At 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.
On 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.”