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April 28, 2017

Accent on Muslim-Christian relations -
Pope Francis in Egypt -
Canadian bishops' statement on opioid crisis and drug addiction

In this edition:
1. The pope visits Egypt.
2. A dialogue for peace.
3. Listening, key to dialogue.
4. Christians and Muslims after 2035.
5. Current quotes to ponder:
a) Syria today.
b) The opioid crisis.
6. How Easter counteracts pessimism.
7. Fear's grip on immigration debate.

1. The Pope in Egypt Accents Dialogue, Peace

"It is our duty to unmask the peddlers of illusions about the afterlife, those who preach hatred in order to rob the simple of their present life and their right to live with dignity, and who exploit others by taking away their ability to choose freely and to believe responsibly," Pope Francis said in a speech to government leaders and diplomats in Cairo shortly after he arrived in Egypt April 28 for a two-day visit.

The "nameless victims of various forms of terrorist extremism" clearly were on the pope's mind during his Egypt visit. For the visit took place with the memory fresh in mind of this year's Palm Sunday terrorist violence against two Coptic Orthodox churches in Egypt that resulted in many deaths of Christians.

Egypt has "a singular task, namely to strengthen and consolidate regional peace even as it is assaulted on its own soil by senseless acts of violence," Pope Francis told the government leaders. Among those he mentioned were the Palm Sunday "victims of the attacks on Coptic churches" in the cities of Tanta and Alexandria.

In a video message to Egypt's people several days before his visit, Pope Francis said that his ecumenical and interreligious visit resulted from invitations by both the Coptic Orthodox patriarch and the Coptic Catholic patriarch, as well as from the nation's president and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the leading center of learning for Sunni Muslims.

A majority of Egyptians are Sunnis, Catholic News Service noted. Christians represent a minority of perhaps 10 percent to 15 percent of the population, and the majority of Christians are Coptic Orthodox.

The pope wanted the visit "to be a witness of my affection, comfort and encouragement for all the Christians of the Middle East, a message of friendship and respect for all the inhabitants of Egypt and the region, and a message of brotherhood and reconciliation with all the children of Abraham, particularly the Muslim world, in which Egypt holds so important a place."

He hoped the Egypt visit might "make a fruitful contribution to interreligious dialogue with the followers of Islam and to ecumenical dialogue with the venerable and beloved Coptic Orthodox Church," he added. He would come, he stressed, "as a friend, as a messenger of peace."

"Our world is torn by blind violence, a violence that has also struck the heart of your beloved land. Our world needs peace, love and mercy. It needs peacemakers, people who are free and who set others free, men and women of courage who can learn from the past in order to build the future, free of every form of prejudice. Our world needs people who can build bridges of peace, dialogue, fraternity, justice and humanity," he stated.

Speaking to Egypt's governmental leaders April 28, Pope Francis insisted that "no civilized society can be built without repudiating every ideology of evil, violence and extremism that presumes to suppress others and to annihilate diversity by manipulating and profaning" the name of God.

The pope said that the nation's president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, had "spoken of this often . . . with a clarity that merits attention and appreciation."

2. Egypt Visit: Unmasking Violence

"Violence is the negation of every authentic religious expression," Pope Francis told Muslim and Christian participants in an International Peace Conference at Al-Azhar University in Cairo shortly after his arrival in Egypt April 28. Al Azhar is an esteemed center of learning among Sunni Muslims.

Religious leaders are called "to unmask the violence that masquerades as purported sanctity and is based more on the 'absolutizing' of selfishness than on authentic openness to the Absolute," the pope said. "We have an obligation," he continued, "to denounce violations of human dignity and human rights, to expose attempts to justify every form of hatred in the name of religion and to condemn these attempts as idolatrous caricatures of God."

"Together, let us affirm the incompatibility of violence and faith, belief and hatred," the pope exhorted the conference. However, he affirmed that religion "is not meant only to unmask evil." Religion also "has an intrinsic vocation to promote peace, today perhaps more than ever."

