FaithWorld

At Dome of Rock, Benedict uses Muslims’ argument to Muslims

pope-dome-outsideAt Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock, part of the Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary complex including Islam’s third-holiest mosque Al-Aqsa, Pope Benedict urged Palestinian Muslim leaders to pursue interfaith cooperation by using an argument that other Muslims have been using to engage Christians — including himself — in dialogue. The need for interfaith dialogue is emerging as one of the two most consistent themes of Benedict’s speeches during his current Middle East tour (the other being the link between faith and reason). Appeals like this risk being empty phrases, but he has given some new twists that make them stand out. (Photo: Pope at Dome of the Rock, 12 May 2009/Israeli govt. handout)

In his speech to Muslim leaders this morning, the pope said reason shows us the shared nature and common destiny of all people. He then said: “Undivided love for the One God and charity towards ones neighbour thus become the fulcrum around which all else turns.” Readers of this blog may recognise that message in a slightly different form — it echoes the “Common Word” appeal by Muslim scholars to a Christian-Muslim dialogue based on the two shared principles of love of God and love of neighbour. Since we’ve reported extensively about that initiative, readers may also remember that the Vatican was initially quite cautious about it. Up until the Catholic-Muslim forum in Rome last November, the line from the Vatican was that Christians and Muslims couldn’t really discuss theology because their views of God were so different. Vatican officials sounded different after three days of talks and Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, who is in charge of interfaith relations, said the Common Word group could even become a “privileged channel” for discussions in future. And now Benedict uses their argument to other Muslims.

Another new element — Benedict has begun using core Islamic terms to build bridges to his Muslim audience. Speaking at the King Hussein Mosque in Amman, he referred to God as “merciful and compassionate.” Today, he spoke of a shared belief “that the One God is the infinite source of justice and mercy.” He even expressed the hope that Muslim-Christian dialogue explores “how the Oneness of God is inextricably tied to the unity of the human family.” The Trinity is one of the biggest stumbling blocks between Christianity and Islam. Muslims see it as belief in three separate Gods, unlike the three persons in one God as Christians understand it. Centuries of Muslim anti-Christian rhetoric is built on the idea that Christianity is not really monotheistic like Islam (and Judaism, by the way). If the detailed theological discussions the Common Word group has launched lead to a better understanding of this issue, even if no agreement is possible, that would still be major progress.

pope-dome-entersOn the plane flying to Amman, Benedict suggested the Vatican might expand its series of bilateral interreligious contacts to include a trilateral forum with Christians, Muslims and Jews. He hasn’t mentioned that since then, but it’s an interesting idea. Rabbis have attended some meetings between the Common Word Muslim scholars and Christian scholars. (Photo: Pope Benedict enters Dome of the Rock, 12 May 2009/Israeli govt. handout)

After noticing the echo of the Common Word appeal in Benedict’s address, I checked to see whether his Muslim hosts were signatories of the document. They weren’t. In fact, the only Palestinian I could find who has signed it is Sheikh Taysir al-Tamimi, the head of the Islamic courts in the Palestinian territories. He’s the one who upset an otherwise harmonious interfaith meeting with the pope yesterday with a fiery denunciation of Israel that Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi later called “a direct negation of what a dialogue should be.”

PAPA DIXIT:Pope’s words at mosque, Moses mount, Madaba

pope-ghaziPope Benedict’s long-awaited address to Muslims at the King Hussein bin Talal Mosque topped the day’s list of speeches. It dominated our news coverage today. He also spoke at Mount Nebo, where the Bible says Moses glimpsed the Promised Land before dying, and at a ceremony to bless the cornerstone of a Catholic university being built in Madaba. The mosque and Madaba speeches were classic Ratzinger, with some of his trademark theological and philosophical arguments. If he had delivered the mosque speech at Regensburg, there might never have been a “Regensburg.” Benedict ended the day with a short sermon at vespers in the Greek-Melkite Cathedral of Saint George. (Photo: Pope Benedict and Prince Ghazi tour the mosque, 9 May 2009/Tony Gentile)

Here are excerpts from today’s speeches.

THE MOSQUE SPEECH

UNITE TO DEFEND RELIGION: “We cannot fail to be concerned that today, with increasing insistency, some maintain that religion fails in its claim to be, by nature, a builder of unity and harmony, an expression of communion between persons and with God. Indeed some assert that religion is necessarily a cause of division in our world; and so they argue that the less attention given to religion in the public sphere the better. Certainly, the contradiction of tensions and divisions between the followers of different religious traditions, sadly, cannot be denied. However, is it not also the case that often it is the ideological manipulation of religion, sometimes for political ends, that is the real catalyst for tension and division, and at times even violence in society? In the face of this situation, where the opponents of religion seek not simply to silence its voice but to replace it with their own, the need for believers to be true to their principles and beliefs is felt all the more keenly. Muslims and Christians, precisely because of the burden of our common history so often marked by misunderstanding, must today strive to be known and recognized as worshippers of God faithful to prayer, eager to uphold and live by the Almighty’s decrees, merciful and compassionate, consistent in bearing witness to all that is true and good, and ever mindful of the common origin and dignity of all human persons, who remain at the apex of God’s creative design for the world and for history.”

