There were interesting words on interfaith dialogue from Mecca and Rome today and London yesterday. Efforts to improve contacts and understanding among the main monotheist religions have been gaining steam recently and we’re starting to see some concrete steps. But, as a meeting in Mecca showed, the road ahead could still be quite rocky.
Should some Islamic countries be barred from the Beijing Olympics? The question came up in an interesting op-ed piece this week arguing that countries that ban women from competing in sports events violate the Olympic Charter and thus should be excluded from the Games. As Ali Al-Ahmed, director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs in Washington, wrote in the International Herald Tribune:
Pope Benedict was “particularly satisfied” with the topic of a meeting this week held between Vatican and Iranian specialists on inter-faith dialogue, according to a statement just put out by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. That shouldn’t be any surprise. The statement copied below shows his trademark topic — the compatibility of faith and reason — was prominent at the three-day session. He has been stressing this for years, with some success (as during his recent U.S. visit) and some misunderstanding (as in his Regensburg speech). With another Catholic-Muslim meeting due later this year, with delegates of the Common Word group, we can expect this issue to stay front and centre in inter-faith dialogue.
Just when relations between the Vatican and Muslims were improving, Pope Benedict has taken a highly symbolic step that could set them back again. On Saturday evening, at the Easter Vigil Mass, he baptised seven people including one of Italy’s best-known Muslims. Magdi Allam, the new convert, is deputy director of the Milan newspaper Corriere della Sera and an outspoken critic of radical Islam. The Egyptian-born journalist, who has lived in Italy since his university days, was one of the few Muslims who defended the pope after his controversial Regensburg speech in 2006. Allam’s outspoken articles have already prompted death threats from Islamists and he lives under constant guard. Announcing the surprise move only an hour before it took place, the Vatican stressed the Catholic Church had the right to baptise anyone who wanted to join it and that all were equal in the eyes of God.
Iran has urged the Netherlands to block a planned anti-Koran film, citing Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights as the legal basis for doing so. This is the latest twist in the saga surrounding the controversial film by far-right leader Geert Wilders (we’ve blogged on this before). In the letter, Iran’s Justice Minister Gholamhossein Elham asked his Dutch counterpart Ernst Hirsch Ballin to use European human rights law to stop a European from exercising one of those most basic rights. Freedom of expression has been the rallying cry of those who defended the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten for publishing the Mohammad cartoons — and republishing the most controversial one (the turban bomb) this week after a death threat against the artist who drew it.
Concern is mounting in the Netherlands as the country prepares for a film about the Koran by a far-right populist known for his hostility to Islam. It reached the point last Friday that Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende publicly appealed for restraint. A former Malaysian ambassador in The Hague has said the reaction could make the 2006 Danish cartoon controversy look like “a picnic.”
October 31 was Reformation Day, the anniversary of the day that Martin Luther issued his famous 95 Theses, and as such a fitting occasion for Lutherans around the world to reflect on the reforms he brought to Christianity. It was probably inevitable that a Lutheran cleric somewhere would comment on the relevance of the Reformation to a major issue in today’s religious world — the future of Islam. Margot Kässmann, the Lutheran bishop of Hannover in Germany, told the local newspaper: “Something like a Reformation would also be good for Islam.”
The rest of the world often forgets that there are Christian churches dotted across the Muslim world and some of those communities date back to the earliest years of the faith. Fredrik Dahl and Reza Derakhshi from our Tehran bureau recently visited a remote medieval outpost of the Armenian Apostolic Church in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Their report says: