FaithWorld

Allam baptism makes more waves, prompts more questions

The Magdi Allam baptism and debate about Catholic-Muslim relations in its aftermath continue to make waves. Here are a few interesting points that have come up in recent days:

    Pope Benedict baptises Magdi Allam, 22 March 2008/Dario PignatelliAt www.chiesa, a well-informed multi-lingual blog on the Roman Catholic Church, vaticanista Sandro Magister says the Vatican is more interested in an inter-faith dialogue proposed by Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah than the one it has just begun with the Common Word group of 138 (plus) Muslim scholars. Magister notes that L’Osservatore Romano published stories on “two instances of dialogue between the Catholic Church and Islam, demonstrating how this dialogue is showing promising developments precisely during the days of the controversy over the baptism of Allam, administered by the pope.” He adds: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear. In the judgment of the Church of Rome, the dialogue with Islam is not limited to the follow-up to the letter of the 138 – one of whose leading exponents, Aref Ali Nayed, has directed extremely harsh criticism against the pope for having baptized Allam – but is developed in multiple areas, some of which it believes are more promising than others.”
    Saudi King Abdullah at a cabinet meeting in Riyadh, 24 March 2008//Ho NewOur Riyadh bureau chief Andrew Hammond, looking at Abdullah’s call, wrote in an analysis,“the king is seen in Saudi Arabia as a well-intended reformer whose plans for change have largely been foiled by hardline clerics and their allies within the Saudi royal family.” One glaring example of this disconnect came recently in the Shura Council, a quasi-parliamentary body that has refused to support efforts by many Islamic countries to have the United Nations draw up a global pact on respecting religions and their symbols. This pact is one of the top diplomatic goals for many Muslim countries these days, including Saudi Arabia. One of the main supporters of this pact is the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, which is based in and heavily financed by … Saudi Arabia!
    That same www.chiesa post cited above included a long analysis by Pietro De Marco, a professor of the sociology of religion at the University of Florence and at the Theological Faculty of Central Italy. In it, he rejects in detail the criticism Sandro Magisterexpressed by the leading Common Word signatory Aref Ali Nayed and offers an interpretation of the baptism as Pope Benedict offering to help Islam to “seize the opportunity to exit critically from itself, to open itself to the dimension of the universal and to come back to itself as a reflectively renewed Islam.” This sounds like the invitation to dialogue that Pope Benedict offered in the Regensburg speech better known for his controversial use of a Byzantine emperor’s quote criticising Islam.
    Magister’s point about Catholic-Muslim dialogue proceeding on several fronts is interesting, even if we’re not so sure Abdullah’s proposals will get anywhere. The fact the Vatican is still pursuing the Common Word option was made clear in the reply that Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi gave to Nayed’s criticism. Check out the full text to see an excellent example of how to reject criticism yet keep all doors open to further dialogue.
    Samir Khalil Samir, S.J.Rev. Samir Khalil Samir, the Egyptian Jesuit who is one of the Catholic Church’s leading experts on Islam, has a long analysis on Asianews.it of Allam’s conversion. In it, he notes that both Christianity and Islam are missionary religions and adds: “The pope’s baptism of Magdi Allam is not an act of aggression, but an exigency of reciprocity. It is a calm provocation that serves to make us sit up and think. Each one of us must live as a missionary, attempting to offer to the other the best of what one has encountered and understood.”
    The National Catholic Reporter’s John Allen interpreted Pope Benedict’s John Allenmessage as follows: (1) For a pope committed to reawakening a strong missionary spirit in Catholicism, receiving a high-profile convert during the Easter Vigil is a symbolic way of making the point, (2) Allam’s baptism can also be read as a statement of solidarity with Muslim converts to Christianity around the world and (3) the episode illustrates an important wrinkle to Benedict’s personality — stubborn indifference to the canons of political correctness. Read more here.
    Magdi Allam at his baptism, 22 March 2008/Dario PignatelliThere have been comments on various Catholic blogs criticising the media coverage (by us and others) of the Allam baptism. The Catholic Church can baptise anyone it wants, they say, so stop making such a fuss about it. We haven’t had much of that in our comments sections but here’s an example of that argument from another blog. Anyone writing this is either wilfully playing naive or is actually naive. We never said Allam should not be baptised — we have no dispute with the Church’s right to do so. What we did was quote others, Catholics as well as Muslims, who questioned whether it had to be done with such publicity. Saying this event didn’t deserve the headlines it got shows a basic misunderstanding of both how the news media work and how the Vatican works.

