In light of the murders of two high profile Catholics leaders who strongly believed in inter-religious dialogue, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran is emphasizing the value of communication for peaceful coexistence.
Bishop Luigi Padovese, the leader of Catholics in Turkey, was stabbed to death in June 2010 in the city of Iskenderun by his chauffeur, Murat Altun, under circumstances that are still under investigation.
Authorities immediately said that the murder was not politically-motivated. Local Catholics continue to appeal for a legal process to take its course to discover Altun's true motivation. Religious extremism has not been discarded.
Cardinal Tauran was on hand March 4 at Franciscans' Pontifical Antonianum University in Rome to help with the inauguration of a new professorship for spirituality and inter-religious dialogue in memory of Bishop Luigi Padovese.
The French cardinal, who is the head of the Vatican's council for inter-religious dialogue, spoke about seeking “genuine” relations and mutual understanding between religions and cultures during his address at the "Antonianum."
After the event held in Bishop Padovese's memory, he spoke of the murder of another Catholic who was committed to improving Christian-Muslim relations.
Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan's minister for religious minorities, was assassinated by Muslim extremists in Islamabad, Pakistan on March 2. His opposition to the country's “blasphemy law,” which is designed to prevent any offense to Islam or its prophet Muhammad, put him on extremists' radars. Christians are frequently the victims of false accusations under the law, as Muslims seek to get even with those they hold grudges against.
Bhatti was aware that his life was in danger. Salman Taseer, the Muslim governor of Punjab, was murdered in January for opposing the same federal law, which carries the punishment of death or life in prison.
Cardinal Tauran's voice was filled with sadness as he recalled Bhatti's murder. “Evil,” he said, was behind the killing.
Al-Qaida and the Pakistani Taliban Movement claimed responsibility for his brutal murder. His body was reportedly riddled with between 25 and 35 bullets.
Cardinal Tauran remembered the last time he met with the minister. It was just before Christmas, when he paid him a visit in Pakistan. They had met with moderate Muslims to speak about religious liberty and solidarity during his three-day trip.
Just before the cardinal boarded a flight back to Rome, Bhatti told him, “I know I will die assassinated, but I am happy for the truths of Christ and inter-religious dialogue.”
His murder shocked the world, but especially local Christians in Pakistan. The nation's bishops have already pledged to pursue his cause for martyrdom in Rome. For his part, Cardinal Tauran will preside over a memorial Mass for him in Rome on March 6.
He was a champion for equal rights and religious freedom. Like Bishop Padovese in Turkey, Bhatti tirelessly promoted communication between Islam and Christianity to achieve peaceful coexistence and solidarity between citizens.
Cardinal Tauran suggested that the threat of being misunderstood exists everywhere. Even in Europe, he told reporters, there is a threat of “Christianophobia.”
“We shouldn't be disillusioned,” he said. “Christianity has always been combated because Christ 'disturbs'.” He said that Christian values and evangelization are “in contradiction” to a prevailing secular mentality in many parts of the world.
Christians “must not accept these circumstances” of persecution, “because they are occasions for us to give witness,” said the cardinal.
Even in places where Christians are small percentage of the population, “we need to have the courage to say that even though we are often in the minority, we are a minority that counts.”
The cardinal offered his solidarity with Pakistani Christians, who, “feel completely unprotected” after Bhatti's murder. It is a situation where, “for the moment, the dark side dominates,” he said.
Vatican spokesman, Fr. Federico Lombardi, expressed his gratitude to both Bhatti and Taseer in his weekly Vatican television editorial. “Both,” he said, “were killed for the same reason: because they opposed the blasphemy law, a law that is truly blasphemous in itself, because it is the cause of injustice and death in the name of God.”
Their assassinations "paradoxically also inspire a bit of hope because they associate a Muslim (Taseer) and a Christian (Bhatti) in blood spilled for the same cause," he said.
"It is no longer only dialogue of mutual knowledge or dialogue in common commitment for the good of people. From dialogue in life they pass on to a dialogue of their witness in death ... so that the name of God it is not twisted into an instrument of injustice," the cardinal reflected.
Cardinal Tauran noted that he is seeing “steps forward” in inter-religious dialogue worldwide. One area is a wider acceptance and appreciation for Catholic schools.
He recounted the example of a diplomat from a majority Muslim population who approached him recently to say thank you for the Catholic education he received. 'Everything I know, I know thanks to you ... and I must say that I was never the object of proselytism.'
"I think it's the most beautiful comment that could be made," said Cardinal Tauran.
During his address earlier, the cardinal noted some obstacles to a true understanding of Christianity. For example, he underscored the ongoing problem that some history schoolbooks in the Muslim world refer to Christians as “unbelievers.” Such references, he said, are “not OK.”
Believers are called to promote an authentic solidarity, a peaceful coexistence and inter-cultural dialogue, said the cardinal.
By working together and promoting mutual understanding, all believers in one God can work together in a world that has “too many gods,” he said. The monotheistic religions have a responsibility to propose a united front, said the Vatican's head for inter-religious relations. “We believers, especially Jews, Christians and Muslims, have this mission to remember with the coherence of our lives that 'man doesn't live by bread alone'.”
The cardinal hoped that Pope Benedict XVI's Day of Prayer for Peace planned for Assisi next October will be an opportunity for another step forward. The Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue plays an important role in organizing and preparing for the event.
“We hope that this is also inspirational,” said Cardinal Tauran.
“Between dialogue or barbarity, we choose dialogue.”