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 Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

People on the Move

N° 98, August 2005 



Inter-Religious Dialogue 

in the Migrants’ World 


H.E. Cardinal Paul SHAN KUO-HSI, S.I.

Bishop of Kaohsiung


The images of theWorld Trade Center TwinTowers collapsing and of the rescuers clearing the debris of ground zero have changed the world dramatically. Perhaps most significantly, the area of inter-religious dialogue has been affected. These events have caused a lot of confusion in the minds of people regarding the relationship among those who profess different religions. Many may find it difficult to make a clear distinction between what is political and what is religious, and even what is plainly an act of terrorism intended to produce a modern day “reign of terror” the world over. Migrants have become scapegoats, in a certain sense, receiving much of the blame for what happened, especially if they are Muslims. The meaning of “dialogue” has become hazy.

1. Erga migrantes caritas Christi 

In this context, the release of the Instruction Erga migrantes caritas Christi (EMCC) – The love of Christ towards migrants –, issued by the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People on the 3rd of May 2004, is very timely. Its prime purpose, in fact, “is to respond to the new spiritual and pastoral needs of migrants and to make migration more and more an instrument of dialogue”, as well as of the proclamation of the Christian message, of course (cf. no. 3). It describes the migration phenomenon as “an increasingly complex problem from the social, cultural, political, religious, economic and pastoral points of view” (Presentation). Moreover, it affirms that “the composition of today’s migration … imposes the need of inter-religious dialogue because of the increasing number of migrants belonging to other religions, particularly Muslims, in traditionally Catholic countries, and vice-versa” (ibid., cf. also no. 59).  

2. Migration and Inter-Religious Dialogue after 9/11

In our world today, we have some one hundred and seventy-five million people who have moved from one country to another for different reasons. This is creating a new melting pot where cultures, races, religions and beliefs mix and interact with one another.

The Church believes that the phenomenon of migration can foster the development of inter-religious dialogue. The Holy Father himself affirmed that it is “one of the most significant challenges of our times” (Message for the 88th World Day of Migration 2002, no. 4). What the Holy Father said is particularly true especially after the tragedy of 9/11.

On one hand, this event created a new spiritual awareness in many people. Yet, on the other hand, after that date, a certain atmosphere of fear and suspicion towards other religions emerged because of the misperception that this act of terrorism was caused by the Muslim religion. People tended to identify whatever was related to the Muslim religion as potential terrorism. In fact, soon after 9/11 there were several episodes of intolerance towards Muslim people. Many were forced to undergo additional screening and security measures before traveling on planes simply because they had a long beard and dark complexion. Seafarers coming from Muslim countries were denied visas and shore leave in American ports.

People in society are suddenly feeling afraid and insecure. The blame is being placed on the Muslim religion because it is perceived as a threat to all nations.This feeling of insecurity is then extended evento other religions, and suddenly dialogue and communication have become difficult. The fortunate aspect of this process has been the attempts made to distinguish between the political motivations of the 9/11 attack and the Muslim belief itself which does not necessarily uphold these kinds of actions.

For these reasons, after that date, it is becoming increasingly more difficult to talk about inter-religious dialogue in the migrants’ world. As Christianswe should not be paralyzed by fear, but should find new ways and means to keep open the doors of dialogue and mutual understanding with different religions. This is especially important with the Muslims who are unjustly perceived as evil by a large majority of people. 

To talk about inter-religious dialogue after 9/11 means breaking down the barrier of fear, announcing that religions have something good and positive to offer and discovering “the semina Verbi (seeds of the Word of God) found in different cultures and religions” (EMCC 96).In continuing the dialogue after that day, we are giving peace another chance (cf. EMCC 93).We are defining new ways for religions to interact (cf. EMCC 69).This goes far behind the superficial “political” knowledge of these religions. 

3. Defining Inter-Religious Dialogue 

It is, however, necessary also to clearly define what is inter-religious dialogue for the Church in order to avoid confusion and misunderstanding.

The fundamental mission of the Church to evangelize includes inter-religious dialogue and proclamation of the Good News (ibid.). Though not on the same level, both are legitimate and necessary. They are intimately related, but not interchangeable: true inter-religious dialogue on the part of the Christian presupposes the desire to make Jesus Christ better known, recognized and loved; proclaiming Jesus Christ is to be carried out in the Gospel spirit of dialogue (cf. EMCC 59-60).

Another fundamental aspect of inter-religious dialogue is the proclamation of Christ as the Savior for the whole of humanity. The Church esteems the value of non-Christian religions, and sees in them at times the action of the Holy Spirit who is like the wind which "blows where it will" (John 3:8). The Church remains convinced of the need for her to fulfill her task of offering to the world the fullness of revealed truth, the truth of our redemption in Jesus Christ (cf. EMCC 69, 97). 

