Identity and Dialogue

Opportunity in adversity: the case of the four sisters Missionaries of Charity killed in Yemen

Opportunity in adversity: the case of the four sisters Missionaries of Charity killed in Yemen March 17, 2016

When the news reached Christian communities around the world, mostly via social media platforms, people were abhorred. The reason of that level of anger is the fact that ‘“[the sisters] were serving all poor people irrespective of their religion. Their duty was to help the poor,” [as] a representative from the Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Arabia told [The Catholic News Agency]’. That makes completely absurd their death in the eyes of many people.

Although no specific group claimed the act, it was highly thought it was an act of terrorism by Daesh, the group that calls itself Islamic State. Al Qaeda denied the act. In fact, “Ansar al-Sharia, an umbrella group for al Qaeda militants in Yemen, said it is not responsible for the attacks. It warned journalists to avoid reporting that it is responsible”. One has to point out that “Aden descended into lawlessness after a Saudi-led coalition recaptured the city from Shiite Houthi rebels last summer. Yemen’s civil war has split the country in two. The northern region, where Shia rebels are in control, has been struck by an extensive air campaign by the Saudi-led coalition. The southern region, which is controlled by the internationally recognised government backed by Saudi Arabia, is suffering from a power and security vacuum.”

A fact that is not always mentioned is that many Western countries support the Sunni group represented by the Saudi-led coalition. BBC wrote that "the coalition's efforts are supported by Britain and the United States. Both countries continue to sell arms to Saudi Arabia, and are providing the Saudi-led coalition with liaison officers and technical support". The casualities are also high but entirely ignored by the public opinion around the world. Many civilian lives have been lost because of that coalition. Human Rights Watch says that "at least ten air strikes carried out by a Saudi-led coalition in Yemen broke the laws of war and killed civilians”. Once again, oil and the hunger for control has led that country into a chaos that created an anarchy that allows to these extremist groups to do whatever they want. Thus, the outrage should already have been there for all the other innocent lives lost under the bombs of the Saudi-led and Western-backed coalition or the acts of the Houthi rebels.

Some newspapers have even guessed that the motivation would have been to kill those nuns because they were Christians, a supposition also many might think that it was adopted by Pope Francis when he called those nuns martyrs. Indeed, Bishop Paul Hinder, the bishop of the area, said that “for [him] there is no doubt that the sisters have been victims of hatred – hatred against our faith. [He said, referring to the prayer the nuns used to pray every day, that the] Missionaries of Charity died as martyrs: as martyrs of charity, as martyrs because they witnessed Christ and shared the lot of Jesus on the Cross”.

But the Pope’s use of the word “martyrs” is from a totally different context. The Vatican’s website gives Pope Francis’ proper words. He said that “[those sisters] are the martyrs of today! They may not be on the cover of a magazine … [they] may not even make the news, but they gave their blood for the Church. These people are victims of the attack of those who killed them and of indifference too, of this globalization of indifference, which does not care…”However, that does not mean that the Pope thinks the killings had nothing to do with religious hatred from an Islamist group. But, it would be too quick to jump to conclusions before a thorough investigation is made. What is sure for any intelligent and wise person is that no major world religion invites its members to kill innocent people, let alone innocent people who are helping elderly people. Indeed, it is unthinkable to imagine that anyone would fancy killing religious women looking after the elderly in any religion of the world.

In Rwanda, the Church communicated that sad news via Bishop Mbonyintege Smaragde. The sad news is that this was not used as an opportunity to dissipate all suspicions of uninformed Rwandan Catholics towards the religion of Islam. It is a sad thing when people do not seize an opportunity like this, be it a sad opportunity, to address problems of difference. In most African countries, Christians know Islam from what they see on TV or hear on the radio. In fact, most Christians did not seem to be interested in Islam until recently. With many people in Africa having an access to international news channels, it is obvious that they knowledge they get about Islam is mostly about current issues in the Middle East, in Nigeria, in Mali, in Kenya and in Somalia. Maybe it is time the Church in Africa starts giving to her faithful the right image of Islam, the one we find in the Magisterium. Because learning about Islam from the media, is as bad as learning about the Catholic Church from some French channels, especially when there are cases of paedophile priests going on. If we had to accept the image of Islam that is given by the media as a religion of terrorists, which Catholic would love to be presented to the world as a member of a church lead by a bunch of paedophiles? That is not what the Catholic Church is and Islam is not a religion of terrorists.

We know that the Christian-Muslim dialogue officially started for the Catholic Church when it spoke positively of Islam and other religions in its Vatican II documents. The 60s were indeed a time for openness to the people of other faiths. Indeed, ‘Since the 1960s, some religious institutions have taken an interest in interreligious dialogue. In particular, many Christian denominations have made statements about their attitude towards other religions. There are several reasons why Christian churches have been in the vanguard of this mostly, if cautiously, positive assessment of other religions. The appeal of Hitler to Christianity’s "teaching of contempt" for Jewish people to justify the murder of two-thirds of Europe’s Jews shook many Christians to their moral foundations. The end of empire led many Christian leaders to repent the glib assumption that their religion’s involvement in the imperial enterprise had been an unalloyed good’.

So, is it not the time for African bishops to seize this sad opportunity to teach the true doctrine of the Church on Islam? Will they wait to have more groups like the Central African Anti-Balaka to start teaching about Christian-Muslim relations as seen by the Catholic Church?
The Catholic sisters who were killed in Yemen knew that they faced danger in that region. It is known that “[missionaries] of Charity nuns previously came under attack in Yemen in 1998, when gunmen killed three nuns in the Red Sea port city of Hodeida” but they did not abandon the elderly people they were looking after. The sisters lived the dialogue of life. The Irish defines it as the dialogue “[when] people strive to live in an open and neighbourly spirit, the ordinary everyday business of getting on with each other, of being good neighbours and living in peace and harmony. They also live the dialogue of action. It is when people “work together to promote and preserve peace, liberty, social justice and moral values”.

After losing a sister from my home parish, I could be angry and get taken by emotions that would obviously blind my mind and stop from looking at the bigger picture. I could also pull myself together and think about the opportunities that are born from such sad circumstances. The Holocaust and its contribution to the colonial project have opened the eyes of the Church and speak to Jews and Muslims today. The death of four sisters, Reginette, Margret, Anselm and Judith push me probably intensify efforts my intention to propagate the teaching of the Catholic Church on dialogue and Muslim-Christian coexistence. Wouldn't the Church in Africa do a great thing if it seized this opportunity in this tragic adversity? And as the New World Encyclopedia writes: “many (though not all) Christian churches have an authority structure (the papacy in Roman Catholicism, for example) that lends itself to disseminating official pronouncements that their members will take very seriously. This is not always the case elsewhere. It is difficult, for example, to define such a clearly accepted structure even in the two other major monotheistic religions of Judaism and Islam”.

So, would that not mean that we, as Catholics, have a considerable opportunity to globally foster interreligious coexistence?
Let us use this adversity as an opportunity to discover the true image of other religions and enter into fruitful dialogue with them as did the four slain sisters. It would be the best way to give homage to their work and life of dialogue.

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