More activity on the Christian- Muslim dialogue front

Saudi King Abdullah at a cabinet meeting in Riyadh, 24 March 2008//Ho NewThe dust had hardly settled from the Magdi Allam baptism story when Saudi King Abdullah announced he wanted to promote dialogue between Muslims, Christians and Jews. The World Council of Churches came out with its endorsement of the Common Word dialogue appeal after consulting member churches (many of which have already responded positively). And the World Economic Forum issued a study that says, among other things, that fewer than 30% of Muslims and Christians polled thought the other faith was sincerely interested in better understanding and cooperation. What’s going on?

The first thing to say is that these all seem to be different developments. We’ve already covered the Magdi Allam baptism story. That incident looks like a bit of unexpected turbulence that should calm down now that Common Word signatory Aref Ali Nayed criticised the Vatican for it and L’Osservatore Romano said the baptism was not a hostile act towards Islam. For more on this, see Nayed’s statement, his El Pais interview today (English, Spanish) and the L’Osservatore Romano editorial (Italian).

King Abdullah’s comments popped up in the Saudi press on Tuesday. He has been making positive comments and taking interesting steps such as his November visit to the Vatican and a recently announced plan to retrain Saudi imams to preach moderation. But what this latest statement really means is still unclear. It is not connected to the Common Word initiative, which has some Saudi signatories but otherwise no link to Saudi Arabia. It is not clear whether the Saudi religious establishment, which is usually more conservative than the royal family, has signed on to this. And it is not clear whether the foreign Muslims who Abdullah says he wants to lead to dialogue with Christians and Jews really want to be that close to a Saudi project. It is certainly interesting to hear the Saudi king speak of inter-faith dialogue, especially when he includes Jews in it, but there are still a lot of question marks over this plan.

Strong words, raw nerves in Catholic-Muslim relations

Pope Benedict at Easter Vigil, 23 March 2008//Dario Pignatelli The nascent Catholic-Muslim dialogue sparked by the “Common Word” initiative was never going to be easy, even under the best of circumstances. There is a lot of suspicion, misunderstanding and different agendas to deal with. And then there are the surprises that can come seemingly out of nowhere and blow the effort off course, at least temporarily. One of these was the baptism of the Egyptian-born Italian journalist Magdi Allam by Pope Benedict that popped up by surprise on Saturday evening and highlighted some of the twists along the path of inter-faith dialogue.

The most surprising part about Allam’s baptism was not that he converted. He has been living in a traditionally Catholic country for 35 years, is married to a Catholic, is close to the lay Catholic movement Communion and Liberation, has long been highly critical of radical Islam and says he was never an especially pious Muslim. The surprise was that the Vatican would make it such a prominent event. There was a second surprise, too — the fact that Allam published such a hard-hitting declaration about his conversion, his view that Islam is intrinsically violent and that the Catholic Church has been too timid about converting Muslims. We quoted from the Corriere della Sera original on Sunday, but now the Catholic news agency Zenit has provided an English translation.

Magdi Allam at his baptism, 22 March 2008/Dario PignatelliReporting from Rome, the Paris daily Le Figaro had an interesting detail. It wrote on Monday that Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, president of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue and as such the Vatican’s point man for relations with Islam, had not been informed about the Allam baptism before it happened. If this is true, it suggests some behind-the-scenes Vatican politics on how to deal with Muslims. It would seem that Tauran should have been informed on a need-to-know basis — this is, after all, his area of responsibility — but somebody didn’t do it.

Muslim delegation visits Rome ahead of Forum

After much anticipation, a Muslim delegation representing the “Common Word” Muslim appeal for a theological dialogue between Christianity and Islam finally came to the Vatican. The five-member delegation held two days of meetings on March 4-5 with the Vatican’s Council for Inter-religious Dialogue to prepare the groundwork for the meeting of representatives a larger delegation.
Both sides decided to establish the “Catholic-Muslim Forum,” the start of a permanent dialogue between the two religions, and hold the first meeting in November. It will include an address by Pope Benedict.
This is the joint statement on the meeting.
While the highlight of the meeting and a news conference are found in the Reuters story of that day, here are some interesting additional comments from the news conference by the Muslim delegation which give useful insight into their point of view:

