Father Dudley J. Perera OMI, who is from Sri Lanka, is currently working in the Hobart Archdiocese as a parish priest. He was professor of Biblical and philosophical studies at the National Seminary, Ampitiya, Sri Lanka, for over 30 years and also lectured at an interdenominational Protestant seminary in Sri Lanka.
He has also lectured in Indian seminaries while his last posting before working in Australia was at De La Salle University, Manila, Philippines, as associate professor in the religious studies and philosophy departments.
The Hebrew Bible (known to Christians as the Old Testament) offers us a preview of how the early Christians regarded non-Christian religions.
The People of God in the Hebrew Bible believed their God was the only living and true God and ridiculed the other so-called pagan religions which worshipped their own gods - gods that were made of stone (referring to statues) with no eyes to see, nor ears to hear. They were as dead as the stones that represented them.
The prophets such as Isaiah dreamt of a day when all other peoples would flock to Jerusalem to worship the One True God in the holy Temple.
However, the God of the Hebrews did not wish to isolate the lands of the pagans. Rather He wished that missionaries or preachers would go out in order to preach about the True God to these pagans.
The prophet Jonah is a case in point for he shared the traditional viewpoint that pagans were not worthy to be brought into the fold of the People of God. But God's will was different and He saw to it that Jonah travelled to Nineveh to preach to its pagan population.
All Christians are familiar with the story of the huge fish (whale!) that swallowed Jonah the prophet and vomited him onto the shores of Nineveh. When finally Jonah went to preach to the Ninevites, to his consternation he found that all of them were repenting, including putting on sackcloth and ashes, the king included. They were all converted to the God whom Jonah preached.
The traditional Jewish stance of belittling pagan nations and their gods still prevailed at the time of Jesus' mission in Palestine. His attitude to non-Jewish religions seemed to conform to the prevailing view at the beginning of his ministry with his conviction that he was sent to save the lost sheep of Israel (Mt 10:5-6).
However, there are signs that his vision extended beyond the boundaries of Palestine as the New Testament provides evidence that Jesus travelled to Tyre and Sidon which were pagan territories at that time, preaching and healing. Later, after his resurrection, he commanded his disciples to go out and preach the gospel to all nations (Mt 28).
The Acts of the Apostles then inform us how Paul, dubbed the Apostle of the Gentiles, travelled out of Palestine, visiting Greek-speaking nations to preach the Good News.
Acts also tell us how Peter, who was the chief of the Apostles, had difficulty in understanding and accepting the early Church's mission to the non-Jews (Acts 10). However, we are told a vision helped him overcome this difficulty and support the mission to the Gentiles.
The early Apostolic Church also debated if non-Jews who embraced Christianity had to be subject to Jewish initiation rites, such as circumcision for male converts. This was a further facet of the Jewish sense of religious superiority which required that all Gentiles must become Jews first before embracing Christianity.
Here Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, prevailed. For he insisted that Baptism was all-sufficient.
Hence we see that even the Apostolic Church had its difficulties in its attitude to the Gentiles with their religions with their many gods.
At the same time the early Church shared similar attitudes to their ancient Jewish forbears in regard to other religions.
Although the watch-word, extra ecclesiam nulla salus (outside the Church no salvation) was first applied to Christian apostates or heretics - meaning those who left the Church - it was later extended to all members of other religious faiths who faced damnation in the next life if they did not convert. Indeed, in time both non-Catholic Christians and non-Christians in general would face the same fate!
This view persisted for almost two millennia since the attributes of One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic could only be found in the Roman Catholic Church, although it should be said that at the same time other Christian denominations were applying the 'true Church' principle even more vigorously than Catholics.
Then, in 1965, the Second Vatican Council issued a 'Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions' (Nostra Aetate) which represented a significant re-think on this sensitive topic.
The Council had earlier issued its Decree on Ecumenism (1964) which extended the hand of friendship to non-Catholic Christian churches, basically those 'mainline' ones that had stood the test of time.
The Council upheld that these churches enjoyed some of the attributes of Catholicism, albeit to a lesser degree. For example, the Church's holiness is measured by the means it provides for making its members holy. Here there are seven sacraments whereas other Christian denominations have fewer, perhaps only Baptism and Eucharist.
Regarding non-Christian religions the Council's Declaration held that all peoples of all religions can be saved provided they followed the dictates of a well-informed conscience. This could be based on the principles of their own religion or even on natural law.
