There are some extraordinary gatherings organised by Catholic movements that take place each year but which go largely unnoticed by the media. One is the annual interfaith gathering organised by the Sant’Egidio community in a different city in October each year. Another is the so-called Rimini Meeting named after the Italian coastal city where 700,000 people gather each year in the second half of August. It is organised by 11 full-timers and 3,000 volunteers drawn from Communion and Liberation, a Catholic movement once amusingly described by Mgr Lorenzo Albacete as "Opus Dei for lazy Catholics".
Il Meeting is the leading annual forum in Europe for Catholics who want a dialogue with secularism and Islam which does not involve diluting Catholic identity. John Allen, the Catholic commentator who is usually to found there in search of nuggets, describes it as "one part intellectual discourse, one part rock and roll festival" -- a combo only Italians seem to be able to pull off.
It is where the cream of Europe’s Catholic intellectuals can be found in late summer -- which is why high-level Muslims, humanists and others with whom the Church wants to have a serious cultural dialogue are to be found there too. As the place where each year the Church scans the cultural horizon -- reading the signs of the times -- it is worth keeping in the telescope.
Yesterday the Vatican’s chief diplomat, Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, spoke at Il Meeting of the need to combat "Christianophobia" as firmly as "Islamophobia" and "anti-Semitism".
The term is interesting because new. Are Christians really facing the kind of pogroms Jews once endured -- or the prejudices which Muslims suffer today in the west?
For a positive answer to both, consider two current news items.
In the eastern Indian state of Orissa, Hindu mobs have killed 13 Christians and caused thousands more to flee their homes. Alistair Scrutton at Reuters has an excellent summary and background here. At Rimini the talk is of Hindu fundamentalism being at least as much a threat to Christians as Muslim attacks on Christians in Iraq or Indonesia.
Secularism is a much politer threat, but in many ways more deadly. In Britain a new coalition of teacher unions, humanists and intellectuals has attacked faith schools for being divisive and discriminatory because they prefer to take pupils who come from the faith community which the school serves.
This wouldn’t matter in other countries such as the U.S. where there is state-church separation, but in the UK faith schools are mostly state-funded and the ideal of education remains one of "equal opportunity". So faith schools are vulnerable to an ideology of equality which sees religious difference as divisive, and schools which select teachers and pupils to preserve their values as discriminatory. Many in the Labor Government share that ideology, and the threat remains real. Faith schools in 2006 may have succeeded for the time being in fighting off a government attempt to demand that faith schools take quotas of non-faith pupils. But a dozen Catholic adoption agencies in the UK will be forced to close or secularise from January because their preference for placing children with male-female parents will be illegal -- because discriminatory against homosexuals.
So there is every reason for to speak, as they are in Rimini, of "Christianophobia". But I am nervous of using the term. Persecuted minorities see themselves as victims, and victims tend to claim a kind of moral superiority which seeks to deny legitimacy to their critics. Attack Israeli security policy, and you are "antisemitic". Ask why Muslims do not speak out against terrorism, and you are "Islamophobic".
Christians need to identify their persecutors and name the persecution and prejudice for what it is. But they also need to beware the temptations of victimhood. The "unity" that comes from a shared sense of victimhood is just as dangerously seductive as that of the hissing crowd.