In November 2003, Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, wrote a letter to the worldwide Muslim community. The occasion was Eid al-Fitr, the Islamic celebration that marks the end of Ramadan. The letter sounded much like others written since 1967, when the first one was sent: cordial holiday greetings mixed with a call to Christians and Muslims to work together toward peace. Essential to peace, Archbishop Fitzgerald wrote, is forgiveness, “for it opens up the possibility of beginning again, on a new basis, in a restored relationship.” One month earlier, La Civiltà Cattolica, a Rome-based Jesuit paper whose contents are approved by the Vatican, published an article on Islam markedly different in tone. Criticizing predominantly Muslim countries for their treatment of Christians, Giuseppe De Rosa, SJ, wrote of Islam’s “warlike face” and obsession with conquering Europe. He blamed the dwindling numbers of Christians in Muslim countries on their inferior status under Islamic law, and accused radical Islamists in Algeria, Sudan, and Nigeria of countenancing anti-Christian violence. He argued for greater religious liberty in Islamic countries, noting that while Christians were not allowed to worship freely in Saudi Arabia, the Italian government had donated the land for Europe’s largest mosque, constructed with Saudi funds “in the heart of Christianity.” The Civiltà article made few waves; hardly anyone noticed it. The author, an elderly Jesuit, is neither involved in interreligious dialogue nor an expert on Islam. Still, the striking departure from the Vatican’s usual stance signals, if not a shift in official policy, then a minority voice that should be taken into account. If nothing else, it reflects the complex reaction to Muslim immigration in Italy and in the rest of Europe. Italy was never a colonial power, so historically it did not draw as many immigrants as, say, France or Britain. Yet over the last two decades, Italy’s long coastline and fairly generous immigration policies have spurred an influx of immigrants-legal and illegal-from the Balkans, Eastern Europe, and North Africa. During the past year, Muslims have been working with the Italian government on an accord similar to the ones Italy has signed with other faiths. It would likely guarantee work absence for prayers, Islamically acceptable meal options in cafeterias, and the ability to collect charitable donations from Italian citizens via income-tax returns. The Catholic Church, of course, has a long history of ministering to immigrants and lobbying for social justice, and the church in Italy is no exception. Still, faced with an increasing number of foreign-born residents, including an estimated 1 million Muslims, the church is also facing a demographic shift that, to some, threatens the country’s identity. In 2000, Cardinal Giacomo Biffi of Bologna provoked a great uproar when he suggested that Italy favor Catholic immigrants over Muslims who, he said, integrated into Italian life less easily. “There is no right to invasion!” he exclaimed. More recently, many Italians reacted negatively when a judge ordered a crucifix removed from a public classroom in response to a lawsuit brought by a Muslim man. (Although Italy is a secular state, laws from the 1920s require schools to display crucifixes.) Critics held a “hands off our crosses” protest, while most Muslims distanced themselves from the suit. The pope entered the fray, albeit indirectly, in a speech to European interior ministers on October 31. While praising the cooperation and “unity in diversity” that immigration can bring, he said there should be legislative recognition of countries’ specific religious traditions. Canceling the religious distinctiveness of a people “would not be very democratic,” he said, “because it runs contrary to the spirit of nations and to the sentiments of the majority of their populations.” Bernardo Cervellera, director of AsiaNews, a church-run news service that often reports on restrictions on religious freedom, said via e-mail that the crucifix controversy did not indicate that Italy, or the church, opposed Muslim immigration. “Italian society is religious and Catholic, and for this reason Muslims who come must at least respect what is already here....In reality, the cross is the sign of a cultural tradition and the motive behind the great acceptance of immigrants.” De Rosa made a similar point in his article in La Civiltà Cattolica. The linchpin of his argument was dhimmitude-the concept of protected but not quite equal status for the “People of the Book” (Christians and Jews) in Islamic societies. In truth, dhimmitude is no longer a reality in many Islamic countries; one person involved in Christian-Muslim dialogue told me that most Islamic leaders have no interest in bringing it back. Still, De Rosa has a point: freedom of worship certainly is not guaranteed everywhere in the world the way it is in Western countries. Subtle forms of religious discrimination still exist in Muslim countries. But De Rosa’s presentation of over one thousand years of history is remarkably one-sided. He does not mention Christian-sponsored violence against Muslims, such as the Crusades, or the impact of Western colonization of Middle Eastern countries. David Burrell, CSC, a University of Notre Dame professor who specializes in comparative philosophical theology, suggested that De Rosa “is unconsciously writing from a dominant perspective....And he resents situations in which someone else dominates. Why can’t Christians be the minority, though? Maybe they’d be better witnesses to the gospel.” The same day that the pope spoke about the importance of the specific religious identity of European countries, he sent a message to a meeting of church scholars stressing the need to bring to light the full truth of the church’s two thousand years of history. Historians are not to become accusers or judges, he said, but “it is necessary above all to reconcile with the past before beginning a process of reconciliation with other people or communities.” The Civiltà article strikes a discordant note precisely because it ignores the pope’s counsel. De Rosa simply makes no attempt to examine the church’s past. As Muslims continue to arrive in Italy and other traditionally Catholic nations, the Vatican will have to balance the need to welcome these immigrants with attempts to preserve Europe’s Christian identity. It will have to decide whether the fraternal and sometimes penitential voice of official dialogue is sufficient to discuss the thorniest of issues-including, as De Rosa suggests, the threat posed by fundamentalist Islam. “In effect, there is a change in tone in the Civiltà Cattolica article as well as in the Catholic world in general,” Cervellera said. “In the years following Vatican II, dialogue, the new discovery, was emphasized, and there was hope of a development and opening up of Islam. Instead, the phenomenon of fundamentalism and terrorism has become a problem that threatens religions, dialogue, and the international community.” The challenge, therefore, is to raise critical points without alienating partners in dialogue. “No one likes to hear the truth,” said Justo Lacunza, president of the Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies. “Dialogue cannot fall into flat definitions in which everything is OK. But there has to be politeness in relationships. What is important is the approach.”

Benedicta Cipolla, a former correspondent for Catholic News Service in Rome, is a freelance writer in New York.

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