Reality "Imposes" Christian-Muslim Ties, Says Bishop

Bishop Twal of Tunis Contends Islam Is Not Hopelessly Closed

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BRESCIA, Italy, FEB. 7, 2002 ( Is dialogue between Islam and Christianity still possible? This was the question asked by Bishop Fouad Twal of Tunis, the first Arab prelate of North Africa, during study days for pastoral agents held here.

«Sometimes it entails effort, suffering, the cross, but we won´t give up,» the bishop told the Italian newspaper Avvenire in today´s edition. «Dialogue is the Church´s vocation, and the most effective witness is our life.»

«It is not true that Islam is irremediably closed, intangible, impenetrable,» Bishop Twal said. «I feel like a pastor, not only to my 20,000 Catholics, but to the 9 million inhabitants of Tunisia, almost all of whom are Muslims.»

«We cannot be alongside or against Islam, but together with it,» he added. «We must learn to coexist with Islam. We must do this in a society of Muslim majority, just like the Christians of Europe or other countries, where the presence of Muslim immigrants is increasing.»

He continued: «It is the course of history; it is the demographic, economic and political dynamics that impose on us coexistence with Islam. However, we cannot entrust to politicians alone the end of this coexistence.

«If a Christian reads the Gospel, he finds the reasons for, and style of, the relation. If we reread the conciliar declaration ´Nostra Aetate,´ we see that the Church also looks at Islam with great esteem.»

In practice, the bishop believes it must be a dialogue of life. «I am thinking of the 6,000 Muslim boys who go to our Catholic schools,» he said. «I am thinking of the joint initiatives in favor of the sick, the handicapped and families in difficulties.»

«Charity is a very fertile meeting ground,» the bishop continued. «However, I am also thinking of culture. Our diocesan library is open to all, including Muslims. Among Muslim professors there is increasing interest in studying Christianity directly at the sources and in Christian books. In fact, UNESCO has founded a school of comparative religion in Tunis.»

The presence of the Church in Tunisia is not a question of numbers. «Our presence is not a simple struggle for survival,» the bishop said. «It is a mystery of salvation, suffering and hope. … We Christians are there to witness to the love of God and to support Muslims of good will who appreciate dialogue and want coexistence.»

«When we find fanatic, violent, dishonest men among the Muslims, we must ask ourselves: What would Jesus do for them? And what do we Christians say?» the bishop continued.

«The fruitfulness of the dialogue will depend on Christians´ awareness of their identity,» he said. «This is as true in Tunisia as it is in Europe or the rest of the world.»

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