Benedict’s “anti-Regensburg” speech in Amman mosque

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(Photo: Benedict speaks at King Hussein bin Talal Mosque, 9 May 2009/Ahmed Jadallah)

If Pope Benedict had delivered today’s speech on Christian-Muslim cooperation back in Regensburg two years ago, there might never have been a “Regensburg.” The name of the tranquil Bavarian university town where Benedict once taught theology has become shorthand for how a man as intelligent as the pope can commit an enormous interfaith gaffe. His long-awaited address today in the King Hussein bin Talal Mosque, Jordan’s magestic state mosque on a hilltop in western Amman, was an eloquent call for Christians and Muslims to work together to defend the role of faith in modern life. Rather than hinting that Islam was irrational, as Muslims understood him to say in Regensburg, he called human reason “God’s gift” to all. Christians and Muslims should work together using their faith and reason to promote the common good in their societies, he said, and oppose political manipulation of any faith.The speech clearly sought common ground with its Muslim audience. It started off linking the massive pale limestone mosque to other places of worship that “stand out like jewels across the earth’s surface” and “through the centuries … have drawn men and women into their sacred space to pause, to pray, to acknowledge the presence of the Almighty, and to recognize that we are all his creatures.”Benedict described the increasingly frequent argument that religion caused tensions and division in the world as worrying both to Christian and to Muslim believers. “The need for believers to be true to their principles and beliefs is felt all the more keenly,” he said in the speech in English. “Muslims and Christians, precisely because of the burden of our common history so often marked by misunderstanding, must today strive to be known and recognized as worshipers of God faithful to prayer, eager to uphold and live by the Almighty’s decrees, merciful and compassionate, consistent in bearing witness to all that is true and good, and ever mindful of the common origin and dignity of all human persons, who remain at the apex of God’s creative design for the world and for history.”After praising Jordan’s work promoting interfaith dialogue, he said the greater reciprocal knowledge both sides had gained through dialogue “should prompt Christians and Muslims to probe even more deeply the essential relationship between God and his world so that together we may strive to ensure that society resonates in harmony with the divine order.”pope-minaretToday I wish to refer to a task which … I firmly believe Christians and Muslims can embrace… That task is the challenge to cultivate for the good, in the context of faith and truth, the vast potential of human reason… As believers in the one God, we know that human reason is itself God’s gift and that it soars to its highest plane when suffused with the light of God’s truth. In fact, when human reason humbly allows itself to be purified by faith, it is far from weakened; rather, it is strengthened to resist presumption and to reach beyond its own limitations. In this way, human reason is emboldened to pursue its noble purpose of serving mankind, giving expression to our deepest common aspirations and extending, rather than manipulating or confining, public debate.”
(Photo: Benedict with Prince Ghazi (in robes) outside the mosque, 9 May 2009/Ahmed Jadallah)

So has Benedict “made up for Regensburg” or managed to trump it with this speech? His critics here naturally didn’t think so. Sheikh Hamza Mansour, a leading Islamist scholar and politician, told my colleague Suleiman al-Khalidi that the pope had “not sent any message to Muslims that expresses his respect for Islam or its religious symbols starting with the Prophet.” Benedict had spoken on Friday about his deep respect for Muslims, but not specifically for Islam.“I wouldn’t want to read too much into selecting a particular word or not,” Ibrahim Kalin, a Turkish Islamic scholar and spokesman for the Common Word group of Muslim intellectuals promoting dialogue with Christians, told me by phone from Ankara. The speech was “very positive,” he said. “He said many other things in this speech. He said Christians and Muslims pray to the same God. That’s an expression of enormous commonality. I would go by the context of what hes saying. It’s a long way from Regensburg speech.”Kalin, who also teaches at Georgetown University in Washington, said this speech couldn’t “make up for Regensburg” but it did represent an evolution in the pope’s thinking about Islam. “He’s made substantial changes (in his thinking) but he’s not coming out and saying ‘I atone for my sin at Regensburg.’ Kalin said. He’s not saying that and he’s not going to say that. But reading between the lines, it’s happened gradually.”pope-insidePrince Ghazi bin Muhammed bin Talal, a leading Common Word signatory who was the pope’s host at the mosque today, brought up the Regensburg speech in his address. But he did this in the context of thanking Benedict for expressing his regrets “for the hurt caused by this lecture to Muslims.”
(Photo: Benedict inside the mosque, 9 May 2009/Ahmed Jadallah)

Benedict’s Amman speech has gone a long way to putting Regensburg into context, and dialogue proponents like the Common Word group are helping him do it. But it’s a wild card that can still be drawn against him, especially by Islamists opposed to cooperation with Christians. “My guess is that he’ll give three, four or five more speeches like this to try to make people forget the Regensburg speech,” Kalin commented.

