Ball in Vatican’s court after Muslim dialogue appeal

October 15, 2007

Pope Benedict prays with Muslim clerics in IstanbulAn unprecedented call from 138 Muslim scholars for better Christian-Muslim understanding had a Warholesque 15-minutes-of- fame in most media last week. Their letter to world Christian leaders got covered widely in English-speaking media (including by Reuters) and much less so in many European countries, possibly because the news conferences presenting it were in London and Washington. Some reactions from Christian leaders were included in the reporting that day. The following day, the reaction from the Vatican — the main addressee of the letter that represents more than half of Christianity — made for another story (here is our report and the original Vatican Radio report in Italian).

The story has now faded from the headlines but it’s one of those developments that cry out for a next step. The Muslim scholars invited their Christian counterparts to a dialogue, so the ball is in the Christians’ court. More specifically, it’s in the Vatican’s court. The Roman Catholic Church is the largest and most centralised branch of the Christian family. The Muslims also have a bone to pick with Pope Benedict, who just over a year ago gave his famous Regensburg speech that implied Islam was violent and irrational. That sparked off violent protests in the Muslim world and, in turn, inspired 38 Muslim scholars to write a first letter in October 2006 that denounced that violence, asked for a dialogue (which Benedict had suggested in Regensburg) and questioned his understanding of Islam.

The latest letter is a follow-up, with a far larger group of signatories and the more ambitious goal of engaging in a theological dialogue with Christians. The wealth of Koran and Bible quotes cited and the argument that Islam agrees with the heart of Christian teaching — to love God and neighbour — showed these scholars want a long and serious theological discussion with Christianity.

The question now is how the Vatican will respond. Soon after his election in 2005, Pope Benedict downgraded the Vatican department dealing with Islam by folding it into the Church’s culture ministry. Muslim leaders complained that this meant he wanted to deal with Islam as a culture and not a religion. After the Regensburg fiasco, many apologies and a fence-mending visit to Turkey, the pope did an about-face in May 2007 and re-established the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue as a separate dicastery (department). But instead of restoring its former head, Islam expert Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, he picked former diplomat Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran to run it.

Even as they presented the appeal in Washington, Iranian scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr (a signatory) of George Washington University and U.S. Islam expert John Esposito of Georgetown University seemed sceptical about the Vatican’s willingness to actually follow up on this invitation. According to the transcript of their news conference, Nasr said “Most of the response that has come from the Vatican, after the Islamic protest and all of these things, has been diplomatic, not theological. The very first meeting in the Vatican [after Regensburg] was with Muslim ambassadors. These are people appointed as ambassadors, many of whom know nothing at all about Islamic issues. What is being evaded all the time are those underlying differences in belief that then cause the political and social differences to manifest themselves on the surface. We have to be honest enough to tackle that, and not to hide it in the closet.”

Esposito agreed: “I think that you do have a strong school of thought in the Vatican which does not seem to believe that there can be a theological dialogue with Islam. It’s based on what I regard as an old theological position, and it’s a position with which I was raised. Before I did my work for the last 35 years on Islam, I was trained as a Catholic theologian. In those days, the whole approach was that because Islam says that the Prophet is the final prophet and has the final revelation, therefore there can’t be any theological dialogue. It seems to me we’ve moved beyond that, at least we ought to move beyond that. But this is one of the questions that has arisen, and it has not been answered during this papacy. The response to Regensburg did not answer that.”

Another possible stumbling block stands out in the Muslim letter. The first section on the love of God argues that both Islam and Chrisianity make this their first commandment. That’s fine. But the letter quotes several suras from the Koran stressing that “there is no god but God, He Alone, He hath no associate, His is the sovereignty and His is the praise and He hath power of all things.” This is the doctrine of tawhid, the oneness of God, that is fundamental to Islam and differs from the Trinity (three persons in one God) in Christianity. The signatories signalled they wanted to avoid the centuries-old disputes about this by not citing the most important sura for this doctrine (sura 112 –Say: He, Allah, is One. Allah is He on Whom all depend. He begets not, nor is He begotten. And none is like Him.). But that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t come up.

It would be interesting to see if anyone on the Christian side takes the initiative to work out a consensus of opinions about Islam, maybe a reply to the Muslims’ letter. An invitation to actual discussions would be even more interesting. Some Protestants might be ready to give this a try, but the Vatican famously “thinks in centuries” and could turn out to be the slow boat in the convoy on this.

Here are texts of the letter in English, Arabic, French and Italian.

Some further reactions to it:

Anglican Communion — Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams
Church of England — Bishop of Rochester Michael Nazir-Ali
World Council of Churches — General Secretary Rev. Samuel Kobia
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America — Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson (also president of the Lutheran World Federation)
Evangelical Alliance — General Director Rev. Joel Edwards
Arab News (Saudi Arabia) editorial
Gulf News (Dubai) editorial
Muslim Council of Britain — Assistant Secretary-General Inayat Bunglawala
National Review Online (U.S.)

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