A Tunisian in the church

I have been living in Western countries for a few years now and I have never attended a mass, at a Christian church that is. Actually, I have been living close to several churches in Tunis for a decade and I always thought of visiting the Roman Catholic church in avenue Habib Bourguiba. It never happened for lack of time, lack of determination and mostly for the fear that it may appear inappropriate to the local Christians.

I talked about this to a co-worker and he invited me to attend the mass at the Guildford Saint Saviour's church which I did (with my wife) on 26 February 2006. It was a very worthwhile experience and I'd love to have it again.

To a muslim, the prayer ritual is obviously quite different. It consisted into a considerable amount of singing and music playing which would correspond more to a joyful adhkar (أذكار) session in the Islamic tradition. The person leading the prayer gave a speech about Jonas, that's Yunus (يونس) in Arabic. Except from the mention of the Trinity in the lyrics, I didn't see much conflicting with the Islamic teachings.

The common belief that muslims cannot pray at a church or at synagogue is not totally accurate. When Syria was conquered by Muslims in the 7th century, Christians and Muslims were praying at the same church (Saint John maybe) alternating services on Fridays and Sundays. Later when Omar Ibn Al-Khattab (عمر إبن الخطاب) conquered Jerusalem (القدس), he commanded that muslims shall not pray in Christian worship places for fear that it may establish a tradition of possessing churches in the future.

It happened the day of my visit that the church was ogranising a kind of informal meeting to discuss about "Is nothing sacred?". Assured by the ones who invited me, I attended; the discussions addressed several topics like some show I didn't know about but which appeared to be blasphemous, the muslims reaction to the Danish cartoons and so on. At the very end, I asked permission to comment on a question by one of the attendees: "do Muslims take their religion more seriously than us?" and (briefly) on the Danish cartoons affair.

My point of view was essentially that for muslims Islam has been a power that brought scientific, social, military and economical advances and it's still being regarded as the social system that turned a bunch of desert warring tribes into masters of the World. Islamic Civilisation owes all of its achievements to Islam, therefore, I think this is why the Islamic religion has this great esteem for Muslims. The US channel PBS used a nice expression to describe this: Islam -- Empire of Faith, it's a documentary which runs over 3 episodes: The Messenger, The Awakening and The Ottomans.

The Christian church in the West, on the other hand, was more regarded as an obstacle to Western advances. Tales of blasphemy charges against scientists are still vivid in the minds and I believe that this has costed the church a lot of credibility over the past centuries. That's obviously the opinion of someone who knows very little about the history of Christian church(es).

The Danish cartoons affair deserves a post by itself, but at the church I only pointed out that the violence the media has described happened in inherently violent and instable places, namely Gaza, Palestine, Nigeria, Pakistan and such. The cartoons were a mere trigger for communities already under tension.

The reactions to my visit were mixed, someone from the church's staff said that what I did was "brave", another attendee was staring at us for the whole session and gave the impression that he didn't like us being there. Many others expressed sympathy and escorted us on the way out, some even asked us to come again. Thank you all for the warm welcome.