4. Vatican Council II and Inter-Religious Dialogue

With the Second Vatican Council document, Nostra Aetate, the Church showed a more positive attitude toward other religions. It states that “the Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions” (no. 2). The Church has a high regard for the way of life, precepts and doctrines of other religions. Although they might be different from the way of life, precepts and doctrines of the Church, they nonetheless “reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all people” (ibid.).

Even though there are similarities and differences among religious beliefs, the main purpose of each religion is to make every human being more spiritual. So we must view different religions as essential instruments in developing a good heart and love and respect for others. This will not only encourage people to live with greater appreciation for one another, but it will also help eliminate prejudices and false perceptions (cf. EMCC 41, 69, 100). 

Listening to the other is essential in dialogue regardless of any differences (cf. EMCC 36). One has to trust in the other’s sincerity and openness. We must try to understand the other starting from within his/her perspective. Therefore, inter-religious dialogue should never be used as a “Trojan horse” to force the other to change his/her belief. Neither should it proselytize. Polemics and confrontation have no place in inter-religious dialogue. Such a dialogue is the way to the future because if we want peace in the world, there must first be peace among religions. In this perspective, migration “helps people get to know one another and provides opportunity for dialogue and communion or indeed integration at various levels. Pope John Paul II drew attention to this in his Message for the World Day for Peace 2001: ‘In the case of many civilisations, immigration has brought new growth and enrichment. In other cases, the local people and immigrants have remained culturally separate but have shown that they are able to live together, respecting each other and accepting or tolerating the diversity of customs’”(EMCC 2). We can therefore consider the present-day phenomenon of migration a good opportunity for peace (cf. EMCC 14).

Our theological understanding of religious plurality starts with our faith in the Providence of God who created all things. Peoples and nations throughout history have responded in different ways to the creative presence of God, but for us Catholics, our faith response is always in light of the salvation we are experiencing in Christ. 

5. Pope John Paul II and Inter-Religious Dialogue in the Migrants’ World 

As I mentioned earlier, John Paul II considersinter-religious dialogue “one of the most significant challenges of our times”, as stated in his Message for migrants and refugees in 2002, which was completely dedicated to this theme with the title “Migration and Inter-Religious Dialogue”.

In his message the Holy Father challenges us as such:“the parish community …[is to]become a training ground of hospitality... Welcome and mutual openness allow people to know each other better and to discover that the various religious traditions not rarely contain precious seeds of truth” (nos. 3, 4). The Instruction Erga migrantes caritas Christi reminds us that “welcoming the stranger, a characteristic of the early Church, thus remains a permanent feature of the Church of God. It is practically marked by the vocation to be in exile, in diaspora, dispersed among cultures and ethnic groups without ever identifying itself completely with any of these. Otherwise it would cease to be the first-fruit and sign, the leaven and prophecy of the universal Kingdom and community that welcomes every human being without preference for persons or peoples. Welcoming the stranger is thus intrinsic to the nature of the Church itself and bears witness to its fidelity to the gospel” (no. 22). Progress has been done at this level but there is still a long way to go to make our parishes really open and welcoming communities. There is still too much fear of  “the other” as different from me. “Christians must in fact promote an authentic culture of welcome capable of accepting the truly human values of the immigrants over and above any difficulties caused by living together with persons who are different” (EMCC 39). Thus, we are not in front of just any kind of welcome, but of an “authentic culture of welcome”.

In order to remove the fear of “the other”, we need to learn and thus know more about their traditions and cultures (cf. EMCC 69). Most of all, if we, as Christians, would like to dialogue witho therson the level of belief we mustsee and understand well the dignity of other beliefs,  especially when migrants professing these come to us.

The Christian communities must receive them in a friendly manner and help them if they are in need (cf. EMCC 59). Migrants of other beliefs may not have the courage to visit Catholic churches or centers, so some pastoral workers should visit them where they gather. They should be offered spaces within the parish structure, those “reserved for social use, for free-time activities … and the like”, where they can gather among themselves (See EMCC 61).

Certainly, there are many ways of dialoguing with others. There is no fixed pattern or style, but if we would like to be successful in creating a sincere and deep inter-religious dialogue in the world of migration, it is necessary for it to be rooted in three basic elements:

a) a spirit of humility, openness, and respect for other religions, and for what God wishes to tell us through them (cf. EMCC 9, 28, 30, 34-38, 60, 100);

b) a witnessing to the saving grace of Christ, not so much through proclamation by words, but through concrete actions of love, so that its universal appeal is seen and felt (cf. EMCC 12, 41-43);

c) A spirituality that transforms our life, conforming it more and more to the image of Christ. This will gradually bring about the transformation of society, giving birth to a new humanity in Christ (cf. EMCC 36, 88, 100, 102). 


In the divided and fragmented world of migration, the Church has to become a sign of unity and integration. It must become a listening Church, entering into a genuine dialogue with migrants of different nationalities and religions. In this dialogue, the Christian migrants themselves will become prophetic leaders, announcing Christ as Savior, creating communion,and beckoning a renewed Pentecost.