He said, "Our task is that of praying for one another, imploring from God the gift of peace, encountering one another, engaging in dialogue and promoting harmony in the spirit of cooperation and friendship."

Pope Francis commented on the essential need for interreligious dialogue in his Al Azhar speech. "In the field of dialogue, particularly interreligious dialogue, we are constantly called to walk together, in the conviction that the future also depends on the encounter of religions and cultures," he remarked.

Dialogue, the pope explained, encompasses respect for one's own identity, as well as the identity of others and an acceptance of differences. "Those who are different, either culturally or religiously, should not be seen or treated as enemies, but rather welcomed as fellow-travelers in the genuine conviction that the good of each resides in the good of all," he said.

He expressed concern that without "the civility of encounter," society will be left with "the incivility of conflict." In order effectively to counter "the barbarity of those who foment hatred and violence," Pope Francis accented the importance of accompanying "young people, helping them on the path to maturity and teaching them to respond to the incendiary logic of evil by patiently working for the growth of goodness."

3. Muslims and Catholics: Key Role of Listening

Four British Muslim leaders met April 5 with Pope Francis in Rome. One of the Muslim leaders, Moulana Sayed Ali Abbas Razawi, called it "an important meeting offering hope for everyone, regardless of religion."

Accenting the "common humanity" of all, Razawi observed that "some seek to divide people, religions, East vs. West." However, "there is no East or West; there is just our common humanity as we seek a peaceful future for all based on justice and compassion," he said.

Speaking to the group, Pope Francis focused on the importance of listening in human interaction. "I like to think that the most important work we have to do today -- among us, in humanity -- is the work of listening: listening to each other," he said. And it is vital to listen to each other "without rushing to give a response." This means "welcoming the words of a brother, of a sister, and then thinking to offer my own," the pope said.

What is interesting, Pope Francis commented, is that "when people have this capacity for listening, they speak with a low, calm voice." But when they lack this capacity "they speak loudly; they even shout."

However, "among brothers and sisters . . . we all must speak, listen to each other and speak slowly, calmly, seeking the path together."

"When you listen and you speak, you are already on the right path," he said.

Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster, England, brought the four Muslim leaders to Rome, where they met the pope and visited the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. The cardinal hoped the meeting would serve to "help the voice of authentic Islam to be heard clearly."

One of the Muslim leaders, Moulana Muhammad Shahid Raza, called the meeting with the pope "a historic moment when the two biggest religions in the world, Christians and Muslims, must come together in unity and solidarity for peace."

Today, when violent incidents often dominate news reports involving Muslims, Cardinal Nichols remains a strong proponent of interreligious dialogue. After a February incident in London, he said in a BBC interview that it is important to keep two things in mind when such violence erupts.

First, he said, it is essential to be clear "that we utterly condemn and reject . . . mindless violence," which has "no justification" and "no credibility."

Second, said the cardinal, "we have to make sure we do not give space, in our response, to hatred. If we make enemies out of people who are our friends, then we are falling into the very trap that the violent people want us to fall into. So there is no space for hatred for those who are our friends."

4. World's Christians and Muslims After 2035

"The share of Christians worldwide who live in sub-Saharan Africa is expected to increase dramatically between 2015 and 2060, from 26 percent to 42 percent," according to a study published April 5 by the Pew Research center titled "The Changing Global Religious Landscape." Meanwhile, it said, "religious switching and lower fertility will drive down the shares of the global Christian population living in Europe and North America."

Trends suggest "that much of Christianity's future growth is likely to be in the global South, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa," said the Pew center.

It also projects that sub-Saharan Africa will by 2060 "be home to a growing share of the world's Muslims," with 27 percent of the global Muslim population "living in the region, up from 16 percent in 2015." At the same time, "the share of Muslims living in the Asia-Pacific region is expected to decline over the period from 61 percent to 50 percent."