Muslim new conference in Rome Prof. Dr. Aref Ali NAYED, Director, Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Center, Amman, Jordan:
“By the end of the meetings, we emerged with a permanent structure that will ensure that the Catholic-Muslim engagement and dialogue continues into the future to work out issues and to work out an exchange of opinions about important matters. So, we together established something which is called the Catholic-Muslim Forum, which will be meeting every two years, one year in Rome and the subsequent meeting will be in a Muslim country, either Amman, Jordan or Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, or Indonesia and there will be alternation. This structure ensures that this is not just a momentary, exciting event but a process that begins with love of God and love of neighbour and continues to build upon this main theme that we gather around to address real issues that concern humanity today.”

NAYED in answer to a question on the assertion by some Catholic officials in the past that theological discussion with Muslims is not possible:

Preparations under way for Vatican-Muslim meeting

St Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City, 24 Dec. 2007/Max RossiPreparations are under way for a planned visit to the Vatican by representatives of the “Common Word” Muslim appeal for a theological dialogue between Christianity and Islam. This group of Muslim scholars and leaders got to be known as the “138″ because that was the number of initial signatories, but the total has grown to 221, so that label is a bit confusing now. Anyway, veteran vaticanista Sandro Magister informs us that five Muslim representatives were at the Vatican early this week to start preparing for the visit expected to take place in the next month or so. One interesting aspect is simply the geographical mix of people involved — they come from Turkey, Britain, Jordan, Libya and Italy.

Discussion of this initiative continues apace.

The conservative U.S. Catholic author George Weigel argues that the”Common Word” authors “seemed to be trying to change the subject ” in their statements about the planned dialogue because they did not address what Pope Benedict cited as discussion points when he addressed the Roman Curia in December 2006. In that speech, Benedict saidKing Hussein Bin Talal Mosque in Amman, 18 Sept. 2007/Muhammad Hamed Muslims and Christians had to “counter a dictatorship of positivist reason that excludes God from the life of the community and from public organizations” and “welcome the true conquests of the Enlightenment, human rights and especially the freedom of faith and its practice, and recognise these also as being essential elements for the authenticity of religion.”

In his weekly column, the National Catholic Reporter‘s Vatican expert, John Allen, has a long interview with Father Thomas Michel S.J., one of the Catholic Church’s leading experts on Islam. Allen notes two interesting points Michel makes:

Not your usual Christmas card — Muslim leaders greet Christians

Memon Mosque in Karachi, Pakistan, 9 Oct 2007Christmas greetings of peace on Earth and good will to all — what could be more common during this holiday season? It’s heard so much that it’s practically a cliché. But this familiar tune takes on a new tone when the greetings come from leading Muslim scholars, clerics and intellectuals. The same group of 138 Muslims that invited Christians to a theological dialogue last October has just sent its Christmas greetings to the Christian world (see the text and our news story). What struck me the most about it is that it was even sent at all.

As a decentralised religion with no single leader or leadership group to speak for it, Islam (1.3 billion faithful around the world) has always been “structurally disadvantaged” in comparison to Christianity. The world’s largest religion (2 billion) has one highly centralised church, Roman Catholicism (1.1 billion), led by a highly visible pope. Other large Christian families like the Orthodox (220 million), Anglicans (77 million) and the many different Protestant denominations all have clearly defined leaders who can speak for the faithful. The absence of such figures in Islam has allowed a wide variety of pretenders to claim to speak in the name of Muslims. To put it in terms of the current season, they couldn’t all send a Christmas card to Pope Benedict or Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew or Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams because they had no forum for getting together to do so. Individual sheikhs, muftis, imams or mosque rectors might send their greetings to a friendly local bishop, vicar, preacher or priest they knew personally, but there wasn’t exactly heavy traffic.

Muslim judges at a conference on Sharia law in Amman, 3 Sept. 2007The group of 138 that issued the appeal called A Common Word is changing that. Representing Sunnis, Shi’ites, Sufis and other schools of Islam, they can claim more than anyone else to speak for large numbers of Muslims. Sure, we can’t say how many they represent. Of course, they are a mixed group. Naturally, they don’t all agree on everything. And yes, there may be disputes within the group, maybe defections and additions as it develops. But they are from a broad spectrum of Islam and have organised themselves enough to first send a response to Pope Benedict’s Regensburg lecture (back when they were only 38), then propose a dialogue with the Christian world (which the major churches have accepted) and now send these Christmas greetings. Non-Muslim cynics might scoff that signing a Christmas greeting is not all that difficult. But anyone who knows anything about Islam can see this is a significant new step.

