FaithWorld

Is Pope Benedict’s Regensburg speech now history for Muslims?

Pope Benedict’s famous Regensburg speech has haunted Catholic-Muslim relations since it was delivered in September 2006. Muslims were insulted by his quoting of a Byzantine emperor saying Islam was violent and irrational and have complained about the speech ever since. The “Common Word” group of Islamic scholars that met Benedict and Catholic officials at the Vatican this week grew out of an initial response by Muslims to that speech. So what role did the Regensburg speech play at those unprecedented talks?

None, according to the Catholic delegation head, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran (left). It was not mentioned a single time in the talks, he told our colleagues at I.Media, a French agency reporting on the Vatican. “Nobody ever spoke about Regensburg,” he said. “It’s a closed affair and the pope has already explained that issue very well.” The pope has expressed regret at any misunderstanding of his speech but not apologised for it as some Muslims urged him to do at the time.

Bosnian Grand Mufti Mustafa Ceric (right), head of the Muslim delegation, was also asked whether Regensburg was now a closed chapter. “There are certain things you should remember but also put into historical context,” he told journalists after the delegations attended an audience with the pope. “Some people say from conflict and misunderstanding comes understanding.”

Ceric, who survived the four-year siege of Sarajevo in the 1990s, explained how such a major Muslim complaint did not become a central issue here. During the Bosnian war, he said, he often complained that western Europe had betrayed Bosnian Muslims but, he said, nobody did anything. But he got a hearing after the war when he outlined “a vision for truth, peace and reconciliation”. So, he said, the Common Word group wanted to avoid the negative. “We have no complaint, we have a dream,” he said.

Ceric said this idea of having a dream came from Martin Luther King’s famous speech. At one point, however, he spoke of him only as Martin Luther. “Now, there’s someone who really did have a complaint,” one delegate joked as he corrected Ceric’s slip.

Catholic-Muslim Forum ends on upbeat note

The Catholic-Muslim Forum ended on Thursday evening on an upbeat note. After two days of closed-door talks and an audience with Pope Benedict, the delegations held their only public session of the conference (right) to present a joint communique and answer some questions.The final declaration (full text here) had a series of interesting points that show progress in the dialogue among the experts involved. They will need some unpacking in the real world before we know how much real progress has been made. Here are some of the points with some quick observations in italics:

    2. Human life is a most precious gift of God to each person. It should therefore be preserved and honoured in all its stages. (interesting common pro-life slant here. Any joint initiatives coming up here?) 3. Human dignity is derived from the fact that every human person is created by a loving God out of love … he or she is entitled to full recognition of his or her identity and freedom by individuals, communities and governments, supported by civil legislation that assures equal rights and full citizenship. (this means support for minorities, whether they’re Christians in Muslim countries or Muslim minorities in the West, on the basis of both faiths and not just secular notions that can be contested as foreign to a certain culture) 4. We affirm that God’s creation of humanity has two great aspects: the male and the female human person, and we commit ourselves jointly to ensuring that human dignity and respect are extended on an equal basis to both men and women. (that’s pretty clear) 5. 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. (no mention here of conversion in Muslim countries) 6. Religious minorities are entitled to be respected in their own religious convictions and practices. They are also entitled to their own places of worship, and their founding figures and symbols they consider sacred should not be subject to any form of mockery or ridicule. (this refers in the same sentence to the Catholic concern for churches in Muslim countries and the Muslim concern about caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad. Any linkage there? ) 8. We affirm that no religion and its followers should be excluded from society. Each should be able to make its indispensable contribution to the good of society, especially in service to the most needy. (this one also cuts both ways, like item 3) 10. We are convinced that Catholics and Muslims have the duty to provide a sound education in human, civic, religious and moral values for their respective members and to promote accurate information about each other’s religions. (that education aspect will be important) 11. We profess that Catholics and Muslims are called to be instruments of love and harmony among believers, and for humanity as a whole, renouncing any oppression, aggressive violence and terrorism, especially that committed in the name of religion, and upholding the principle of justice for all. (Western critics often say Muslims don’t denounce terrorism enough, even though many do that they don’t notice. Could this boost that visibility?) 14. We have agreed to explore the possibility of establishing a permanent Catholic-Muslim committee to coordinate responses to conflicts and other emergency situations and of organizing a second seminar in a Muslim-majority country yet to be determined. (this is the crisis management option I mentioned a few days ago)

The final session was actually quite strained, with testy questions and answers, which led some journalists to ask whether the positive signals we’d been getting did not really reflect the mood in the private talks. Several participants, including senior Muslim delegate Seyyed Hossein Nasr who was in the middle of it all, denied that was the case. As all present could see, the strains emerged when Monsignor Khaled Akasheh, the desk officer for Islam in the Vatican’s interfaith department who was moderating the session, tried to stop Nasr from answering questions put to him. Another curious decision was to let a relatively low-ranking delegate, a lay professor from Paris named Joseph Maila, answer questions for the Catholic delegation rather than delegation head Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran or another senior Vatican official.More on this later…

No news is good news at Catholic-Muslim Forum

The news at the Catholic-Muslim Forum today is that there is no news.  No news in the MSM (mainstream media) sense. Nobody’s walked out of the talks, there have been no enormous blow-ups, outrageous charges, etc. It would take something like that for a story about interfaith dialogue to have any luck in the MSM on the day after Barack Obama was elected U.S. president. In fact, several Catholic-Muslim Forum delegates I spoke to today first mentioned how pleased they were at Obama’s victory across the ocean before they got around to talking about their meeting here.

