In the Catholic Church, the delicate question of supporting converts from Islam

In the Catholic Church, the delicate question of supporting converts from Islam

What to do with Muslims who knock on the door of the Catholic Church? If at the national level, the number of catechumens from Islam has been rather stable in recent years – it is around 200 to 300 per year, and 350 in 2024, or between 3 and 5% of catechumens nationally – , the way to support them is becoming increasingly important today. This is evidenced by the list of missteps to avoid published on the Ananie website, mandated by the diocese of Paris to train parishes on this subject. “Do not send the convert back to his community”, “do not lock him into Islam”, “do not tell him that we already have the same faith”… “Some Muslims had to knock on the doors of six or seven parishes before feeling welcomed, explains the priest accompanying Anania. Out of an excess of charity, they are sometimes advised to remain Muslim when they request baptism. »

The observation of a lack of training which pushed the Church to think about how it can better welcome these converts. If the subject is so delicate, it is in particular because it confronts two approaches in the Church. One marked by the vision of interreligious dialogue of the Second Vatican Council, not very proactive in explicit evangelization, insisting on the fact that God already works in the hearts of Muslims. The other, that of Catholics banking on a very explicit announcement of their faith and reproaching parishes for their reluctance in welcoming these converts for fear of offending Muslims.

Different sensitivities

Thus, for example, Mission Ismérie, created in 2020, which aims “to announce Christ to Muslims” and D’“accompany converts in the Church”. His approach may have aroused distrust among certain actors in interreligious dialogue, who criticized him for conveying an identity-based vision of Christianity and a negative vision of Islam, which would harm interreligious fraternity. Wrong? For researcher Julien Argoud, doctoral student and author of a forthcoming book on conversions from Islam to Catholicism, this association would develop “a combat evangelization”. “The objective is to collapse the pillars of the faith of Muslims,” analyzes the researcher, who conducted numerous interviews and observations within Mission Ismérie. “When they do street evangelism, they anticipate what Muslims are most likely to respond to in their interactions. For each possible answer, they point to passages from the Koran to show that their faith is meaningless, irrational or violent. »

Criticisms that the new director of Mission Ismérie, Vincent Neymon, who arrived at its head in February 2023 after having been director of communications for the Conference of Bishops of France (CEF), is now trying to attenuate. “One of the faults that Ismeria was criticized for was its political coloring”, traces the one who believes he has led since his arrival “a work of purification”, in “removing what could appear too identitarian or what could be considered as frontal attacks on Islam”.

Aware of these divisions among Catholics, the Conference of Bishops of France today wants a dialogue between these actors with different sensitivities. “We believe that a consultation must be carried out for a rereading, discernment and adjustment of missionary and pastoral practices,” indicates the Dominican Jean-François Bour, director of the National Service for Relations with Muslims of the CEF, who wants “Catholics in their diversity speak to each other, and through this exchange each one takes a step towards the others”.

“We do not have to intervene in his understanding of what Islam is”

In the parishes, in the accompaniment of catechumens, these two visions are not always so marked, and both find themselves today in common concerns. First, welcome these new Christians with great caution, given the difficulties that the announcement of a conversion in a Muslim family can generate. Apostasy, or abandoning Islam, is indeed considered a great sin by many Muslims. “In the vast majority of cases, we observe a more or less long break between the convert and his family, which can last from three months to years,” describes Julien Argoud. Hence the discretion that these converts often request.

You also have to know how to find the right words, for these new Christians who sometimes have a strong rejection of their religion of origin. While those accompanying them can try, with sometimes clumsy good faith, to unfold their benevolent vision of Islam, it is especially important for Father Xavier Chavane, parish priest of Sartrouville and actor in Islamic-Christian dialogue, initially to “let them talk, because the experience, if painful, is there.”

The priest who accompanies catechumens as part of the mission of Ananias also believes “that we must start from where the person is, and welcome their experience, even if it is violent.”“If we challenge it, the person does not feel understood,” he believes. He judges that “we do not have to intervene in his understanding of what Islam is.” And to cite, as a counter-example, a couple of Catholics explaining to a former Salafist Muslim that Islam is a religion of love. “The catechumen found it pretentious,” he remembers.

If the convert is welcomed as he is, with his unique experience of his ancient religion, Father Chavane does not give up recalling in a second step the doctrine of the Catholic Church on interreligious dialogue whichinvites all the baptized to see the seeds of the Word present in other religions.” In other words: do not deny what is good and true in Islam, even if today they seek to follow Christ.

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