The Pew study is not restricted to future patterns of growth in the numbers of the world's Christians and Muslims, but its findings in this area seem to be of particular interest today.

The Pew study paints a picture of the comparative numbers in the not too distant future of Christians and Muslims worldwide. "Babies born to Muslims will begin to outnumber Christian births by 2035," it projects.

"Between 2015 and 2060," it notes, "the world's population is expected to increase by 32 percent, to 9.6 billion. Over that same period, the number of Muslims -- the major religious group with the youngest population and the highest fertility -- is projected to increase by 70 percent. The number of Christians is projected to rise by 34 percent, slightly faster than the global population overall yet far more slowly than Muslims."

Though "more babies were born to Christian mothers than to members of any other religion in recent years, reflecting Christianity's continued status as the world's largest religious group," this pattern "is unlikely to be the case for much longer," according to the Pew study. In fewer than 20 years "the number of babies born to Muslims is expected to modestly exceed births to Christians."

Muslims, it says, "are projected to be the world's fastest-growing major religious group in the decades ahead." It says that "signs of this . . . already are visible."

It observes that "globally, the relatively young population and high fertility rates of Muslims lead to a projection that between 2030 and 2035 there will be slightly more babies born to Muslims (225 million) than to Christians (224 million), even though the total Christian population will still be larger." By the year 2060, it says, "the count of Muslims (3 billion, or 31 percent of the [world's] population) will near the Christian count (3.1 billion, or 32 percent)."

5. Current Quotes to Ponder

Syria Today: "[In Damascus], every 20 minutes, day and night, we heard explosions very close by. . . . It is a sign that unfortunately the war continues and that people are living constantly in insecurity. There is a psychologically very difficult climate. I admire the courage and the determination of the Christians who do not want to leave their country. . . . In Aleppo the situation is shocking. In my lifetime I have visited other war zones, especially in Africa, but what I saw in Aleppo exceeds anything you can imagine. I have never seen anything like it. The eastern part is completely destroyed and empty. Streets, houses, buildings: everything has been destroyed and razed to the ground. Many people are in serious difficulty: The elementary things are lacking: water, food, fuel." (Franciscan Father Michael Perry, minister general of the Friars Minor, speaking in a Terra Santa interview published April 20, 2017, with Giuseppe Caffulli. Father Perry visited Syria and Lebanon this spring.)

Canadian Bishops on Society's Opioid Crisis: "The current [opioid] crisis has roots in a practice, adopted by many physicians some 20 years ago and promoted by the pharmaceutical industry, of addressing chronic pain by prescribing highly addictive opioids (e.g., oxycontin, oxycodone and fentanyl). While this practice may have been warranted in some cases, it quickly became overused. In 2014 alone, for instance, Canada saw nearly 22 million opioid prescriptions filled. It is hardly surprising, then, that many of these patients are now addicted. . . . The medical community is now beginning to acknowledge that far greater prudence and discernment are needed when prescribing highly addictive medications for pain management and other medical uses. . . . This problem affects all of us, so we must all have a share in the solution. Archbishop J. Michael Miller of the Archdiocese of Vancouver (it is this city which is at the epicenter of the present overdose crisis in Canada) has recently published a pastoral letter on the topic. He invites ordinary Canadians to consider how they may play an active role in the solution through a variety of possible means: urge elected officials to give the overdose crisis the attention it deserves, emphasizing the need for more treatment and residential care for those addicted; call for more education around safe-prescribing practices; ask the federal government to tighten regulation of opioid manufacturing; advocate for improved pain management training for physicians and care providers, and better management of chronic pain for all; promote support services in parishes and entities, such as 12-step programs and other recovery methods; support police in doing educational presentations in schools and communities; and contribute financially to organizations on the front lines of this battle." (Excerpts from the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops' April 12 "Statement on Canada's Opioid Crisis and Drug Addiction.")

