FaithWorld

New Serbian Orthodox patriarch seen open to dialogue

irinej

New Patriarch Irinej in Nis on 19 Jan 2010/Stevan Lazarevic

The  Serbian Orthodox Church elected a new leader on Friday seen as open to modernisation and interfaith dialogue at a time the country is seeking a future with the European Union. Bishop Irinej Gavrilovic, 80, will be Serbia’s 45th patriarch and the successor to the late Patriarch Pavle.

The church is an important moral force in Serbian society and politicians often seek its tacit support. Religion has long been a defining, and often dividing, characteristic of Slavs in former Yugoslavia, identified as Orthodox Christians, Catholics or Muslims whether or not they are believers.

Zivica Tucic, a Belgrade-based religious affairs journalist, described him as a moderate and constructive man.  “Patriarch Irinej is also very open to other churches and is a man of dialogue,” he told Reuters.

Until Friday, Irinej served as bishop of Nis, a large diocese in the south of the country. He remained largely neutral during Serbia’s turbulent 1990s and is regarded as a figure who could put an end to theological bickering inside the church and strengthen its role in society.

Earlier this month, Irinej said the pope might visit Serbia in 2013, marking a break with the church’s long-held opposition to a papal visit.

Russian Orthodox wants joint traditional front with Catholics


(Video: Archbishop Hilarion holds a news conference in French during his Paris visit, 13 Nov 2009/courtesy of Orthodoxie.com)

Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev, the Russian Orthodox Church’s top official for relations with other churches, has been busy this past week putting his revived church’s stamp on the world Christian scene. Over the weekend, he urged Catholics and Orthodox to join forces to defend their traditional version of Christianity. His comments, made during a visit to Paris to inaugurate his Church’s first seminary outside of Russia, come only days after positive remarks he made last week about how the Vatican and Moscow were slowly moving towards a meeting between Moscow’s Patriarch Kirill and Pope Benedict. Also last week, Hilarion indicated the Russian Orthodox might end their ecumenical dialogue with Lutherans after Germany’s Protestants elected a divorced woman, Bishop Margot Kässmann, as the new head of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD). After all this, he planned to take off for a visit to China. russian-church-in-paris (Photo: Saint Seraphin Russian Orthodox Church (Ecumenical Patriarchate) in a courtyard in the 15th arrondissement of Paris, 27 Sept 2009/Tom Heneghan)

At his news conference, the 43-year-old archbishop said the Catholic and Orthodox churches were “already working together in many areas. Their views are almost identical in matters of doctrine and social ethics. They could show all these values in secular society, nationally or internationally, for example regarding the concept of family, environment, economy, education etc.. Orthodox and Catholics should find a common language and speak with one voice to defend the values that derive from their faith. They could also work effectively in many areas of social and charitable work. This testimony and cooperation, I am sure, could help us take a different approach to the theological issues that divide us. They could make the question of unity more interesting to a wider audience, which is little concerned with theological issues such as the Filioque or primacy issues, but sensitive to questions that concern everyday life. I had the honour to raise these issues with His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI last September, during my visit to Rome.”

He also evoked this theme at the opening of the Russian Orthodox seminary in a former 17th-century Catholic convent in Epinay-sous-Sénart outside of Paris. “The opening of an Orthodox seminary of the Moscow Patriarchate in Paris is an unprecedented event,” he said. “The seminary is called among other things to become an important center of rapprochement between traditional Christian Churches in Europe … The primary task of Paris Seminary is to offer high-quality theological education. The seminary is also to become a link between the Russian Orthodox Church and Christians in France.”

World religious leaders hold their own G8 summit

laquila-church (Photo: L’Aquila’s Santa Maria of Collemaggio Basilica, 13 April 2009/Daniele La Monaca)

They came, they prayed, they appealed.

Religious leaders from around the world held their own not-so-mini “G8 summit” in Italy on June 16-17. The “Fourth Summit of Religious Leaders on the occasion of the G8,” as the meeting was officially called,   started with a visit to L’Aquila, the central Italian city severely damaged by an earthquake on April 6. That will be the venue in July of the actual summit of the G8 club of industrial nations.

Nearly 130 religious leaders and diplomats then moved to Rome where they held two days of talks under the auspices of the Italian foreign ministry. This was the religious leaders’ fourth annual meeting, following those held in conjunction with earlier G8 summits in Moscow, Cologne and Sapporo.

GUESTVIEW: Obama speech not historic, but could become so

obama-speaks1 (Photo: President Obama speaks at Cairo University, 4 June 2009/Larry Downing)

The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the authors’ alone. Miroslav Volf is director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture and a theology professor at Yale Divinity School, where he co-teaches a course on faith and globalization with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. A native of Croatia and member of the Episcopal Church in the U.S.A., he has been involved in international ecumenical and interfaith dialogues, most recently in Christian-Muslim dialogue.

By Miroslav Volf

I am tempted to say that in Cairo President Obama delivered an historic speech on relations between “the United States and Muslims around the world.” Speeches aren’t historic when they are delivered, however; they become historic after they’ve shaped history. What is certain even now, mere few hours after the speech, is that it was brilliant — visionary and practical, deeply human and political, moral and pragmatic, all at the same time. These wise words, beautifully crafted and compellingly delivered, have the potential of becoming seeds from which a new future will sprout and flourish.

