these as Christian wars and are right not to do so. But we also attribute these [recent] attacks to Islam, and so we have to be careful there.

Were the Crusades of Christian motivation?

There were all sorts of motivations for the Crusades. The Crusades are, of course, still vivid in the subconscious of Muslims. They still feel the kind of oppression of these invaders who were coming to free the Holy Places — that was the official reason for the Crusades, but there were other motivations, too. That is a whole area of history where we would have to look at it together, Christians and Muslims, but look at it calmly on the basis of the sources and perhaps make a new assessment.

Where wrong has been done, we ask for pardon from God for the wrong that has been done, but of course there was an Islamic expansion as well. Christians have suffered from that expansion, and we have to look at that, too.

Are you nevertheless hopeful and optimistic that relations with Islam will improve in spite of these atrocities?

I am always hopeful, because that is a virtue we have to have, and whatever setbacks befall, we cannot despair. We have to rebound, as it were. I am hopeful, from what I've heard and seen, that communities that have established relationships do not want to be divided by such events. They don't want to let this interfere with what is going on.

There are groups of Christians and Muslims who are meeting regularly and coming together. I was reading an example just this morning of a Catholic school in Birmingham that is offering one of its classrooms to the Muslim community because they haven't a mosque; they're building a mosque. And because they're going to pray in this school, they're meeting regularly; they have organized, regular meetings until the mosque is built. Then we hope the meetings will continue.

I heard about a similar thing in the United States, in Chicago, not with Christians but with the Jewish community. The mosque had had an open day, and had welcomed people of the area, and a Jewish rabbi came to this open day and made contact with those responsible for the mosque.

When this synagogue was being refurbished and [the Jews] couldn't use the synagogue, they asked if they could use the Muslim premises for their Jewish prayer, and they were accepted. This has developed a good relationship between the Jewish and Islamic community in that particular area. These are signs of hope, definitely.

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.