This summer saw heartbreaking acts of violence throughout the world, especially in the Middle East, with the near eradication of Iraq’s ancient Christian communities by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the execution of American journalist James Foley. Atrocities can shock us into silence and feelings of helplessness, but, as Washington’s Cardinal Donald Wuerl recently insisted, these events intensify our duty to speak out. Last month, the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Dialogue spoke out with a statement reaffirming our commitment to dialogue with Muslims.
For many, this might seem counterintuitive. Dialogue in the face of savage, unreasoning violence? Engagement with the religion many people automatically (and wrongly) blame for this violence? But the bishops insist that “the most efficient way to work toward ending or at least curtailing such violence and prejudice is through building networks of dialogue that can overcome ignorance, extremism, and discrimination and so lead to friendship and trust with Muslims.”
This is not only about countering the violent extremism of a group like ISIS, but building a future in which the seeds of such extremism wither and die rather than take root. Pope Francis has repeatedly urged dialogue among all people as a way of leading to understanding and friendship and as “the only way to peace.”
The quest for understanding, friendship and peace must also take place in our communities and in our parishes. In July, Newsweek reported that Islamophobia in America is on the rise. This is tragic, especially since one lesson we should take from these recent horrors is the danger posed to the whole human family whenever any minority, religious or otherwise, is perceived as an evil or a threat. It’s crucial that Catholics understand and espouse what was articulated at the Second Vatican Council and reiterated by popes ever since, our respect and affection for our Muslim brothers and sisters.
The official dialogues the U.S. bishops have pursued over the years with Muslim organizations in the United States have reinforced this bond. And Muslim leaders in the United States, including the Islamic Society of North America and the Muslim Public Affairs Council, have been resolute in their condemnation of the violence in Iraq and Syria. For them, the violence in these countries carries the added twinge of pain that Christians should feel when we see people, in this country or elsewhere, using our religion as an excuse for slander, bigotry or other inhospitable acts.
Unjust aggressors must be stopped, as Pope Francis has recently asserted. And especially in these moments of global turmoil and trauma, the bishops are convinced that dialogue with people different than ourselves “offers the best opportunity for fraternal growth, enrichment, witness, and ultimately peace.” On a large scale, Pope Francis calls this process building a culture of encounter. Our response to evil and violence cannot be fear of others. Fear destroys everything it touches. By continually strengthening relationships with those of differing cultural, social and religious heritage, fear is overcome.
Bishop Madden, auxiliary bishop of Baltimore, is chairman of the Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.