The Blood of Dialogue

John Allen's weekly online post is devoted to the publication in English of a book on the Dominican Bishop of Oran, Algeria, Pierre Claverie. Claverie was assassinated in his residence in 1996, along with his Muslim driver and friend.

Here is part of Allen's report:

"I know enough Muslim friends who are also my brothers to think that Islam knows how to be tolerant, fraternal," Claverie said. "Dialogue is a work to which we must return without pause: it alone lets us disarm the fanaticism, both our own and that of the other."

Claverie was never one for fashionable, politically correct forms of inter-religious dialogue. He shunned large-scale Christian/Muslim meetings, feeling that the slogans such encounters tend to generate, such as that we are all "children of Abraham" and "people of the Book," or that we all believe in the "one God," artificially gloss over deep theological and spiritual differences.

Claverie was certainly no Pollyanna when it came to the reality of the Islamist threat, frequently denouncing "the cowardice of those who kill in the shadows." His clear-eyed assessment led him into conflict with the Community of Sant'Egidio, an international Catholic movement known for its efforts in conflict resolution. In the mid-1990s, Sant'Egidio sponsored a "Rome Platform" for dialogue among the warring Algerian parties, including the extremists. Claverie and the other Algerian bishops felt betrayed, arguing that the negotiations lent legitimacy to forces butchering anyone who stood up for a non-Islamist state. They also struggled to explain to democratic activists in Algeria, who were laying down their lives to resist the Islamists, that the Sant'Egidio initiative did not represent the official position of the Catholic church.

Yet for all that, Claverie staked his life on two convictions: first, that a democratic, tolerant Islamic society is possible; second, that it's better to build up alternatives than to tear down what he opposed. He worked tirelessly to foster a genuine civil society in Algeria, creating libraries for students and researchers, rehabilitation centers for the handicapped, and centers for educating women. He would not permit "our love to be extinguished despite the fury in our hearts, desiring peace and building it up in tiny steps, refusing to join the chorus of howls, and remaining free while yet in chains."

Claverie understood the peril such a choice implied.

"Reconciliation is not a simple affair," he wrote in 1995. "It comes at a high price. It can also involve, as it did for Jesus, being torn apart between irreconcilable opposites. An Islamist and a kafir (infidel) cannot be reconciled. So, then, what's the choice? Well, Jesus does not choose. He says, in effect, 'I love you all,' and he dies."

Those words proved chillingly prophetic. Claverie was killed on Aug. 1, 1996, just two months after the brutal beheading of seven Trappist monks in Tibhirine, Algeria. He died alongside his Muslim friend and driver, Mohamed Bouchikhi, when a bomb exploded in the bishop's residence. As the two men lay dying, their blood mingled on the floor, offering a metaphor for their common humanity running deeper than differences of ethnicity, ideology and creed.

In the end, Claverie offers an antidote to facile theories about Islam, of whatever sort, crafted at a distance. He was an artisan of the patient, and often painful, work of building relationships, overcoming stereotypes, and confronting painful truths with both honesty and hope.

Robert P. Imbelli, a long-time Commonweal contributor, is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York. A book of essays in his honor, The Center Is Jesus Christ Himself, edited by Andrew Meszaros, was published this year by The Catholic University of America Press.

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