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:
The 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 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.
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:
Preparations 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.
Christmas 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.
The 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.
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.
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. Many 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.