Rome, July 4th, 2007. Piazza dei Santi Apostoli. It’s 20.00. A crowd is gathering. Journalists are already at work. They interview some people. They take pictures. They are all there: religious leaders and political leaders, and anonymous, the Jewish community of Italy, the friends of Israel, pro-Palestinians, the Pakistani Catholic community in Rome, the pro-Christian roots (radici cristiani), radical youth (azione giovanile)… The stage speaks for itself. At the back: “let us save Christians”. At the right: “Religious freedom in the world”. At the left: “free Padre Bossi” (an Italian priest kidnapped in the Philippines).
21.00. Somebody starts speaking. He goes right to the point: “we are here to claim the right to live, a peaceful life for thousands of Christians in the Middle East”. We are here to denounce the living conditions of Christians in the Middle East, to support them, to affirm strongly the right to unconditional religious freedom for any human being wherever he or she is. The message is clear and is echoed by bursts of applause. The MC, a journalist, speaks clearly, loudly enough to raise the dead, passionately enough to convince the skeptics: basta e basta! We have been silent too much, accomplices for too long! Now we want religious freedom for Christians in the Middle East!
Then speakers came one after the other to the microphone to deliver the same message with different accents. An American Jew reminds us of how far violation and negation of religious freedom can go: the shoah. Let’s do something before evil shatters us. The director of Asia News gives a panoramic view of the catastrophic situations: Christians in the Middle East are running away in search of a bit of peace on this earth, peace that they heard about, but don’t know what it means because every day they face insults, mockery, discrimination, marginalisation, arrest, fear, and death…it is not a fairy story out of a “Thousand and One Nights”. It is the bitter reality of people who have names, whose only sin is to have the wrong faith! Another Catholic, from Communion and Liberation, will also be realistic: let’s get things right. We are dealing with survival, survival of Christians, our survival, the survival of the human race. To save the Christians in the Middle East is to save ourselves. Their peace is ours, their death is ours. None of the politicians present spoke. Any support for the cause is welcomed but the organisers (journalists) made a choice not to make politicians speak because it was not a political forum.
And finally Magdi Allam spoke. He had the last word. He is the man and the mind behind the event. Muslim, of Egyptian origin, he has the charisma and militant spirit of Sayd Qutb but for a just cause. Journalist, he is the Vice President of a great Newspaper in Italy, the Corriere della Sera.
He is also clear and will not beat about the bush. He cries his anger in front of the tragedy of Christians in the Middle East, their exodus and persecutions and the absence of religious freedom. He bursts out and uses strong words: “basta! We are here to say basta (enough) to the profaner of religious freedom and to the desecrators of a God transformed into an ideology of hatred, violence and death! ” With passion he claims freedom, religious freedom and peace for everybody, for every human being, everywhere in this world. He denounces any discrimination. He flogs religious -isms: fundamentalism, extremism, radicalism…for destroying our world by sowing seeds of violence, hatred and fears.
He accuses Christian Europe of denying its own identity, of laxism, relativism, carelessness, complicity, silence, and compromise…with evil. Magdi and many others like him cannot stand it anymore: wake up, stand up for who you are, for your Judaeo-Christian roots. If you have no identity somebody else will impose his identity on you. He cannot stand it anymore to see so much lies and so much hypocrisy. Enough of death, fear, lies, hypocrisy, and cowardice! Any human being has the right to live and to live peacefully. He says: “the hour of clarity of reality has come, the hour of the courage of truth, the hour of the choice of good and of the determination to realise the joint interest of all who share human civilization where religious freedom is never put in question.”
He praised the Pope for his clear positions and his appeals for respect and reciprocity between people in dialogue. Magdi would not miss the chance to express his disappointment of Catholics and even Catholic Church leaders who dissociated themselves from Benedict after his lecture at Ratisbone. It’s worth listening to Madgi: “Is it not so if even Pope Benedict XVIth, for having affirmed the historical truth of the diffusion of Islam through the sword in the 7th century and for having invoked the link between faith and reason in his magisterial lecture at Ratisbone on 12th September 2006, found himself against the whole of Muslim world, from the so-called moderates to the terrorists? Is it no so if the pope ended up by finding himself almost isolated even inside the Christian West, condemned by secularists who are in the front line to sustain the fundamentalists and extremists Islamists, and more seriously the Pope found himself criticised by some of the first leaders of his own church who invoked reasons of opportunity that to their view should have counselled Benedict XVI not to express freely his thought, even if it coincides with the historical reality and the objective truth.” What a challenge!
Magdi is really profoundly touched. He suffers from the suffering of Christians. Why? There is in this man a great passion: a passion for life, a passion for human dignity, a passion for human freedom! He could have limited himself in writing reflections in newspapers! Why this involvement, this commitment at the expense of his own life (he moves with bodyguards!), at the expense of his family? Maybe because he believes in Allah, ar-Rahman, ar-Rahim, the Merciful the Compassionate! He goes as far as to identify himself with all those who are suffering, all the victims of human barbarity. He ends by shouting with all his voice and from the depths of his heart: “today, faced with the systematic persecution and the mass exodus driven and imposed to the Christians of the Middle East, we cannot but say we are all Christians, we are all Christians, we are all Christians”. [Magdi Allan converted to Christianity and was baptised by pope Benedict XVI in 2008]
23.00. It’s over. We have all dispersed. I head home thinking. Two sentences bounced about in my head. When Jesus entered Jerusalem people were shouting. The words were very annoying to the religious leaders. And some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.” He said in reply, “I tell you, if they keep silent, the stones will cry out!” (Luke 19,39). I think of the demonstration in Paris in honour of the seven monks of Tibhirine and the missionaries assassinated in Algeria in 1996. We could read on one banner: “If we keep silent, the stones will cry out!” Yes, if we keep silent about the suffering of Christians in the Middle East, the stones will cry out.
Then I heard a second sentence from the mouth of another passionate man, Cardinal Lavigerie, in his fight against slavery. In Rome, maybe also in Piazza dei Santi Apostoli, he will declare in 1888: “I am a man, injustice towards other men revolts my heart. I am a man, oppression makes my nature indignant. I am a man, cruelties against such a great number of my fellowmen inspire me only horror. What I would like people to do to give me back my freedom, my honour, the sacred family ties, I want to do it for the sons of this unfortunate race (black), family, honour, freedom”.
I wish our commitment to interreligious dialogue will help to improve the conditions of all of us wherever we live. Let’s take our own little steps to achieve this.