Vatican green light clears way for Christian-Muslim dialogue

Pope Benedict and Mufti Mustafa Çagrici pray in Istanbul’s Blue MosqueThe Vatican announcement welcoming the appeal by 138 Muslim scholars opens the way to a broad and deep dialogue between Christianity and Islam. The Roman Catholic Church — with more than half the world’s 2 billion Christians — could have scuttled the whole thing if it had said “no, thanks.” That first hurdle is now out of the way, but it’s going to be a long and slow process before we see results. Although it goes against the instincts of a wire service reporter to say it, that’s not such a bad thing. Taking time to discuss differences and clear up misunderstandings has got to help relations.

In fact, even this “Waiting for Benedict” phase has been quite active. On my recent trip to Rome, I heard quite a few Catholics — cardinals and Islam experts — speaking positively about the idea. But I don’t want to give the impression that only the Vatican counts here. There have been interesting developments among Protestants and Muslims in recent days.

On the Christian side, four Yale Divinity School professors drew up a positive response to A Common Word. About 300 mostly Protestant theologians and religious leaders have signed the statement (published in the Nov. 18 New York Times), ranging from professors at divinity schools, several leading evangelical figures and a few Catholics and Orthodox. The full list of signatories is here.

Adding context to the Vatican- Muslim dialogue story

Context is such a help. My report that the Vatican is due to respond positively and very soon to the dialogue appeal by 138 Muslim scholars was based on several conversations these days in Rome with cardinals and Vatican officials. Our news stories have to pare comments down to the essential quote to keep the story to a manageable length. Adding more context to some of those comments can give a better feel for the way these leading Catholic figures view the Muslim letter.

Catholic cardinals at the Vatican, 24 Nov. 2007The cardinals discussed the issue on Friday. The Vatican said: “Some speakers dealt with relations with Jews and with Islam. There was discussion of the encouraging sign represented by the letter of 138 Muslim personalities and of the visit of the King of Saudi Arabia to the Holy Father.” So we had a fact (“discussion”), a hint (“encouraging”) but nothing more than that.

Asking around, I got three cardinals who spoke about this on the record. Each deals with Islam in one way or another. Senegal is 95-percent Muslim, France has Europe’s largest Muslim minority and mostly Hindu India’s Muslims are a minority (13 percent of the population) but a larger one than its Christians (2 percent).

Muslim scholars press Pope Benedict to go public

The 138 Muslims scholars who recently invited Christian leaders to a high-level inter-faith dialogue feel their unprecedented step of uniting so many different Islamic representatives has created a momentum that must not be lost. The responses from Christian churches have shown varying levels of urgency in taking up the challenge. muslimspray2.jpgMany denominations, most notably the Anglicans and Lutherans, responded promptly and positively to their appeal “A Common Word Between Us And You.” The Roman Catholic Church has been more cautious, and its provisional response has gone from vaguely positive to cautiously critical.

The Muslim scholars have responded with a direct appeal to the Pope to speak publicly about their initiative. Sheikh Izzeldin Ibrahim, a signatory who is a cultural adviser to the United Arab Emirates government, made a verbal appeal to that effect to Benedict when they lunched together in Naples on Sunday at the Sant’Egidio community’s annual inter-faith meeting. He told him the Muslim scholars were disappointed not only at what they saw as the Vatican’s hesitant response to their appeal but also to the lack of a Catholic response to the letter of 38 scholars last year to his controversial Regensburg speech. And, as signatory Aref Ali Nayed of the Cambridge Interfaith Program in Britain told Reuters, they made it official with a letter handed to Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, head of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams told Vatican Radio on Monday that he has been discussing with other Christian leaders in Naples what the churches should do next. “I’d like to start exploring what kind of common Christian response there might be to the ‘Common Word’ document that’s come from the Muslim leaders,” he said. Christian leaders were “looking at various theoretical possibilities” and would like to have “proper face-to-face discussions with some of these people. But how to do that is quite a logistical challenge,” he said.