Christian-Muslim dialogue: glimmerings of hope

Christian-Muslim dialogue: glimmerings of hope

Babette Francis

Having lived in India during the terrible time of Partition (1947), when the Muslim majority provinces of the country separated to form the new country of Pakistan, a separation accompanied, in the northern part of the sub-continent, by riots, mass migration of Hindus fleeing to India and Muslims fleeing to the new Pakistan, and the killing and deaths of millions, I have long felt that the roots of terrorism lie in the inability of many Muslims to accept living in a secular democracy rather than under an Islamic regime.

The Taj Mahal Hotel, one of the sites of the Mumbai terrorism of November 2008, is just a couple of blocks from where my family and I lived while I was a university student. I feel overwhelmed with sadness that a place I associated with iced coffee and friendly chess games would be a site of carnage.

Indian Partition may have been the first manifestation of Islamism in modern times, but the problem is in a more widespread form with us today; just as Marxism was the ideological battle of the last century, so Islamism is the issue today.

The big question is whether the excesses of Islamism - the lack of religious freedom for non-Muslims in Muslim countries, the lack of equal rights for women, jihad terrorism - are inherent in the religion or just excesses caused by tribal cultures, poor education and poverty.

A dialogue of sorts has commenced between Christians - who accept the distinction between church and state - and Muslims who find such a distinction problematical. Islam itself accepts no distinction - all is one under Allah.

The Catholic Church's dialogue with Islam is based on the Second Vatican Council's Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non- Christian Religions, Nostra Aetate, which urged esteem for Muslims because 'they adore the one God', strive to follow his will, recognise Jesus as a prophet, honor his mother, Mary, 'value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting.'

Two years after the gentle chiding of Pope Benedict XVI in his Regensburg address about problems with Islam's understanding of the integration of faith and reason, and the inclination towards violence this flawed understanding can provoke, dialogue was sought by Muslim scholars and is now proceeding on a number of different fronts.

In April 2008 a little publicised meeting took place at the Vatican with a delegation from Iran. In a communique they committed to meet again in Tehran within two years, and agreed on:

* Faith and reason are both gifts of God to mankind.

* Faith and reason do not contradict each other, but faith might in some cases be above reason, but never against it.

* Faith and reason are intrinsically non-violent. Neither reason nor faith should be used for violence; unfortunately, both have been sometimes misused to perpetrate violence. In any case, these events cannot question either reason or faith.

A major Catholic-Muslim Forum took place in the Vatican in early November 2008. The Muslims came from the Arab world, America, Indonesia and Malaysia as well as converted imams from the West. Catholics too were drawn from across the continents, and women were in both groups.

Fr Samir Khalil Samir SJ, an expert on Islam, was among the participants and reported on some of the hopes created by the meeting: issues of religious freedom, the common challenge of secularism, and the Muslim request that Christians counter Islamaphobia.

Fr Samir said the most important element was the atmosphere of serenity and friendship, respected at all times, both in public and in private one-on-one encounters. 'Some may claim that the final document is too generic. But we must take into account that this is the first in a series of meetings. What is most important about this Forum is that it is a start ...

'Dialogue was frank: we did not shy away from difficulties. We had chosen the title 'Love of God and Love of Neighbour' for the encounter. Despite some pressures to remain within the theological and spiritual fields alone, there was a general consensus to confront theological questions on the first day; on the second the themes of human dignity and reciprocal respect ...

'In the Joint Declaration, serious problems arose on 'the right of persons and communities to practise their faith in private and in public'. Some Muslims said: 'If you include those words you put us in great difficulty. Freedom of religion in our countries is governed by State law. How can we distribute a document that is against State law? We risk being disqualified and marginalised by our society' ...

'All of these difficulties were resolved by the grand Mufti, Mustafa Ceri, who recalled that the formulas on religious freedom used in the joint statement are those found in the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Many Muslim governments signed this Declaration. Therefore they must accept it, even though perhaps they don't practise it. This solved the problem and eased the path for all to adhere to the final document. Difficulties remain, but at least we have affirmed the principal of freedom.'

