Shame on those who preach intolerance in the name of Christianity | Catherine Pepinster

Catherine Pepinster
‘Gospel truth’: the Wintershall Players present The Passion of Jesus in Trafalgar Square on Good Friday. Photograph: Jack Taylor/Getty

It is chocolate time for French children this morning, thanks to les cloches volantes – the flying bells. Legend has it that France’s church bells are silent between Good Friday and Easter Sunday because they fly to Rome to be blessed by the pope and then return laden with chocolate goodies. Children will be hunting in the grass for them as the bells ring out news of Christ’s resurrection. For a country that has always seemed secular, thanks to its sharp divide between church and state, France remains remarkably Catholic in its traditions.

But it is not Catholicism or other Christian denominations that have dominated political discourse about religion in France in recent years. It is Islam that has filled the headlines, due, first, to a preoccupation with mass migration from the Middle East and France’s former colonies in Africa, and, more recently, with Islamist attacks in Paris and Nice. There was also the murder of Father Jacques Hamel last July, killed as he prepared to celebrate Mass. The nation’s distress at the slaying of the priest in front of his altar strengthened identification with the church and moved Catholic opinion further to the right.

Even today, two-thirds of French people identify themselves as Catholic. Politicians have noted this, as well as the rightwards drift of voters. In a week’s time, the French will vote in the first round of their presidential election. The mood is angry . One in 10 of the workforce is unemployed. Poverty is on the rise. Just as people in the US and UK rejected the status quo by voting for Trump and Brexit, concern is growing that France might vote for the Front National’s Marine Le Pen.

Le Pen, a divorced Catholic living with a new partner, describes herself as a catholique de parvis (a Catholic kept just outside the walls), adroitly trying to appeal to her co-religionists. But her brand of Catholicism includes antipathy to Islam, a revisiting of antisemitism with her denial last week of the Paris wartime roundup of Jews and a rejection of the EU project.

Elsewhere in Europe, there are similar stories of anti-establishment anger, populist politics and, on occasion, the claiming of a version of Christianity to prove a politician’s point. The Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, raised as an atheist when Hungary belonged to the Soviet bloc, now insists that Christianity is Hungary’s backbone and that this backbone that must be stiffened to preserve the nation’s cultural identity and counter the Muslim threat. Hungary’s reworked constitution now includes “the role of Christianity in preserving nationhood” and he has stated he must protect his country’s borders from mainly Muslim migrants “to keep Europe Christian”.

In Germany, where Angela Merkel’s popularity dropped in a backlash at her generous immigration policy, the rightwing, openly anti-Muslim AfD party made significant gains against Merkel’s Christian Democrats in local elections last year. It was the Christian Democrats’ worst result and they will be watching nervously to see if there is a repetition in regional elections in Schleswig-Holstein and North-Rhine Westphalia in May.

The hostility to others expressed by voters opting for far-right, populist parties is at odds with the Gospel values shared by Europe for so long and rejection of the EU shows disdain for its founding principles that were influenced by Christian theology’s concepts of fellowship and solidarity.

Europe seems to be a world turned upside down, where people fear the stranger in their midst

This hostility is something new. Plenty of Europeans long ago abandoned church teaching on personal morality, rejecting what is taught about abortion, contraception and same-sex marriage. But that was a turning away from the institution’s thinking on what went on in the bedroom. Gospel values – the teachings of Jesus – about love of one’s neighbour and the welcome that should be given to the stranger stayed strong in Europe. Even the most ghastly episodes in Europe’s history, when those values were challenged by Nazism and fascism, saw them continue to be embraced by the rest. Now, Europe seems a world turned upside down, where people fear the stranger in their midst.

The origins of that fear are understandable, given the atrocities in Westminster, Paris, Stockholm and elsewhere. Then there are concerns about a steady supply of migrants perpetuating low pay. But this distress is played upon by populist opportunists riding a wave of discontent and putting the blame on the new arrivals rather than businessmen cutting wages.

A voice that continues to rise above the fray, urging Europeans not to make scapegoats of others, is that of Pope Francis. Since he was elected in 2013, the pope, whose family were Italian migrants who made a new life for themselves in Argentina, has spoken frequently of the need to welcome people who flee terrorism, tyranny and despair. “Migrants are not pawns on the chessboard of humanity,” he once said, urging greater efforts to eradicate the poverty that leads to the movement of people.

His words have been matched by public gestures, from travelling to the Italian island of Lampedusa to commemorate thousands of lives lost in the Mediterranean by people fleeing Africa in leaky boats to taking several Muslim families home with him last year to new lives in Rome.

These were gestures of solidarity, one of the original principles of the postwar European project, adopted by its Catholic founders Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman from Catholic theology, its roots in Christian ideas of community. When EU leaders gathered in Rome last month to commemorate the founding of the union, they were joined at the Vatican by Francis, who warned them of “the temptation to reduce the founding ideals of the union to productive, economic and financial needs”. There is a sense already of that reductionism, expressed in the referendum vote of the United Kingdom, notably absent from those Rome celebrations. The drawbridge has been pulled up. Other Europeans are showing disgruntlement too; solidarity today only goes so far.

That narrower view is apparent in Theresa May’s interpretation of Christianity. In her Easter message, the prime minister emphasises her credentials as a vicar’s daughter, suggesting the British should unite at this time of Brexit because of their shared values. It’s noticeable when she writes of those values expressed by Christians that she cites visiting the sick and the bereaved. This is “the sense of obligation we have to one another”. But the ancient Christian tradition of hospitality for the stranger is missing from her Easter credo.

In his Maundy Thursday Mass at St Peter’s, the pope spoke of the Samaritan woman at the well who used her pitcher to give a thirsty Christ water. Samaritans and Jews usually had no dealings with one another, but the woman stopped to help this stranger.

On Good Friday, churches marking the crucifixion of Christ will have heard in the readings the story of Simon of Cyrene, another stranger, who helped the bloodied, beaten Christ carry his cross. This was the service to others Jesus had in mind when he urged his followers to help the stranger: “As you did it to the least of my brothers, so you did it to me.”

In 1980, Margaret Thatcher gave a sermon on the parable of the Good Samaritan, the man who helps a Jew who has been mugged when everyone else leaves him by the wayside. According to the then prime minister, the reason the Samaritan helped was because he could; he had the money to do so. Well, up to a point. There are times when Christ says we must help, whatever our circumstances. He might have had refugee children in mind. Instead of focusing on Gospels values this Easter, Europe seems a continent in the grip of compassion fatigue.

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