Father Andrea Sontoro knelt down to pray. He had just finished celebrating Mass in his church in Trabzon, Turkey. A 16 year-old came into the church and approached him from behind. The young man pulled out a gun and shot Father Andrea in the back, crying, “Allah (God) is great!” Fr. Andrea died instantly.
The young man was later caught by police and admitted that his action had been motivated by anger at a series of cartoons. The cartoons had appeared in a newspaper in Denmark. Many of us have heard of the cartoons about the prophet Mohamed and the violent protests they generated. Depicting the prophet Mohamed is strictly prohibited in the Muslim culture. The cartoons which appeared in Denmark in September 2005 did this. They also criticized some aspects of Islam, especially the use of the Muslim faith by extremists to justify terrorism.
Fr. Andrea had nothing to do with the cartoons, but he had always known that he lived in a dangerous situation, a situation where Christians and Christianity are often misunderstood. In this issue we will look at the courageous witness of Fr. Andrea and the situation of the Church in Muslim countries.
CALLED TO A MISSION
Fr. Andrea was a missionary who was born and raised in Italy. He became a priest in the diocese of Rome and spent most of his priesthood there, serving with dedication and joy as a parish priest. He was very well liked by those he served. Yet a certain restlessness took hold of him. He began to feel a call to serve in a different place. He especially felt attracted to the Middle East, the area of the world where the Christian faith fi rst began to spread. Turkey is among the countries of the Middle East. Today there are very few Christians in the Middle East. Over the centuries, the spread of Islam has reduced their presence dramatically. Turkey is one of the countries where Christians have become a tiny minority.
In 1993 Fr. Andrea made a pilgrimage to Antioch, Turkey. Antioch is mentioned in the New Testament. It is the city where the followers of the followers of Jesus were fi rst called Christians (Acts 11:26). St. Paul began his ministry in Antioch. In Antioch, Fr. Andrea met an Orthodox priest who “saw in him a passion for Turkey’s Christians” and gave him a tiny piece of metal that is said to come from one of the nails used in the Cross of Christ.
“It was November 30, the Feast Day of Saint Andrew, and Father Andrea’s name-day. (“Andrea” means Andrew.) Deeply touched by the honor, he brought it with him to Rome. Like a nail embedded in his fl esh, his fascination for the land never left him… Since then, he asked his superiors to let him go back” as a missionary priest.
AGREEMENT AND DIFFICULTIES
The Church does admire and respect many things in the Muslim faith and culture. It especially admires the Muslim faith in only one God, and agrees with Muslims on some of the basic qualities of God such as his omnipotence and mercy, etc.
The Church also admires the tremendous respect that Muslims show for God and their lack of fear in expressing their faith in public. On the other hand the Church is very concerned about the tendency in many Muslim countries towards violence against those who believe in religions other than Islam, and the restrictions many Muslim countries place on other religions, effectively denying the right of every human being to religious freedom.
Christians in Muslim countries fi nd themselves in different situations in each country, according to the degree of tolerance that is lived there, but in general, the situation is very diffi cult. Christians are often treated as third class citizens. It is especially diffi cult in countries where the Islamic law, Sharia, is applied as the legal system of the nation. An example of this is in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, but other countries also deny many fundamental rights to Christians and non-Muslims. In Saudi Arabia, Christians are not even allowed to meet in private homes to pray together. In both these countries any effort to explain the Christian faith to non-Christians is a very serious crime. Even the suspicion of having done so has cost some Christians their lives.
WHAT TO DO?
The Catholic Church cannot just protest and condemn these abuses. This would put the Christians living in these countries in even greater danger. But it does try to use a series of means to work towards greater freedom.
It asks Christians to be examples of peace and charity. Where allowed, the Church runs social institutions of Christian charity such as schools, hospitals, orphanages, etc. The Church tries to engage in dialogue with Muslims about common aspects of our faiths. On some occasions it also works with Muslim governments on an international level to promote respect for the natural institution of the family and respect for the right to life of the unborn child in the world.
When human rights are abused in Muslim countries, the Church tries insist on respect for these rights through diplomacy, and international organizations such as the United Nations, cultural and political groups, etc.
The situation of Christians in Turkey is not as bad as in many other Muslim countries, but it is still very difficult. Cardinal Ratzinger, before he became Pope, expressed concern about Turkey becoming a member of the European Union, because it did not recognize the rights of Christians in many ways.