The Council also conceded that these religions were not merely man-made but could contain vestiges or rays of Revelation (vestigia revelationis). Some of these religions are theistic while others contain and preach many values of God's Kingdom, such as love, compassion and tolerance.
This admission by the Catholic Church has led to many ecumenical movements, not only among the Christian churches, but also among other non-Christian bodies.
In the decades since Vatican II many people of diverse faiths have come together in order to address common problems confronting humanity at large: war, human trafficking, unjust detention, paedophilia, abortion, the natural environment, poverty, etc. Discussions are not only based on natural law since each religious group is able to bring its religious convictions to bear upon these problems.
Pope John Paul II initiated another move of calling leaders of world religions to pray together. This prayer meeting was first held at Assisi in Italy. Assisi is the place where St Francis of Assisi is venerated. He was a peacemaker between peoples and even with creation. It was an appropriate venue for so many pilgrims to gather to seek inspiration from the saint.
The meeting was initially resisted by many top Vatican officials who feared that a religious syncretism - with Catholicism put on an equal footing with other religions - could be fostered by such meetings. However, this concern was allayed somewhat when it was explained that the meeting's purpose was for religious leaders to pray together for world peace and to encourage adherents of all world religions to be peacemakers.
In light of this development, some asked whether Catholics who engaged in dialogue with other religions might be ready to be converted to another faith if they were convinced of its truth?
The Church responded that conversion is not the goal of dialogue. Rather it is to understand one another better so that there may be more respect and tolerance for each other's beliefs. The concern could arise because many non-Catholics still regard Catholics as intolerant and triumphalist.
The Hindus are generally tolerant and can embrace any god in their pantheon; and the Buddhists are peaceful and tolerant.
However, this is not the case in general with Muslims who claim superiority over Catholicism, regarding Jesus as merely another prophet and Mohammed as the last of God's prophets. They believe that the revelation which Mohammed received from above represents a perfection of Christian revelation.
Naturally claims to superiority on both sides have left a legacy of mutual bitterness and suspicion with the relationships between Christians and Muslims generally souring the history of religions. Hence any dialogue or encounters between the followers of these two major world religions are to be welcomed.
Another issue not dealt with explicitly in official Church documents is the status of the sacred books of other religions.
Catholics hold the Bible to be the inspired Word of God. But how 'inspired' are the sacred books of other religions? Theologians, most especially from India, have striven to encounter this issue fairly and squarely.
India is home to great world religions, some of which ante-date Christianity. If the sacred books of these religions prompt countless millions of their adherents to lead good and conscientious lives, are they not even analogously inspired? This can be understood as other sacred books that are somewhat similar in parts to the inspired Bible but to a lesser extent.
Indian theologians answer this in the positive and their position sounds quite logical, rational and even theologically acceptable. If non- Christian religions contain rays of divine revelation, then might not their sacred books likewise contain some rays of divine inspiration?
Regarding this question, some Indian theologians have sought clarification from the Church's magisterium on the use of some passages from these sacred books of other religions at formal Catholic liturgies - even at Holy Mass - celebrated in India.
This, they say, would be analogous to reading passages from the Old Testament before the reading of those from the New Testament - although Christians believe the Old Testament is a preparation for the New Testament.
Moreover, in the early centuries some Church Fathers considered particular religions to be preparatio evangelica (preparation for the Gospel). If the Old Testament is used for first readings, especially at the Eucharistic celebration, some might ask, why not readings from the sacred books of other religions, before the Old Testament readings?
In this regard, however, the problem for Christians with Islam is that it post-dated Christianity and claims to be the last revealed religion and one that perfects Christianity.
No official approval has yet been granted for the Indian theologians' request. The Holy See's reluctance regarding any use in Catholic worship of the sacred books of other religions arises from the fact that the Church wishes to uphold the unique character of its inspired sacred books which contain the fullness of revelation.
Today we Catholics live in a multi-cultural, multi-religious and multi-racial world and are called upon to uphold the human rights and dignity of every member of the human race.
These rights include freedom of conscience and the right to worship the god of one's choice. Forced conversions simply because one religious group believes itself to be superior to others militate against these rights. In this atmosphere, which is radically different from the times discussed earlier in this article, claims of superiority need to be advanced with tact and caution.
If world leaders are deemed to be responsible for striving to avert war and to foster world peace, even more so are religious leaders obliged to do so. But world peace is an absolute value which cannot be brought about without justice and fair play by all religions towards members of other religions.