The other reason the Forum has “no news” is that what’s happening seems like mostly good news, which by the usual MSM definition (see above…) is no news. These pioneering talks between Muslim signatories of the Common Word manifesto and Vatican officials and Catholic Islam experts moved ahead on their second day with what participants said were open and useful discussions. “The discussion is not getting derailed where it could get derailed, if someone wanted to do that,” one delegate said.

That’s interesting, because today’s topic — human dignity and mutual respect — was the natural place for a strong stand by those Catholics who want this dialogue to focus on reciprocity, or giving minority Christians in Muslim countries the same rights as Muslim minorities in western countries. Actually, the talks got around to that topic late in the first day of talks yesterday and the debate apparently got quite spirited. Both Catholics and Muslims told me it was lively but respectful, a useful face-to-face exchange of what is usually only said about the other. Let’s see what the final communique on Thursday says about this.

Catholic-Muslim Forum opens with frank talk at Vatican

(Photo: delegation heads Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran (l) and Bosnian Grand Mufti Mustafa Ceric (r) chat at the start of the Catholic- Muslim Forum on 4 Nov 2008 at the Vatican/ pool photo provided by Vatican daily L’Osservatore Romano)

Any thoughts that the first Catholic-Muslim Forum here in Rome might blur fundamental differences in the interests of harmony dissolved on Tuesday when the Vatican side opened the discussion with a clear presentation of the Christian teaching that people can only approach God through Jesus Christ. There was hardly a better way to show the gap that separates the Christians and Muslims who have embarked on the “Common Word” dialogue process. The Muslim side naturally disagreed and said this radical focus on Christ closed off all options for salvation to Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and any other non-Christians. What followed, delegates to the closed-door conference reported, was not a clash but a discussion described as cordial, respectful and aimed at a better understanding of how each side understands the concept of God’s love for humanity. “There were some sceptical Catholic comments before this meeting, and the opening presentation was classic Christian doctrine, but there were nuances in what different Catholic delegates said in the discussion,” one Muslim delegate said. “The best part is the openness,” another said. “There is an aspect of mutual respect, which is what we need.”

Read our news story on the meeting here.

Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, the top Vatican official for relations with Islam and source of several sceptical Catholic comments since the Common Word was launched just over a year ago, reiterated the Vatican’s commitment to dialogue with the Muslims.

Peering through funnels at interfaith problems

Imagine you’re asked to examine a problem through a funnel but not told which end to look through. Some people will look through the narrow end and get a wide-angle view of the problem. Others will look through the wide end and get a narrow focus on certain parts of it. Both will be looking at the same problem, but in different ways.

This image came to mind after I spoke to members of both delegations in advance of the Catholic-Muslim Forum that starts today in Vatican City. Both sides are looking at the same problem – how to really improve understanding and cooperation between Christians and Muslims – but from different points of view. This doesn’t have to deadlock the talks – I don’t think either side wants that. But it does complicate things…

A kind of news blackout has been imposed on the closed-door talks on Tuesday and Wednesday, with only the official spokesman for both sides – Cardinal Tauran and Ibrahim Kalin – supposed to make any statements. In the run-up to the talks, the Catholic side has been quite active. Tauran spoke to La Croix and Vatican Radio in French on Monday, his deputy Archbishop Pier Luigi Celata to Vatican Radio in Italian and the Egyptian Jesuit Samir Khalil Samir, an adviser to the Catholic delegation, wrote a comment on Asianews.it (here in English). Kalin spoke to Reuters in advance – see our news story here – but the other Muslim delegates told me they could not be quoted.

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.

Catholic bishops want practical results from Muslim dialogue

The synod of Roman Catholic bishops that just ended in Rome has reminded the Vatican that it wants concrete issues such as religious freedom for Christians in the Islamic world to be part of any dialogue with Muslims. It’s not as if the Vatican has forgotten this — check out a recent statement by Rev. Christian Troll S.J., a leading Church expert on Islam. All this comes as the Vatican and the Common Word group of Muslim scholars prepare for the Catholic-Islamic Forum due in Rome next week.

The full text of the bishops’ proposal (number 53 of the 55 published only in Italian) reads in English:

“The Church regards with esteem … the Muslims who worship the one God” (Nostra Aetate 3). They refer to Abraham and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting. The dialogue with them permits us to know each other better and cooperate in the promotion of ethical and spiritual values.

Churches take stock of Christian-Muslim dialogue

Christian churches have been taking stock of where they stand on dialogue with Islam. With so much interfaith discussion going on, they’re not all singing from the same sheet and wonder whether they should (or even could). So about 50 church leaders and experts got together near Geneva last weekend to exchange information on their approach to, and experiences concerning, dialogue with Muslims. “With such a succession of meetings where we get together with Muslims, we wanted to have a meeting among ourselves and ask whether we have 2,000 different answers and what that might say about us,” said Thomas Schirrmacher of the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA).