So, what do missionaries and Christians do in these situations? They try to be witnesses. Only the witness of a holy life truly convinces people. They are leaven and salt. The presence of even a small group of convinced Christians can make a place much better.
A WITNESS IN TURKEY
Fr. Andrea went to Turkey in 2000. He did not expect to change things substantially. He knew the situation was extremely difficult. But he knew God’s love. He felt the love God has for all people, especially those involved in difficult situations. He wanted to be a real sign of God’s faithful love for this region of the world.
He spent his time attending the very small group of Catholics in his area. He tried to promote good relations between Muslims and Christians. He spent long hours praying. He tried to give a good example of peace and goodness to those who lived near the church. It was not always easy, but he made small steps in the victory of grace. He called it seeing the “blade of grass and not just the desert.”
In a letter he wrote only a week before his death he mentioned one of these small victories.
“One day a large group of loud and boisterous teenagers came into church. I’m accustomed to this. In order to get them to be quiet and respectful you simply have to approach them and remind them that the church, like the mosque, is a place of prayer that God loves. A small group of 4-5 boys and girls among them, about 14-15 years old, approached me and began to ask me questions. ‘Why are you here? Did they make you come?’ ‘No, I came freely, willingly.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Because I like Turkey. Because there was a church here and a group of Christians who didn’t have a priest, so I made myself available. I did it to favor good relations between Christians and Muslims.’ ‘But, are you happy?’ ‘Of course I am happy. And now that I’ve met you I am even happier. I appreciate you.’ In that moment the eyes of one of the girls lit up. She looked at me deeply and said with strength, ‘We also appreciate you.’ To say ‘we appreciate you’ inside a church, between Christians and Muslims has seemed like a ray of light to me. This in itself would have justified my coming here…”
MAKING CHRIST PRESENT
Two months before his death Father Andrea was talking with some missionary friends after a retreat. He commented: “Often I ask myself: What am I doing here? “I live among these people so that Jesus can live among them through me. In the Middle East, Satan continues to destroy, remembering and loyal to the past. As it was at the time of Jesus, silence, humility, the simple life, acts of faith, miracles of charity, clear and defenseless witness, and the conscious offering of one’s life can rehabilitate the Middle East.”
Fr. Andrea was a believer. He believed his hidden prayer and sacrifice would somehow count, would somehow bring many graces to this land.
It has already begun to do so. Many Muslims, including many young Muslims, have expressed their admiration for this man of God and have condemned his murder. The Christian faith has been seen as a seed for peace, not for conflict.
The Turkish government has taken the occasion to renew its invitation for Pope Benedict to visit Turkey this November. Orthodox Christians and Jews have also shown their respect for the example of Father Andrea. His death has reminded the world that love is still alive.
The example of Father Andrea reminds us, too, that we are called to be witnesses of good will. Perhaps we do not live in a situation of isolation and danger that he lived in, but each of us has to often go against the current in giving example of Christian lifestyle.
Prayer. Service. Witness. The world today needs saints. We can learn from Fr. Andrea how to be one.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. (Matthew 5:8)
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you. (Matthew 5: 43-44)
Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit. (John 12:24)
It is urgently necessary that religions and their symbols be respected and that believers not be the object of provocations that wound their outlook and religious sentiments. (Benedict XVI, March 2, 2006)
However, intolerance and violence as a response to offenses can never be justified, for this type of response is incompatible with the sacred principles of religion. (Benedict XVI, March 2, 2006)
The fruit of faith in God is not devastating antagonisms, but the spirit of fraternity and collaboration in favor of the common good. (Benedict XVI, Feb 26, 2006)
God, Creator and Father of all, will call to an even more severe account all those who shed their brother’s blood in his name. (Benedict XVI, Feb 26, 2006)
854 …Missionary endeavor requires patience. … There will be times of defeat. “With regard to individuals, groups, and peoples it is only by degrees that [the Church] touches and penetrates them and so receives them into a fullness which is Catholic.”
841 “The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Muslims; these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind’s judge on the last day.”
844 In their religious behavior, however, men also display the limits and errors that disfigure the image of God in them.
