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We talk with the General Director of Religious Affairs of Catalonia, Enric Vendrell, about the role of faith communities in society after the Barcelona terrorist attacks.
Two weeks after the attacks in Catalonia, which killed 16 people and left dozens injured, the General Director of Religious Affairs of Catalonia, Enric Vendrell, spoke to Protestant Digital to talk about religious freedom, Islamophobia, coexistence, and the challenges for the present and the immediate future.
Although some media are discussing whether some kind of government control over imans is needed, Enric Vendrell is convinced that this would not be the right path.
"Each confession is absolutely free and independent to choose and train its ministers of worship [... ] if we truly believe in religious freedom, we do not have to control that", he said, noting that vigilance is in the hands of "the law enforcement" who do an "unblemished" work.
The General Director of Religious Affairs also highlighted the good relationship with evangelicals and announced that the regional government supports the commemorations of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation that will take place in October. Read the full nterview below.
Question. A week has passed since the terrorist attacks. How would you describe the situation? What are your feelings?
Answer. It is a consciously ambivalent feeling. The Government is aware that these events have shocked our citizenship, it has been a very hard blow. But on the other hand, I do not know if I am too much of an optimist, but I believe that we have a cohesive Catalan society, which will move forward.
We are a society that will know how to put everything in its place, and that will continue to consider the Muslim population as its neighbors, people of trust, people integrated in this society.
Q. There is a lot of talk about integration these days. Is there an acceptable level of integration of Islamic communities in Catalan society?
A. It is difficult for me to use the word "integration". Throughout these years I have repeated several times that we do not need to integrate a group like the Muslim community in our Catalan society.
The challenge for Catalonia is that all those who come from countries with a Muslim majority, or those who come from South America, or from Eastern European countries, or those who have been living here for generations... All must be integrated into one new reality.
In recent years our society has undergone an impressive transformation from many points of view, also from the religious point of view. The religious reality of Catalonia today has nothing to do with what could be found 25 or 30 years ago. We are all obliged to integrate ourselves into this new social reality.
Q. How does the Religious Affairs Office work to favor this coexistence, especially with the Islamic communities?
A. We have three main lines of work. First, the Directorate-General of Religious Affairs has the task of keeping in touch with the communities and religious denominations of Catalonia. We are advising and accompanying these communities, which in recent decades have been implemented in our territory, to help them formalise their presence.
Another line of work is the collaboration and advice to the city councils of Catalonia. We are aware that, to a large extent, the actions of the different faiths are concretised in the townships. We work there, so that this religious innovation, which has changed so much in a few years, obliges the townships to adapt to the new reality and facilitate the activity to these communities.
The guiding principle of our action is religious freedom, we have a legal system presided by the right of religious freedom . This forces us to work with religious communities and city councils, so that religious freedom does not become empty words, but an everyday reality.
The third area of action is very important and somehow encompasses everything: The government of Catalonia carries out an ambitious work of sensitisation and pedagogy, working to make known this religious diversity. In order to have a good coexistence, it is necessary to know other confessions better. The worst thing that can happen to us is that the citizenship does not know anything of these confessions, because the not knowing carries with it the prejudices, the stigmatisation, etc.
Q. Regarding these attacks in Barcelona and Cambrils, the radicalisation within the Islamic communities is a key factor. In this particular case, an imam in the city of Ripoll led others to carry out the attack. What can the government do?
A. Our work is to give these communities the ability to know what the social and political reality of this country is, to help them meet the local authorities. That work is very important for us. It is not convenient at all to have closed religious communities. This is almost an obsession for us. We need open communities that dialogue with local authorities, neighborhood organisations, and political organisations. We need religious communities to be very open to society.
It is evident that there might be consequences because of what has happened. There could be a certain step back, we are working to avoid that.
Q. There is a debate in the media of whether it is necessary to establish some kind of protocol of control over Muslim imams, or better self-control by religious communities. What do you think?
A. These days I have answered this question countless times. I believe that for you, being Protestants, it will be easier to undestand. Our legal right is governed by the right of religious freedom. That religious freedom is shown when each confession is absolutely free, autonomous and independent to choose and train its ministers of worship.
It has been asked if there should be a record, a control, or not... I really do not think so. It is not our duty. If if we truly believe in religious freedom, we do not have to control that.
Does anyone really believe that the government has to control the pastors, or the rabbis, or the priests? There are already mechanisms in our legislation for cases in which there are criminal offences.
The message of radicalisation it is not given in the preaching of Fridays, inside the mosque. The case of Ripoll confirms what I am saying. Nobody detected a disturbing speech from this imam inside the mosque. This man had a double life. One life in the community, preaching on Fridays, which was unblemished, and another life outside the mosque, in his relationship with the young people.
Q. What do you thnk about the interfaith memorial service celebrated in Barcelona?
A. Maybe I am not impartial, but we are very satisfied. I think that it is the first time that an act like this is organised, at least in Barcelona. An act where the different religions were the protagonists, which was attended by all, where young people of the different denonations participated.
The highest political authorities of the country were there, from the Minister of Justice of the Spanish government to the President of Catalonia, the President of the Parliament of Catalonia, numerous counselors of the Government of Catalonia, the Mayor of Barcelona, city council members, MPs. Although all these authorities were present, we did not want them to be the protagonists.
Q. How would you value the contribution of Protestants to Catalan society? Is there something special that Protestants can do in this situation?
A. The day after the attack I wrote a note to all religious communities. Many people answered me, including many Protestant pastors, putting themselves at the disposal of the government, showing signs of being determined to work in favor of coexistence.
I know the Protestant communities in Catalonia well and I have a very good relationship with many of them.
During these years of traveling throughout Catalonia I have been interested in getting to know and greet as much churches as possible.
I know the evangelical world well and I am pleased to know that the churches are committed to the work we are doing.
We are in the year of the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, and we are working for the Government and the churches to commemorate this anniversary.
We have a good level of collaboration. For example, in these years we have been able to close an issue that I know the evangelical churches have been requesting for a long time, regarding religious assistance in hospitals, through a collaboration agreement. It is an example of the collaborative work that I think we have done well.