The World Council of Churches (WCC) said the idea for the meeting“emerged from an ecumenical process of response to the Common Word”  initiative on Christian-Muslim dialogue. Held outside Geneva, it brought together representatives from the WCC, World Evangelical Alliance, Roman Catholic Church, Anglican Communion, Lutheran World Federation, World Alliance of Reformed Churches, World Methodist Council, several Orthodox churches and other Christian groups. I have spoken to a few of the participants and received some texts since the meeting to get an idea of how their exchange shaped up.

“The idea was that we come together to share our different experiences with Islam and our different theological approaches to Islam to seek an ecumenical understanding,” said Rima Barsoum, the WCC’s person responsible for relations with Muslims. An “ecumenical understanding” does not mean a common understanding, as became clear at the meeting. Participants described various points of view that no two-day meeting could overcome. Orthodox and eastern churches that live as minorities in Muslim countries have a different perspective from those in the West that know Muslims as a minority. The Vatican’s approach is to focus more on the theological questions while the World Evangelical Alliance has stressed the issue of living together peacefully. “My feeling after Geneva is that there is such a wide spectrum of representation that a common stand would be very difficult indeed,” said David Thomas, professor of Christianity and Islam at the University of Birmingham in Britain.

Beyond financial crisis, Christian-Muslim dialogue progresses

Dialogue participants at Lambeth Palace, London, 15 Oct 2008/Episcopal Life Online, Matthew DaviesThe financial crisis so dominates the news these days that reports on a meeting of the Christian and Muslim religious leaders and scholars pictured here zero in first on what they said about the economy. These men and women of faith would readily admit they look like anything but a group of portfolio managers, but comments on the crisis now get top billing no matter where they come from. We grabbed the crisis angle too, breaking out the economic statement from the final communique yesterday as our first item on this meeting. With that done, let me go back to look at the rest of the news from the latest Common Word dialogue meeting in Cambridge and London on October 12-15.

Probably the most interesting aspect of this meeting was how both sides — 17 Muslims and 19 Christians — worked to understand the other’s faith and find ways to spread that understanding within their communities. For example, in his opening address, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams tackled the problem of how to deal with the the two faiths speak differently about God. “While what we say about God is markedly different,  irreducibly different in many respects,” he said, “we recognize in each other’s language and practice a similarity in the way we understand the impact of God on human lives, and thus a certain similarity in what we take for granted about the nature or character of God.” 

Meeting in Cambridge, they held sessions in the “scriptural reasoning” practiced at the university’s Inter-Faith Programme. In these sessions, Christians, Muslims and Jews read passages from their scriptures together and then explain them to each other. David David Ford/Cambridge Inter-Faith ProgrammeFord, an Anglican theologian from Northern Ireland who is director of the Inter-Faith Programme, told me he attended one such session with a British Anglican bishop, a German Jesuit priest, a Muslim sheikh from the Emirates, a Libyan Islamic theologian, a British Methodist theologian and an Iranian ayatollah.  “We were all studying together and dealing with important issues,” he said. “Some of the Muslim scholars were doing this for the first time with Christians,” said Aref Ali Nayed, a senior advisor to the Inter-Faith Programme.

Christian-Muslim statement on world financial crisis

Common Word conference at University of Cambridge, 11 Oct 2008/Sohail NakhoodaThe Common Word group of Muslim scholars met Christian leaders and theologians in Cambridge and London this week. Discussions in this interfaith dialogue have mostly been theological, based on the idea that the love of God and neighbour is a core dogma of both religions. In a statement on Wednesday, they included a paragraph about the world financial crisis. There have been lots of comments from various faith leaders about the crisis, but this is the first Christian-Muslim statement I’ve seen.

Here’s the paragraph:

We live in an increasingly global world that brings with it increased interdependence.  The closer we are drawn together by this globalisation and interdependence, the more urgent is the need to understand and respect one another in order to find a way out of our troubles.  Meeting at a time of great turbulence in the world financial system our hearts go out to the many people throughout the world whose lives and livelihood are affected by the current crisis.  When a crisis of this magnitude occurs, we are all tempted to think solely of ourselves and our families and ignore the treatment of minorities and the less fortunate.  In this conference we are celebrating the shared values of love of God and love of neighbour, the basis of A Common Word, whilst reflecting self-critically on how often we fall short of these standards.  We believe that the divine commandment to love our neighbour should prompt all people to act with compassion towards others, to fulfil their duty of helping to alleviate misery and hardship.  It is out of an understanding of shared values that we urge world leaders and our faithful everywhere to act together to ensure that the burden of this financial crisis, and also the global environmental crisis, does not fall unevenly on the weak and the poor.  We must seize the opportunity for implementing a more equitable global economic system that also respects our role as stewards of the earth’s resources.

Do you see any link between faith and the financial crisis? Could this crisis lead to tensions between people of different religions — or bring them closer together?