Muslims should be free to convert, says cardinal, after death threats
Jun 26, 2008
A leading cardinal has called on the Islamic world to allow individual Muslims "the freedom to convert" to Christianity, arguing that this does not threaten Islamic identity.
(Times Online, June 25, 2008) The baptism in Rome at Easter of Magdi Allam, an Egyptian-born Italian Muslim journalist, by Pope Benedict XVI, caused outrage in parts of the Muslim world. This week death threats to Mr Allam and Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian Prime Minister, were posted on a website said to be close to al-Qaeda.
At an inter-faith meeting in religious freedom organised in Amman, the capital of Jordan, by the Venice-based Oasis Centre, Cardinal Angelo Scola, the Patriarch of Venice said that no-one, "not even Muslims", had the right to impose "the identity of community" to the point where it "violates the human freedom of the individual, included the freedom to convert".
Oasis was founded by Cardinal Scola five years ago to create an international network promoting inter-faith dialogue. Speaking at the conference, attended by over 80 delegates from 20 countries, he said that "in our globalised society, tension between religious freedom and the traditional identity of a people is becoming more and more troubling." This was not in itself new, as "the rich history of Venice and its millennial relationships with the Muslim Levant" showed.
But "the impressive trade and cultural exchanges that La Serenissima engaged in with the East involved only a limited elite. The overwhelming majority of people were deeply rooted in their traditional identity.Today it's not like that any more."
The" disturbing question", Cardinal Scola said, was "what happens to the identity of a community if a sizeable number of people begin to call it into question, either because they come from another religion or because they convert to another religion."
In some countries with Muslim majorities those born into another religion were tolerated, but "the identity of the people concerned would appear to be threatened if a Muslim asks to convert." The attitude of Muslim rulers was "if you want to leave Islam, you have to leave the country."
Modern Western societies by contrast saw religious freedom as "the prerogative of the individual, an inalienable right, to be sure, but something with no public relevance, as if religion was only an individual matter and not a fact of a community and a people."
Consequently Westerners felt threatened when Muslim immigrants formed a religiously cohesive bloc in the heart of Western societies. The answer was for both the Western and Eastern worlds to find a third way and achieve the "right balance" between religious freedom and the identity of a community, Cardinal Scola said. "Christians don't want to pose a risk to the basis of social relationships in countries with a Muslim majority, but, and let us be clear about this, they ask in return the same kind of respect for our own traditions from those arriving here."
As for the right to convert, "In the end, what good can truth receive from keeping within a religion people who do not believe in it anymore?" Cardinal Scola asked. Deserting one religion for another was more honest than continuing to take part in a faith "for the sake of appearances".
Cardinal Scola quoted an Egyptian Dominican scholar as saying "I do not study Muslim culture in order to destroy it. Why should I destroy it? It is something that is beautiful in itself. It should be appreciated."
Vatican officials said that Cardinal Scola had met Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad of Jordan during the conference to pave the way for the first Catholic-Muslim Forum, convened by Pope Benedict and to be held in October in Rome.
Hasan Abû Ni'mah, head of the Jordanian Royal Institute for Inter-Faith Studies, said that dialogue between the world's great faiths based on common moral and human values was the only alternative to a "clash of civilisations" involving "war, death, violence and terrorism".
Monsignor Gabriel Richi Alberti, director of the Oasis Centre, told the Catholic website ZENIT that "In the West we are witnessing a sort of paradox. On one hand, we energetically affirm freedom of conscience and religious liberty. On the other hand, religious experience runs the risk of being considered something that belongs only to the private and personal sphere, without any public relevance. " Conversely in other societies "the public dimension of the religious experience is amply recognized but runs the risk of forgetting that truth is proposed and not imposed."