The perspective that pervades the whole speech was signaled when the President recognized his own Christian faith, while at the same time noting that his father came from a family that includes generations of Muslims. Thus, in his own biography, the President embodies what his speech was ultimately about: relations between the United States and Muslims around the world should not be defined simply by “our differences” but by “overlaps” and “common principles” as well. This point is crucial. In encounter with others, if we see only differences, the result is exclusion; if we see only commonalities, the result is distortion. Only when we see both-undeniable differences that give others a peculiar character and commonalities that bind us together-are we able to honor both others and ourselves.

GUESTVIEW: Missing dimension in Middle East peace process

The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the authors’ alone. Rev. Bud Heckman is Director for External Relations at Religions for Peace (New York) and Matthew Weiner is Program Director at the Interfaith Center of New York.

By Rev. Bud Heckman and Matthew Weiner

obama-and-muslim-womenIn the foreshadow of President Obama’s much anticipated speech to the Muslim world and on peace this week, there is new hope for peace in the Middle East. Its source is the opposite of what many may think: religion, and the extraordinary promise of principled inclusion of religions in seeking solutions for peace and justice.

Of course, in one sense this is nothing new. Think of the Peace of Westphalia and the political virtue of tolerance developed in response to bloody religious civil wars, which were no less serious than any religious conflict we face today. One difference now — to some degree the result of secularization — is the assumption that the political and public is more frequently separate from the religious. That is to say, an assumption arises that we can do without religion in the public sphere to solve public problems. With this secular mind set, when making a political peace, it is assumed that religion should be sidelined or asked to join only in some superficial way.

GUESTVIEW: Reflections on Jewish-Muslim Engagement

The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the author’s alone. The author, Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky, is Professor of Midrash and Interreligious Studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and author of the novel A Delightful Compendium of Consolation.

sheikh-and-rabbi-2 (Photo: Muslim sheikh and Jewish rabbi address interfaith meeting in Brussels, 4 Jan 2005/Thierry Roge)

By Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky

Jewish-Muslim engagement in an international context is inevitably more than interreligious dialogue. Muslim representatives, for the most part, do not come from countries that have a separation of mosque and state. Practically speaking, these dialogues are a form of second-tier diplomacy. In the United States, this is made apparent by fact the State Department sponsors Muslim visitors through its Foreign Leadership Visitor Program.

Pope Benedict slowly learns how to dialogue with Muslims

pope-in-dome (Photo: Pope Benedict with Muslim leaders in Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock, 12 May 2009/Osservatore Romano)

“Branded an implacable foe of Islam after his landmark Regensburg speech in 2006, Pope Benedict has shown during his current Holy Land tour that he is slowly learning how to dialogue with Muslims.

“While media attention has focussed on Jewish criticism of his speech at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, Benedict’s speeches to Muslims have used classic Islamic terms and new arguments that resonate with Muslims and ease the quest for common ground.

“This new tone may not erase the memory of the Regensburg speech many Muslims took as an insult, because it implied Islam was violent and irrational. But Islamic, Jewish and Catholic clerics told Reuters it marked a shift in his thinking that could help the world’s two largest faiths get along better…”

PAPA DIXIT: to Muslims, rabbis, bishops, faithful in Jerusalem

Four speeches today to four quite different audiences. Pope Benedict first addressed Muslim religious leaders (see our separate blog on that) and then Israel’s two grand rabbis. Both were about interfaith dialogue, but he was encouraging the Muslims to pursue it while he reassured the Jews the Catholic Church remained committed to it. He then addressed the Catholic bishops of the Holy Land and a Mass in the Valley of Josephat, just east of Jerusalem’s old city. At that Mass, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Archbishop Fouad Twal, delivered an interesting address comparing the Palestinians and Israelis to Jesus in his agony in the nearby Garden of Gethsemane and the international community to the three Apostles who slept during that crucial period in Christ’s passion (see our separate blog on that).

Here are excerpts from the day’s speeches:

TO MUSLIM RELIGIOUS LEADERS IN DOME OF THE ROCK:

dome-and-vatican-flagINTERFAITH DIALOGUE: “Since the teachings of religious traditions ultimately concern the reality of God, the meaning of life, and the common destiny of mankind – that is to say, all that is most sacred and dear to us – there may be a temptation to engage in such dialogue with reluctance or ambivalence about its possibilities for success. Yet we can begin with the belief that the One God is the infinite source of justice and mercy, since in him the two exist in perfect unity. Those who confess his name are entrusted with the task of striving tirelessly for righteousness while imitating his forgiveness…” (Photo: Dome of the Rock and Vatican flag, 12 May 2009//Yannis Behrakis)

“it is paramount that those who adore the One God should show themselves to be both grounded in and directed towards the unity of the entire human family. In other words, fidelity to the One God, the Creator, the Most High, leads to the recognition that human beings are fundamentally interrelated, since all owe their very existence to a single source and are po”inted towards a common goal. Imprinted with the indelible image of the divine, they are called to play an active role in mending divisions and promoting human solidarity.

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.

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

pope-speech
(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.