Pace picks up in international interfaith meetings
November will see an upswing on the interfaith dialogue front with two high-level meetings highlighting different approaches to the challenge of fostering better understanding among the world’s major religions.
The first will be the meeting of the Common Word group of Muslim scholars with Pope Benedict and top Roman Catholic experts on Islam next week (Nov. 4-6) at the Vatican. This will be the third conference initiated by the group, following sessions at Yale University in July and the University of Cambridge this month where Muslim and Christian religious leaders and theologians discussed in detail what unites and separates them. Being the supertanker of the Christian world, the Vatican has turned more slowly towards this theological dialogue than the smaller Protestant churches. But it has agreed to institutionalise the dialogue in a Catholic-Muslim Forum and give it a gesture of approval with a papal audience. Let’s see what comes out at the end of the talks next Thursday.
Here is my curtainraiser on the meeting.
The week afterwards, on Nov. 12-13, Saudi King Abdullah will be at the United Nations in New York to promote the interfaith dialogue that he launched in Madrid last July. This effort is much wider — the Madrid meeting had not only Christians and Muslims but also Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and people of other faiths. It seems like more of an official diplomatic offensive, especially with that U.N. connection. Reflecting that, the White House has announced that President George Bush will join Abdullah at the talks. There are reports that Israeli President Shimon Peres and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni might attend. One might be tempted to write the whole thing off as another talking shop, but an international body like the United Nations may be the right forum now for Abdullah to continue one pioneering aspect of this effort — his outreach to Jews. Several rabbis attended the Madrid meeting and Abdullah has said he wants to hold an interfaith conference in Saudi Arabia. That would have to include Jews if this whole project is to be taken seriously. Watch that space.
All this focus on better understanding between the world’s two largest religions looks like it is overlooking the third Abrahamic monotheism, but it’s not that simple. The Catholic Church has been talking a lot with Jews lately, most of it over the still open wound of the Pius XII papacy and his stand during the Holocaust. The Vatican was on the defensive on that one and Pope Benedict hinted on Thursday he would freeze the sainthood process for his wartime predecessor. At the same time, he told the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations that “dialogue between cultures and religions must more and more be seen as a sacred duty incumbent upon all those who are committed to building a world worthy of man”. While it wants to keep a sharp focus on Christian-Muslim issues, the Common Word group has also included rabbis in its discussions, especially when dealing with reading scriptures. The Vatican also plans another meeting with the International Jewish Committee in Budapest on Nov. 9-12.