By Jean-Louis de la Vaissiere (AFP)
Vatican City – Fears of Islamic extremists, precarious relations with Muslims and secret conversions to Christianity sparked concerned debate at a global synod in the Vatican of Catholic bishops around the world.
Dozens of bishops from the Middle East and Africa expressed concern during the three-week synod, which ended on Sunday, over the threats extremist Islam poses to Christianity and spoke of the difficulties of preaching the Gospel in majority Muslim countries.
Others raised the delicate topic of converting Muslims to Christianity on the back of the Arab Spring revolutions, saying there was a small but growing demand from Muslims to convert, though the risks to their safety were high.
The debate intensified after the bishops were shown an alarmist YouTube video on the spread of Islam in the West by Cardinal Peter Turkson, head of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, who had found it on the internet.
The anonymous video, entitled “Muslim demographics,” which says France would become majority Muslim within the next four decades, was heavily criticised by many participants who warned against fuelling inter-religious hostility.
One German bishop, however, insisted that the video raised important issues that the Church is refusing to see or address.
Catholic Copt bishop Kyrillos William said Egypt in particular was seeing a growing Islamisation of the state and “Christians are considered second-class citizens” and are targets of hate campaigns in schools.
Many participants said Islam was “exploited” by extremists who twisted the religion’s values, while the majority of Muslims are tolerant of Christians.
African bishops from Nigeria, Mali, and even the south of the continent, where Islam is a minority, said they were worried that peaceful coexistence with Muslims is being threatened by Salafists receiving funds from abroad.
During a trip to Lebanon last month, Pope Benedict XVI called for mutual respect between Christians and Muslims across the region in a period of particular unrest as the political face of the Middle East changes radically.
The Arab Spring uprising has opened a window for conversions among dissatisfied young Muslims in particular, some of the bishops said.
While the issue of converting Muslims had been raised at previous synods it is the first time that bishops have been speaking publicly about it.
“Something’s happening that is linked to the Arab Spring. People are asking questions, no longer satisfied by the common message in the mosques,” said Paul Desfarges, who has lived in Algeria for 38 years and became a bishop in 2009.
However, he acknowledged that the risks for those doing so are high: abandoning your faith to embrace Christianity is severely punished and those found guilty can face the death penalty in some countries.
Others, such as the Syrian Archbishop Joseph Absi, warned that many Muslims were confusing Christians with Westerners, blaming them for their ills.