Islamic State’s failing ‘war of religion’

After Islamic State claimed credit for the killing of a French Catholic priest, leaders of major faiths gathered to counter this attempt to incite Muslims and Christians against each other. Peace is the norm between religions.

Religious leaders speak to journalists after a July 27 meeting with the French President at the Elysee Palace in Parisafter the killing of a Catholic priest: (L-R) French Jewish central Consistory President Joel Mergui, President of Protestant Federation of France Pastor Francois Clavairoly, Wang-Genh, President of the Buddhist Union of France, French Cardinal Andre Vingt-Trois, and Paris Mosque rector Dalil Boubakeur.

Each new terrorist strike creates its own unique response, perhaps even one that might eventually help end such attacks. A good example is how France reacted to Tuesday’s killing of a Roman Catholic priest in a church by two assailants, whose action was later claimed by Islamic State.

Of course, President Francois Hollande quickly gathered security officials together after the attack to deal with a potential for further violence. But then he also gathered representatives of Christian churches as well as Muslim, Buddhist, and Jewish leaders. As much as Islamic State may have hoped the attack would provoke a Crusade-like retaliation against Muslims, this public assembly of religious figures offered a display of interfaith unity and an ecumenical platform to proclaim peace.

The objective in killing a priest, said Prime Minister Manuel Valls, was “to attack one religion to provoke a war of religion.” Instead, IS was shown the affection that exists between the world’s major faiths. Dominique Lebrun, the archbishop of Rouen, said the church’s only weapons against terrorists are “prayer and fraternity.”

The priest who was murdered, the Rev. Jacques Hamel, was close to a local Muslim leader, Mohammed Karabila. The two would often talk about religion and how to live together, said Mr. Karabila after the attack. Such closeness between leaders of different faiths has received little attention compared with the verbal and physical attacks across faiths, according to historian Zachary Karabell in a book called “Peace Be Upon You.” 

For centuries, peace has been the norm between Christians, Muslim, and Jews (“people of the book”), writes Mr. Karabell. “In truth, each of the three traditions has a core of peace.... Each of the faiths teaches its followers to greet friends and strangers with the warm open arms of acceptance. Peace comes first and last.”

Too many people have forgotten this legacy of coexistence, preferring to focus on violent periods in each faith’s history. Yet, states Karabell, the long periods of concord offer a hopeful message about future coexistence.

The strategy of Islamic State is to eliminate the coexistence between faiths in Europe, or what is called the “gray zone.” In striking at Christian targets, it aims to polarize Christians and Muslims against each other. Yet the more that Europe’s religious leaders stand together, as they did after the killing of Father Hamel, the more the terrorists lose. The tools of hate are no match for the designs of love.

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