Catholic bishops meeting for a global synod in the Vatican have been raising in public the delicate topic of converting Muslims to Christianity on the back of the Arab Spring revolutions.
“Something’s happening that is linked to the Arab Spring. People are asking questions, no longer satisfied by the common message in the mosques,” said Paul Desfarges, who has lived in Algeria for 38 years and became a bishop in 2009.
“Young people and the not-so-young want to be able to believe freely, they want to be free even to not believe at all,” he told a meeting of 260 bishops.
While the issue of converting Muslims had been raised at previous synods it is the first time that bishops have been speaking publicly about it, he said.
Desfarges told journalists that there had been newcomers to Christianity in his diocese but cautioned, “we don’t want to use conversions against Islam.”
“Some Algerians have asked to convert. They have to be very secret about it. They come to us after a very personal journey of faith: after a dream, a television programme, a film or a book,” he said.
“But that has to be the result of an internal questioning. We take all the time they need, in order to respect their liberty,” he added.
He said conversions posed problems for Muslim families: “For the average Muslim it’s unthinkable, unheard of. ‘What have we done to deserve this?’ cry the parents of children who have converted.”
While the Algerian Constitution provides for freedom of conscience, those who try to convert others to their religion can be prosecuted.
In other Muslim countries, abandoning your faith to embrace Christianity is severely punished and those found guilty can face the death penalty.