6. So Many Are Mirrored in the Two Marys' Faces

In the faces of "Mary Magdalene and the other Mary" (Mt. 28:1), who went to see the tomb on the first Easter, it is possible to catch a glimpse of the faces of many today who, "walking the streets of our cities, behold human dignity crucified," Pope Francis said in his homily for the 2017 Easter Vigil in St. Peter's Basilica.

His homily cautioned against growing "accustomed to living with the tomb, living with frustration" or accepting the world's injustice -- all the while knowing "that things can be different."

The risen Christ wants "to break down all the walls that keep us locked in our sterile pessimism, in our carefully constructed ivory towers that isolate us from life, in our compulsive need for security and in boundless ambition that can make us compromise the dignity of others," he remarked.

The faces of the two Marys reflect "any number of other faces," the pope said. They reflect:

"The faces of mothers and grandmothers, of children and young people who bear the grievous burden of injustice and brutality."

"All those who, walking the streets of our cities, feel the pain of dire poverty, the sorrow born of exploitation and human trafficking."

"The faces of those who are greeted with contempt because they are immigrants, deprived of country, house and family."

The faces of the two Marys call to mind all the mothers today "who weep as they see the lives of their children crushed by massive corruption that strips them of their rights and shatters their dreams," or crushed by the daily forms of "selfishness that crucify and then bury people's hopes" or "by paralyzing and barren bureaucracies that stand in the way of change."

Easter, said Pope Francis, calls Christians to proclaim "the heartbeat of the risen Lord." This heartbeat, the pope added, "is granted us as a gift, a present, a new horizon." In fact, "the beating heart of the risen Lord is given to us, and we are asked to give it in turn as a transforming force, as the leaven of a new humanity."

7. Fear's Grip on the Immigration Debate

Two responsibilities related to immigrants in the U.S. are highlighted in a recent statement by Dallas Bishop Edward Burns.

First, he wrote, "every country has a responsibility to protect its borders."

Second, and "even more fundamental" than the issue of borders, "every country has a fundamental responsibility to uphold the human dignity of every person."

Bishop Burns was installed as bishop of Dallas Feb. 9. In his March 10 statement he announced plans to form "an immigration task force" to aid the diocese "in responding to the needs of the immigrant community." The task force "will help the diocese address the pastoral, legal and general needs of those facing the uncertainty of today's immigration issues in the United States."

It seems to him, Bishop Burns said, "that fear is being experienced on both sides of the immigration issue: on the one side, people in fear of attack or terrorism; on the other, immigrant families in fear of being torn apart."

But "decisions made in the grip of fear seldom reflect our best thinking, and do not allow for us to all thrive together and find the best way forward together," he stated.

He wrote: "The Catholic Church will continue to uphold the human dignity that is given to all people by God. We recognize and welcome everyone as our brothers and sisters. We know that fractured families will only lead to a fractured society."

Furthermore, "we will work tirelessly with government officials as they address immigration reform" in the U.S. And "through it all" the church will stand ready to welcome the stranger "as we would welcome Christ himself."

His hope is, he said, that "we will continue to pray for all people and treat all human beings with the dignity and respect they deserve as children of God."

In an April 21 interview with North Texas Public Broadcasting, Bishop Burns responded to a question involving sanctuary cities in the U.S. "[If sanctuary cities are penalized], one of the things [the diocese] will do is stay focused," he said. "In particular, families are important. When you have families that are ruptured and split, it has an effect on society. It's important that we keep families together, all families."

Bishop Burns said he does not "know how everyone entered this country," but he does "know that when they're here, and as we look at them, we look at them as either our brother or our sister."

For, there will "be a day that hopefully we'll hear the words, 'When I was hungry, you gave me food; when I was thirsty, you gave me drink; and when I was a stranger, you welcomed me.' And therein lies the very essence of who we are."