On Friday 1 February, the UN begins the observance of Interfaith Harmony Week. No one knows better than CNEWA how important interfaith harmony is and how difficult it is to achieve. Many of the places where we work are the scene of discrimination and outright persecution, not only of Christians but of other believers. In Iraq and parts of Syria Christians, Yazidis, Shabak and others have been massacred by the Islamic State. Egypt is the scene of ongoing sporadic violence against all types of Coptic Christians. In India there has been an increase in violence against Christians. There has, of course, been a long tradition of violence between Christians and Muslims in northern India.
Over the years, the Pew Research Center has documented persecution of and discrimination against all faith groups. The situation throughout the world is not getting better. One of the more disturbing findings is that most of the persecution and discrimination occurs in countries with some type of religious marker in their self-identification. Looked at in the broadest of terms, Pew’s record of religious persecution and discrimination is a record of one religious group behaving badly against another religious group.
It is very important to avoid two extremes here. One extreme would blame religion for all the persecution and conflict in the word. The other extreme is for religions to excuse themselves and to declare that their members who are acting violently against others are “politically” motivated and not really good believers. This is becoming increasingly untenable morally. Very few conflicts are purely political, purely economic or purely religious. Most often, they are a mixture of all three. However, it has been shown that conflicts that have a religious element tend to be more intractable and more difficult to solve than those lacking a religious element. Religions can provide powerful symbols which can demonize the other and rend compromise something akin to apostasy.
No religion is free of these tendencies to discriminate or even persecute. In Muslim majority countries, we find violence by Muslims against religious minorities. The Muslim Rohingyas of Burma are suffering greatly at the hand of Burmese Buddhists, a religion which supposedly values non-violence. In India Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Christians are often involved in persecution and conflict. In Russia, non-Orthodox Christians are legally discriminated against by fellow Christians who are orthodox.
On 31 March 2005, at the opening of the Exhibit of the World’s Religions at Santa Clara University in California, the famous German theologian Hans Küng made a statement which has been repeated hundreds of times and which perfectly encapsulates the meaning and importance of World Interfaith Harmony Week: “There will be no peace among the nations without peace among the nations.”
This is a truth which CNEWA experiences every day in the places where we work. Interfaith dialogue leading to interfaith understanding, harmony and cooperation has also been a constant teaching of popes since the Second Vatican Council. St. John Paul II even made interfaith dialogue a key part of his very first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, (The Redeemer of Man), when he wrote about the legacy of Vatican II in 1979:
“The Fathers of the Church rightly saw in the various religions as it were so many reflections of the one truth, ‘seeds of the Word,’ attesting that, though the routes taken may be different, there is but a single goal to which is directed the deepest aspiration of the human spirit as expressed in its quest for God and also in its quest, through its tending towards God, for the full dimension of its humanity, or in other words for the full meaning of human life. The Council gave particular attention to the Jewish religion, recalling the great spiritual heritage common to Christians and Jews. It also expressed its esteem for the believers of Islam, whose faith also looks to Abraham.”
We need to take these words to heart; they help remind us that working for interfaith harmony is part of what it means to be a Catholic in the 21st century.