Christianity does not contradict Middle Eastern culture
What are they talking about at the Synod for Evangelisation? This article by Sandro Magister tells us that the Bishops have broached the taboo subject of conversions from Islam to Christianity. It makes interesting reading, despite the rather ponderous translation, (read the original here ) and I was particularly struck by this section of it, which I beg readers to consider carefully:
Particularly well developed was the reflection of Archbishop Joseph Absi, auxiliary and protosyncellus in Damascus of the Greek-Melkites in Syria, who noted that the “openness of some Muslims to Christianity, undoubtedly helped by today’s means of communication” and the fact that “some of them have even reached the point of discovering in Christ the loving face of God the Father.”
But since, he added, “The Muslims do not see the difference between Christians and Westerners, because they do not distinguish, themselves, between what is religious and what is political and social. What precedes the Westerners is perceived by the Muslims as preceding the Christians. Now, Western behaviour, especially on the cultural and political level and in a general way, harms the religious and national sensitivity of the Muslims, their values, their ethics and their culture. Consequentially, this forms an obstacle to their openness to Christianity and to their possible evangelisation.”
In fact, he explained, “The majority of Muslims are convinced that the relaxing of mores, the exploitation of weak and poor peoples, the disdain of the Muslim religion that they feel from Westerners, comes from Christians. What can be done to stop the Muslims from confusing Christianity and the West, Christians and Westerners, and to not feel ridiculed and frustrated? The Synod, in its configuration of new evangelisation, should lean towards this question, to learn how to avoid, as much as possible, tensions and misunderstandings and what to do so that the Muslims may be more receptive with regards to the Church and to the Gospel.”
What the Archbishop pinpoints is the problem of inculturation, which is a major point of interest for all missionaries. If Christianity is perceived as a Western phenomenon then it will not be welcomed by people in the Muslim world. But of course Christianity is not a Western phenomenon, but a universal one, and can be joined to any culture without destroying what is good in that culture. Being Christian and being, for example, Syrian or Egyptian, can and do go together. It is simply not true that the Christians of the Middle East are somehow Western plants or the agents of the Great Satan, the United States. In fact, the Christians of the Middle East predate the rise of Islam by many centuries.
History proves this point about inculturation. The Church’s most successful mission was that to the lands of the former Aztec Empire, which were converted to Christianity within a generation, because the missionaries presented the faith as something that would complement and complete the Aztec culture, rather than replace it. The Church’s least successful mission, which made scant progress despite huge efforts in the nineteenth century, was the mission to Japan, which won over few Japanese, who perceived Christianity as a foreign faith, and as alien to their culture.
There has in fact been, I have read, a very successful mission in certain parts of the Muslim world, where many have been won over by Evangelical Protestant missionaries who have presented Christ and Christianity as the fulfilment of Islamic culture, rather than its contradiction. As Catholic missionary theologians always say, Christ comes to fulfil culture, not replace it. Nor do we, in inviting people to become Christian, impose any one culture on them. But this successful mission is not trumpeted abroad, because converting Muslims is, as Sandro Magister observes, a taboo subject.
It is worth pointing out that the Catholic Church has an absolute and God-given right, indeed a duty, to proclaim Jesus Christ everywhere, in season and out of season. So, there should be no taboos. This I think was the reason the Holy Father baptised Magdi Cristiano Allam at the Easter Vigil in 2008, to show us all that this was a perfectly legitimate act. And where the Holy Father leads, we should all follow. We should certainly all of us pray that he word of God be proclaimed ever more insistently among all peoples, Muslims included.