Many other Christian-Muslim meetings are being held, in universities in the US, in Saudi Arabia and at the UN. The latter, however, is seen by many concerned Christians as a thinly disguised attempt to establish a UN Convention against religious blasphemy, i.e., to censor critical analysis of Islam and the Koran, reminiscent of Victoria's Racial and Religious Vilification legislation.


Prior to the Vatican meeting, the Muslim-born journalist baptised by Pope Benedict XVI last Easter asked the Pope to tell his top aide for relations with Muslims that Islam is not an intrinsically good religion and that Islamic terrorism is not the result of a minority gone astray. Magdi Allam, a longtime critic of the Muslim faith of his parents, issued an open letter to Pope Benedict that included criticism of Cardinal Jean- Louis Tauran, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.

In the letter Allam said he wanted to tell the Pope of his concern for 'the serious religious and ethical straying that has infiltrated and spread within the heart of the Church.' He told the Pope that it 'is vital for the common good of the Catholic Church, the general interest of Christianity and of Western civilisation itself' that the Pope make a pronouncement in 'a clear and binding way' on the question of whether Islam is a valid religion.

Allam told Pope Benedict he specifically objected to Cardinal Tauran telling a conference in August that Islam itself promotes peace but that 'some believers' have 'betrayed their faith',' using it as a pretext for violence.

'The objective reality, I tell you with all sincerity and animated by a constructive intent, is exactly the opposite of what Cardinal Tauran imagines,' Allam told the Pope. 'Islamic extremism and terrorism are the mature fruit of following the sayings of the Koran and the thought and action of Mohammed.'

Muslim converts to Christianity also asked religious experts at the Vatican meeting to put their weight behind religious freedom. The petitioners, Catholic, Orthodox and Protestants from North Africa and the Middle East, wanted the meeting to agree to the following points:

* that Islamic law does not apply to non-Muslims;

* that dhimmi (or second class) status be abolished;

* that the right to change religion be recognised as a fundamental right.

Those who signed the appeal are happy for the steps taken in the last few years and for the Letter signed by 128 Muslim scholars which many see as a sign that 'Islam is not anti-Christian.'

They stress however that the minority condition endured by Christians in Muslim countries, already influenced by the unbearable status of dhimmi (group protection extended by Islamic rulers to their non-Muslim subjects in exchange for paying a tax, which in effect denies them equal treatment in society), has worsened lately as a result of the rise of militant Islamism.

Benedict XVI

In a letter he wrote to Marcello Pera, an Italian centre-right politician and scholar whose book Why We Must Call Ourselves Christian argues that Europe should stay true to its Christian roots, Pope Benedict explained with great clarity that 'an interreligious dialogue in the strict sense of the word is not possible ... In theological terms, a true dialogue is not possible without putting one's faith in parentheses.'

But the Pope added that 'intercultural dialogue which deepens the cultural consequences of basic religious ideas' was important. He called for confronting 'in a public forum the cultural consequences of basic religious decisions.'

The head of an association of Italian Muslims, Ahmad Gianpiero Vincenzo, heartily endorses Benedict's philosophy. He says 'it is not possible to advance dialogue between religions that plays down the specific doctrines, otherwise we slide into the relativism of those who believe all religions are the same and that individual religious doctrines and ritual practices are no longer needed.'

The distinction between religion and politics is not just the result of historic struggles, but of principle: it is rooted in the Gospel where Christ refuses to behave like a political or social leader, but the context of the Arab tribes in the seventh century pushed Mohammad to make socio- political and military choices. 'Brother Andrew' van der Bijl, founder of 'Open Doors', a Netherlands-based group which aims to provide shelters for Muslim converts to Christianity, has suggested we pray for Osama bin Laden. If bin Laden knew we were praying for him and his jihadists perhaps it would make him think about peace.

Babette Francis, National and Overseas Co-ordinator of Endeavour Forum Inc., was born in India and has many Muslim friends. At the UN Endeavour Forum co-operates with Muslims who are, in general, opposed to abortion and homosexual 'rights'.

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