ROME – Even though Abdellah Redouane has spent the past 20 years of his life as the director of the Islamic Cultural Center of Italy, the Morocco-born man can’t disguise his hope for the upcoming March 30-31 papal visit to his homeland.
“This is not just a regular visit,” Redouane told Crux on Tuesday. “I believe it’s particularly important because 99 percent of the population in Morocco is Muslim. Inviting the pope, who is the leader of the Catholic religion, is something important, and we must thank those who worked to organize this visit.”
He believes that the papal visit can help build bridges between Muslims and Christians in Morocco, a country where, he acknowledged that despite the legal protection for religious freedom, there are instances of religious-based violence.
Francis’s visit, he said, can help “by reminding us Christians and Muslims are not enemies, but people who can work together, showing the followers of the two religions that if the leaders meet, they embrace, why cannot we too do the same?”
Redouane spoke with Crux on Tuesday at the Islamic Cultural Center of Italy, the site of the largest mosque in Western Europe. He spoke about the papal visit, but also about the relations between the center and the Vatican, the attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand last week, and why he will never forget the first time he met Francis.
Crux: Are these good times for the relations between the Mosque of Rome and the Vatican?
Redouane: Yes and no, because in recent times we’ve received some disheartening signals and acts of terrorism, which makes the atmosphere a bit heavy for everyone. But it’s also a moment of hope, for instance after seeing how the entire population of New Zealand reacted to the massacre. It is a sign of hope, that even things that we do not like can build a path together, carrying out projects of coexistence even more solidly than before.
You’re a Muslim in a city that is mostly Catholic. How does it feel to be a member of a minority in Italy?
I don’t wear the hat of being a member of a minority in religious matters. The moment I can practice my religion freely, it makes no sense to me to say I’m a minority. I have my rights and this is enough for me.
Yet the pope will travel to Morocco this Saturday, a country where some Christians do not have full freedom to express their faith, or feel they are a minority, precisely because their rights are not always respected. Do you agree? Are they a minority in the sense you described?
Christians, from the legislative point of view, are not a minority. Moreover, they have certain guarantees, and this is always ignored. In Morocco, religion is also a relevant issue that involves the most important authority of the state: The king, who is known as the prince of believers, not of Muslims.
Due to his role, the king has to guarantee freedom of religion to all believers, regardless of what faith they profess.
This is not something new: Moroccans always remember when, during World War II, Vichy France gave the order to deport the Hebrew citizens to the concentration camps, the king said that he only sees people from Morocco, regardless of their religion. This was not an easy decision, since the country was under the French protectorate. It is a tradition that must not be forgotten, and I think that this historical case must also apply to Christians today.
There are always episodes, which involve society in its complexity, where many – or some – Muslims, deny Christians the freedom to be, but I think it is not such a serious situation that it represents an emergency. They are phenomena today that can be managed over time. The most important thing is that the State must guarantee religious freedom, and I think that it is doing it, not only at the level of the law, but also of the culture, of the philosophy.
There is an orientation, a will. There may be problems, but it is necessary to set the goal and move forth to achieve it.
What impact can the visit of Pope Francis have on this issue?
The pope’s visit can help by reminding us Christians and Muslims are not enemies, but people who can work together, showing the followers of the two religions that if the leaders meet, they embrace, why cannot we too do the same?
This is not just a regular visit. I believe it’s particularly important because 99 percent of the population in Morocco is Muslim. Inviting the pope, who is the leader of the Catholic religion, is something important, and we must thank those who worked to organize this visit.
Last month the pope was in United Arab Emirates, and signed a document on peace and coexistence between religions. For many of the Christians in the West, the document was a message from the pope to Muslims in the Middle East, a warning. But the reality is that seeing what happened in New Zealand, one perceives there are some in the West who believe that if Muslims can kill Christians in Syria and Iraq, the Christians have to kill Muslims here. How important is the document to remember that the world is for everyone, is not divided, not one continent for Christians, one for Muslims, one for Hindus?
Today there are signs coming from both sides [Christians and Muslims], which are very negative. This is the moment to build a common front in which all the peoples of the world come together to say no to violence, yes to the fundamental respect for the right to life, and yes to freedom of worship.
We need to help one another understand that this world is for everyone, not for some without the others. Selfishness leads only to the exclusion of certain communities and peoples. Today we are in a world open to everyone, and it is in each one of us to project how we want to live in the future. What will be the inheritance that we will leave to those who will come after us? And I believe that this is what the pope is doing, taking into account the events of the present, but trying to project also for the future.
I think New Zealand gave us all a masterly lesson, and we must learn from this example to build a bridge for the future.
What can those who are not religious leaders do to build these bridges?
We have to be inspired by the messages that the pope’s visit will give us, to welcome the fruits of this trip so we’re able to apply them in our daily life. It is in those of us who want peace to concretize this message and this spirit in our daily affairs.
You’ve been in Rome for 20 years, which for the Catholic Church has meant three popes: John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis. Was the opening to dialogue from the Vatican towards the Islamic Center always the same in these periods?
As a mosque in Rome, we have always had very good relations with Catholicism, as a religion. Obviously, the pope is important, and each of them has his vision and his way of acting. For us, they were all teachers. Even when we had moments of difficulty, we cannot deny this.
I believe that, as men, each one of them had his school, his style. We have to learn from each of them. John Paul II was the pope of humility. Benedict XVI was seen to be rigorous, because he is a theologian, and we must accept him as he is. Francis, on the other hand, is more popular, more spontaneous. What strikes us about him is the human aspect.
I had the honor to participate in his coronation and to greet him that day. I will never forget it: My first encounter with him was a hug.
Is this how peace is sown?
Obviously. Peace is not achieved on paper, but through gestures.
The pope talks a lot about interreligious dialogue through gestures, with the faithful working on concrete things, such as helping the needy.
I believe that this is the right path, because today we cannot build peace in meetings or statements. It is necessary to look for common points in which we can work together. We all agree on this: It is a religious duty to help the weakest. We can work together, make a common front not to fight someone, but to improve things.
Any recommendations for us journalists travelling with the pope this weekend?
Open your eyes, so you can see and then show the reality of Morocco. People in Italy think that we are Africa, desert, camels. We are this, but also more. Deep Morocco is very generous, with a society that evolves, with all its contradictions, riches and poverty that all countries have.
The challenge is how we face tomorrow. Many say that society is falling, but few speak of the society that is being born. We have the possibility of building it, not just crying for what is lost. It is necessary to say “no” to things that don’t go well, and say “yes” to the future we want for tomorrow’s generations.