When in a minefield, a pope first turns to prayer

pope-bannerWhen a pope enters a minefield, the most natural reaction for him is to pray. Pope Benedict stressed prayer when he began his tip-toe over the explosive terrain of the Middle East starting his May 8-15 tour of Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories today. From the start, in his remarks during the flight to Amman, he stressed that people should pray for peace. We are not a political power but a spiritual force and this spiritual force is a reality which can contribute to progress in the peace process,” he said on the plane. “As believers we are convinced that that prayer is a real force, it opens the world to God. We are convinced that God listens and can affect history.” This is theologically sound, of course. It’s also politically clever. It’s the lowest common denominator in the Holy Land, maybe the only option all sides might agree on. (Photo: Workers hang banner welcoming Benedict in Amman, 7 May 2009/Muhammad Hamed)

Another theme evident in comments by the pope and King Abdullah is their joint effort to boost Benedict’s image in the Muslim world. His 2006 Regensburg speech hinting that Islam was violent and irrational has not been forgotten in this region. But Jordan, a Muslim country that strongly supports interfaith dialogue initiatives such as the Common Word declaration, wants to redirect attention towards cooperation between the world’s two largest faiths. King Abdullah took the first step in that direction. Speaking at the airport after the pope’s arrival today, he said:

We welcome your commitment to dispel the misconceptions and divisions that have harmed relations between Christians and Muslims. You have warmly received the visits pope-abdullahof Muslim scholars and others. In turn, your historic visit this week to the King Hussein Mosque … your meeting with Muslim religious scholars … is welcomed by all Jordanians. It is my hope that together, we can expand the dialogue we have opened – a dialogue that accepts our unique religious identities; a dialogue that is unafraid of the light of truth; a dialogue that, rightly, celebrates our deep, common values and ties.”

GUESTVIEW: From “security” to compassion – a needed shift for Obama gov’t

The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the authors’ alone. Libyan theologian Aref Ali Nayed is a senior advisor to the Cambridge Inter-Faith Programme and a leading signatory of A Common Word.

By Aref Ali Nayed

Being held in the early days of the Obama presidency, this year’s U.S.-Muslim World Forum in Doha last weekend was particularly luminescent with rays of hope. One was the very fact that its host, the influential Brookings Institution think-tank, invited faith leaders to discuss how to improve the dreadful state of relations between Washington and the Muslim world. The basis for discussion was A Common Word, an appeal by 138 Muslim scholars to Christian leaders to join in a dialogue based on the shared commandments to love God and love one’s neighbor.

That a theological and spiritual initiative is of keen interest to policy planners is indeed a fresh ray of light.  Basking in that hopeful light, moreover, I had the rare privilege for a Muslim theologian of listening to the U.S. CentCom Commander General David Petraeus expound there on a “network of networks” that constituted a “security architecture” for our Middle East region.

“Obama was elected by God” — Bosnian Grand Mufti Ceric

The Grand Mufti of Bosnia thinks the election of Barack Obama as American president is a gift from God that could help foster greater international tolerance of Muslims. “I believe that Obama is a divine sign to humanity,” Mustafa Ceric told me in an interview in Sarajevo. Americans “think that they have elected him, but I believe that he was elected by God.” (Photo: Grand Mufti Mustafa Ceric, 27 Jan 2009/ Danilo Krstanovic)

“Barack Obama is one of these most noble goods of our time and our civilisation, that is why I think he is a gift of God,” he said. “At the moment we feel a trend to change. Whether this change will be really in practice and life, we need time to see.”

Sometimes called one of the world’s most liberal grand muftis, Ceric is considered a voice of moderation with an international reputation. He is active in dialogue with other faiths and discussions of how Islam can integrate into European societies.

Imams and rabbis work for peace, even if debating it can get tense

There’s one thing you have to say about the World Congress of Imams and Rabbis for Peace — when they disagree about something, they don’t mind saying so. The final session of their third conference in Paris on Wednesday was the stage for an exchange of dramatic charges and counter-charges abut the perennial problem of Israeli-Palestinian relations. The atmosphere was tense in the UNESCO conference room where the 3-day session took place and several participants spoke up to calm down their more agitated colleagues. Since this was the only session the media was allowed to witness, it would have been easy to conclude that the imams and rabbis needed to seek peace among themselves first before preaching it to others. (Photo: An imam in Berlin, 3 Aug 2007/Fabrizio Bensch)