SAINTS AND HEROS
BLESSED CHARLES DE FOCAULT
Charles was born in Strasbourg, France. By the time he was six, both his parents had died. He was raised by his grandfather. He lost his faith while he was a teenager. As an adult he accomplished a private exploration of the Muslim country of Morocco that was much publicized in France. After he returned to France he rediscovered his faith through the help of one of his cousins and of a holy priest. He immediately felt a calling to live totally for God. Eventually he returned to Morocco and live as a solitary monk in an area where there were no Christians. His desire was to “shout the Gospel with his life”. “I would like to be sufficiently good that people would say, “If such is the servant, what must the Master be like?” He was well liked in the area for his kindness and hospitality. However on December 1, 1916 a band of marauders invaded his house and killed him. His example and writings have inspired the foundation of several religious institutes.
- What made Fr. Andrea want to go to serve the Church in Turkey?
- What are some of the difficulties Christians face in Muslim countries?
- Do you think he knew that he was in such a dangerous situation?
- What made him stay and persevere in his witness?
- Do you think his witness has had an impact on those around him? On the world? If so, how?
- What things does the Church admire in Muslim culture? What things worry it?
- Do you think Fr. Andrea’s example will inspire others to serve in Muslim countries?
- What does the Church do to try to create good will in Muslim cultures?
Investigate some of the similarities and differences between the Muslim and Christian faith, especially in relation to:
- Forgiveness and use of violence
- Attributes of God
- Importance of expressing faith and worshipping God
- Concept of the dignity of the human person
- Relationship between Church and State
FURTHER CHURCH TEACHING
“The Church regards with esteem also the Muslims. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all- powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, His virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of judgment when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting.
“Since in the course of centuries not a few quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Muslims, this sacred synod urges all to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual understanding and to preserve as well as to promote together for the benefit of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom.
(Vatican II, Declaration “Nostra Aetate”, number 3)
FROM A LETTER OF FR. ANDREA (JANUARY 22, 2006)
“The richness of the Middle East is not oil, but its religious fabric, its soul soaked in faith, its being “holy land” for Jews, Christians, and Muslims, its past marked by the “revelation” of God, besides its elevated civilization. Even the complexity of the Middle East is not tied to oil or to its strategic position, but to its religious soul. The God who “reveals himself” and who is “passionately” served is a God who divides, a God who privileges one over another and authorizes one against another. In this heart at the same time luminous, unique and sick of the Middle East it is necessary to enter: on tiptoe, with humility, but with courage. Clarity goes together with goodness. The advantage that we Christians have is an advantage that we should not lose. Our God is a God who is defenseless, a Christ who invites to loves one’s enemies, to serve in order to be “lords” of the house, to become the last in order to be first, in a Gospel that prohibits hatred, anger, judgment, domination, a God who becomes a lamb and who allows himself to be beaten in order to kill pride and hatred in himself, a God who attracts with love and who does not dominate with power. It is an “advantage” that could seem “disadvantage” and a waste in the eyes of the world, but is victorious in the eyes of God and capable of conquering the heart of the world. Saint John Chrisostom said, “Christ pastures lambs, not wolves. If we make ourselves lambs we will overcome, if we become wolves we will lose. It is not easy, nor is the cross of Christ when the temptation of the sword is always there. Will there be someone who wants to give the gift of this Christ to the world? Will there be someone who will want to be present in this world of the Middle East simply as “Christian,” salt in the food, leaven in the dough, light in the room, window on the walls, bridge between opposite shores, offering of reconciliation?
There are many, but many more are needed. Mine is an invitation besides a reflection.Come!”
(From Zenit, Spanish edition, March 7, 2006, translation by Our Faith In Action)
■ Web search: www.catholic.com : “Islam”
■ Remembering Father Andrea http://www.zenit.org/english/visualizza.phtml?sid=84430
■ Priest killed in Turkey aMartyr, says Cardinal Ruini, http://www.zenit.org/english/visualizza.phtml?sid=84298
■ Pope John Paul II, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, Mohamed? (pages 91-9)
■ Vatican II, Declaration Nostra Aetate, number 3
■ Vatican II, Apostolic Constitution Lumen Gentium, number 16
■ Thomas W. Lippman, Understanding Islam
■ DVD: Ignatius Press: Christianity and Islam
■ DVD: Ignatius Press: The Bible and Islam