What Chance Does A Missionary Have In A Muslim Country?
An interview with Archbishop José Antonio Peteiro Freire OFM
Of Tangier, Morocco. By ZENIT (www.Zenit.org)
The lack of religious liberty in some Muslim countries raises the question of whether a missionary can function at all in a nation dominated by Islam. In this interview on 3 February 2003 Archbishop Freire says the key to the answer is in witness.
Q: Let’s begin with the fundamental question: Is it possible to be a missionary in a Muslim country?
Archbishop Peteiro: St Francis sent five Italian Franciscans to Morocco. The Franciscans preached the Gospel openly and declared that Islam was a false religion and that Mohammed was a false prophet They went to the mosques in an insulting way, and this is why they were killed the following year, 1220.
In 1219 St Francis went to meet the Sultan in Damieta, near Cairo, and asked that Christians be allowed to visit the holy places. The fact that he went out to meet the Sultan was, undoubtedly, a prophetic action.
At the height of the Crusades, when the Muslim and Christian armies were confronting each other, Francis had difficulties in getting the permission of the papal delegates, named Pelagius, to meet with the Sultan. In fact, however, he treated him well and gave him a golden trumpet.
Our presence among the Muslims has two purposes. The first is to help Christians to be true disciples of Jesus. In the second place, St Francis wrote in 1221 a 23-chapter rule. Chapter 16 talks about ‘those who go among the Saracens and other infidels.’ The text says: ‘So, therefore, any Brother who wishes to go among the Saracens and other infidels, must go with the permission of his minister and slave . . . Moreover, the Brothers who go and live spiritually among themselves in two ways. One, not promoting disputes and controversies, but submitting to every creature for love of God . . . and confessing that they are Christians. Another is that when they see it is pleasing to God, they should proclaim the word of God so that they, the infidels, will believe in the Omnipotent God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit . . .’
The first way is always valid in any circumstance. With regard to the second, Francis cautions, ‘When they see that it is pleasing to God.’ It does not always please God that we proclaim the Gospel by word. It might cause dispute and quarrels.
Q: In Morocco, there is freedom of worship for Jews and Christians, but all proselytism and conversion to Christianity is prohibited. What can a missionary do where evangelization is explicitly impeded?
Archbishop Peteiro: The Christian must be a universal brother, open to all without distinctions, preserving his own identity, but establishing bridges of respect, friendship, solidarity with the whole world. This is another way of evangelizing, perhaps more costly and more exacting than that by word. We are called to live evangelical values like love, justice, forgiveness, solidarity with everyone, especially with the poorest.
Q: Has the situation of Christians in Morocco changed since Sept. 11, 2001?
Archbishop Peteiro: A prayer meeting was organized for the victims in the cathedral of Rabat. The Moroccans government is with the United States. However, the people have protested against the Americans. The Moroccans tend to identify the West with Christianity, hence their rejection of both concepts.
Q: Is there room for interreligious dialogue in Morocco? What relation can be established with Muslim religious leaders?
Archbishop Peteiro: Muslim religious leaders are convinced that Islam is the religion of God. They tend to speak only Arabic and avoid interreligious dialogue because, according to them, they have nothing to learn from other religions. However, with some cultural institutions, some NGOs, in the sports, artistic, cultural and educational realms there tends to be interesting cooperation that promote the country.
Q: How does a country with 99% Muslims benefit from the Christian presence?
Archbishop Peteiro: The fact that the Christian presence is permitted in Morocco is enriching for the country. First of all, it means that there is a certain variety in Moroccan society, which, in my opinion, benefits all and is a positive sign.
Moreover, the Church offers multiple services to the poorest sectors of the population. In addition, it exposes society to other languages, cultures and civilizations in the world of literature, the arts and sciences, which represents a richness for the country.
It is too bad that religious liberty is not accepted in any Muslim country. What is more, Tunisian historian Mohammed Talbi said recently that, given that they live in dictatorial regimes, the reformation of Islam will come from minority Muslim communities that live in the West, which is where there is freedom.
Q: What characteristics would you highlight of the work of the Friars Minor in Muslim countries?
Archbishop Peteiro: Someone has said that it is a charism within the Franciscan charism. Of course, w have been living with Muslims for about eight centuries. Only for two periods – of four years each – were we expelled from Morocco.
In the course of these eight centuries, we find different types of friars: the martyrs, the friars at the service of captives, peace mediators, those dedicated to pastoral ministry, those who worked in the country’s development. Among others, mention should be made of Father Joseph Lerchundi.
The service to captives in Marrakech, Fez and Mequinez was impressive, where they lived with the prisoners, shared the same dungeons with them, that is, an underground, vaulted, lugubrious and damp place. Inside these dungeons, the religious had their own living quarters, a chapel and infirmary. They shared all the problems of the captives and tried to help them with all the means within their reach.
Since 1217, the Holy Land mission is considered the ‘pearl of the missions.’ The Holy See has entrusted to the order the charge of the custody of the holy places, the promotion of divine worship in them, the fostering of pilgrims’ piety, the carrying out of evangelization, and the establishment and promotion in the apostolate of works of a social character.