But there were actions that spoke louder than words in the hall. Several participants were frowning as the finger-pointing progressed. Others turned to the nearest participant of the other faith to chat. At one point, a rabbi in his Hasidic black hat and coat walked over to an imam wearing a karakul hat, embraced him warmly and sat down for a lively talk. A television camera would have had a field day contrasting the words and the deeds in evidence there. (Photo: A rabbi in Debent, Russia, 17 Sept 2007/Thomas Peter)

At the news conference ending the session, the organiser Alain Michel announced there had not been enough time to agree on a final resolution — a sign of a serious disagreement, as any reporter who has covered summit meetings could tell you. But he proceeded to say the meeting had agreed to set up a steering committee that would work out joint statements whenever there were major acts of violence in the name of religion. Names of the committee members were read out and all seemed to be satisfied that this was progress. Here is my news report about the meeting and here’s the official programme.

Confusion over pope’s letter saying interfaith talks impossible

“Pope questions interfaith dialogue,” read a headline on a New York Times report this morning. “In comments on Sunday that could have broad implications in a period of intense religious conflict,”, it wrote, Pope Benedict said that dialogue between religions was impossible. Before noon, a New York rabbi was urgently appealing to Benedict XVI not to “abandon dialogue between faith communities.”

Readers following the recent upswing in interfaith contacts will recall the last time Benedict’s relations with other faiths were in the news was when he warmly received Islamic scholars on Nov. 6 in Rome and spoke of Christians and Muslims as “members of one family: the family that God has loved and gathered together from the creation of the world to the end of human history.” How could he now suggest that talks across faith lines are useless? (Photo: Pope Benedict greets Bosnian Grand Mufti Mustafa Ceric at the Vatican, 6 Nov 2008/Osservatore Romano)

If these readers wonder what’s going on, they’re not alone. We’ve been getting queries from contacts asking how to read a letter written by Benedict that was published in the Milan daily Corriere della Sera on Sunday and got almost no coverage other than in the New York Times. What’s going on is that the Gray Lady has confused the philosophical precision of a German theologian and the real-world pragmatism of the Roman Catholic Church. That theologian, better known as Pope Benedict, restated his definition of interreligious dialogue in the letter to Italian politician and philosopher Marcello Pena. As the NYT reported, he said that “an interreligious dialogue in the strict sense of the word is not possible.” In theological terms, added the pope, “a true dialogue is not possible without putting one’s faith in parentheses.”

Cardinal sees possible “favoured channel” in dialogue with Islam

Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, head of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, has made statements in the past that made him sound quite sceptical about the value of a theological dialogue with Muslims. (Photo: Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran)

That wasn’t what I found when I interviewed him last Saturday at his office on Via della Conciliazione, just down the road from St. Peter’s Basilica. The subject was the Catholic-Muslim Forum he had just hosted on Nov 4-6 between a Muslim delegation from the Common Word group and Catholic delegation of Vatican officials, Catholic Islam scholars and bishops from western and Muslim countries.

The Common Word group, he said, could become a “favoured channel” for Vatican contacts with Muslims, even while it retains other channels of dialogue. While he still had some reservations about the group’s approach because of differences he sees in ways of reading scriptures, he was quite positive about the actual dialogue itself. “In discussing the love of God, we were doing theology unintentionally,” he said. That jibed with a point that Muslim delegates made during the session itself. “I thought they didn’t want to discuss theology but we’ve been doing that from the start,” University of Cambridge Islamic studies lecturer Tim Winter remarked halfway though the conference.

Bishop sees slow progress on churches in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia’s ban on churches on its territory is a thorny issue that loomed over the Catholic-Muslim Forum meeting this week in Rome. Some Catholics say the question of religious freedom for minority faiths in Muslim countries is so important that the Vatican should insist on strict reciprocity in such interfaith talks.  (In photo: St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church opens in Doha on 15 March 2008/Fadi Al-Assaad)

However, more believe it is not a good idea to make the dialogue hostage to a single issue, so it did not become a dealbreaker here. It did get discussed in the closed-door talks, which delegates said were quite lively at times, and it was referred to in the final declaration. Cynics may say nothing was resolved, but there are interesting nuances that could lead to change.

The final declaration had this to say: “Genuine love of neighbour implies respect of the person and her or his choices in matters of conscience and religion. It includes the right of individuals and communities to practice their religion in private and public.” Having Muslim delegates sign up to a statement that non-Muslims should be able to worship publicly in Muslim majority countries, i.e. have their own churches, is an important step. This is clearly aimed at Saudi Arabia, where the rights of other faiths are most clearly limited. A Catholic delegate told me some Muslims did not like the final part about practising religion in private and public but their delegation head, Bosnian Grand Mufti Mustafa Ceric, reminded them that this passage could also help minority Muslims who want to build mosques in Western countries. This is an interesting example of how the globalisation of Islam is starting to influence the traditional Muslim world.