We don't grow strong by being unafraid of evil - we must face it and urge all religions to stand together
Published 28/07/2016 | 02:30
Tuesday morning started out like any other morning for Fr Jacques Hamel. He celebrated Mass with a small group of parishioners. The Eucharist - in which Catholics believe the sacrifice of Christ is re-presented in time - was central to the life of Fr Jacques ever since his ordination in 1958. He was part of a generation of idealistic young Frenchmen who joined the priesthood following the horrors of World War II, knowing a better world was not only possible, but necessary if humanity was to have a future.
Little did he know that during that mass - mirroring Christ's Last Supper before his death - his blood would be mingled with the blood of Christ and he would be ever remembered by Catholics worldwide as a martyr.
But the greatest tribute we can pay to Fr Jacques is to ensure his death does not provoke the kind of reactionary backlash his killers wanted. The murderous events in Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray have cast a dark shadow across civilised people and exposed the odious wickedness at the heart of the Islamist ideology. It has also brought the horrors of Islamist terrorism very close to home.
Unfortunately, we've become depressingly used to hearing about suicide bombings and terror attacks in Europe. But, to cross the threshold of a church - literally meaning the Lord's house - marks a horrendous escalation.
From ancient times, places of worship have also been places of sanctuary - now Christians across Europe are asking themselves whether or not they are safe at Mass.
It's hard to think of an event more calculated to provoke a clash of civilisations: an elderly priest who has spent almost 60 years serving the needs of his people brutally slain before his congregation in the parish church he loved and where he worshipped his God.
According to an eyewitness account, the murderers forced him to kneel down before the altar before killing him and ranting through a sermon replete with their hate-filled, half-baked excuse for a theology.
People are rightly frightened and angry. Increasingly, Europe is becoming a macrocosm of the Middle East and the wider Muslim world where attacks on Christian places of worship have become commonplace. One mustn't forget, of course, that Muslims are the primary victims of militant Islam. But the bloody sectarian rivalry that tears apart Sunni and Shia Islam often spills over into attacks on Christians.
Open Doors, a group which monitors religious freedom around the world, estimates that some 100 million Christians face persecution for their faith, mostly in Muslim-majority countries.
And moderate Muslims have an urgent duty to denounce and fight extremism. But Christians and other people of goodwill in the West have an equal responsibility not to tar all Muslims with the same brush.
The antidote to bad religion is good religion, and we must strive to ensure that the clash of civilisations between Islam and the West which blasphemous death cults like Isil long for does not happen.
This is why the initiative of French President François Hollande in calling together religious leaders representing different traditions is so important. In standing together, Jews, Muslims and Christians can show Islamists that evil does not overcome goodwill.
In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks in the United States, Pope John Paul II instinctively knew that a contrived war between Islam and the West was the worst-case scenario. Almost immediately, he called the leaders of all religions to join him in Rome and reject violence. It was a powerfully cathartic moment and offered hope to beleaguered Muslims, who had seen their faith defamed by the actions of extremists. In this centenary year of the 1916 Easter Rising, Irish people know well the spectre of extremists who, on the borrowed pride of a noble cause, sought to justify the unjustifiable during a bloody sectarian campaign in the North. But our experience in the North has also made us overly optimistic about peace processes and lulled us into a false understanding of the nature of terrorism.
Isil has no command structures, no political wing to negotiate with. Angry young men who have been taught on the internet to hate the West can strike at will.
And no amount of decommissioning can neutralise the web of hate available on the internet, but by refusing to bow to the narrow divisions the terrorists desire, we can expose the meaninglessness of the cause they seek to die for. People rush to say the assailants in France must have been out of their minds. Perhaps, but more likely, we have to face the reality of evil in the world and the fact that people choose to do wicked things. Strength does not consist in being unafraid of evil, but it rests in acknowledging our fear and doing what is right anyway.
Michael Kelly is editor of 'The Irish Catholic' newspaper