FaithWorld

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.

There’s a news blackout on the closed-door meetings until after the delegations meet Pope Benedict on Thursday, so off-the-record comments from delegates are all we have to go on for the moment. But it seems the Forum has got off to a good start. Wednesday could turn out to be more difficult because the Vatican has insisted on a frank discussion of religious freedom, which naturally brings up persecution of and restrictions on Christians in Muslim countries.

Among the published comments by delegates before the meeting began was one from Tariq Ramadan entitled “Why I’m going to meet the Pope.”

Headscarves new target for Austrian far right

It’s already been a big theme in Germany, FranceTurkey and the Netherlands, and now the Austrian far right is asking: Should public employees be allowed to wear Muslim headscarves at work?

 

Two women have become the first schoolteachers in Vienna to wear headscarves while teaching.

 

One is also a local centre-left Social Democrat politician.

 

Teachers in other parts of the country already wear headscarves, and there is no law banning public employees from wearing such items as there is in some other European countries.  

Look who’s celebrating Reformation Day today

Today is Reformation Day, the anniversary of the day in 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his famous 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg in eastern Germany and set off the Protestant Reformation. It is a public holiday in the five eastern German states, in Slovenia and — this year for the first time — in Chile.

Chile? Isn’t that traditionally a Catholic country? Even the Catholic parts of Germany don’t celebrate Reformation Day.

Yes, Chile is traditionally Catholic, but now only about 70% so. Like elsewhere in Latin America, Protestant churches — especially evangelicals and Pentecostals — have spread rapidly in recent decades. They now make up just over 15% of the Chilean population, up from 7% in 1970. It’s not a new story, but creating a holiday especially for Protestants is a symbolic step towards recognising the changes in the religious landscape in Latin America.

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.

Christians flee, leaders deplore religious violence in India

Car burns in church compound in Kandhamal district of Orissa, 26 August 2008/Stringer IndiaRaphael Cheenath, the Roman Catholic archbishop in the eastern Indian state of Orissa, calls the religious violence there “ethnic cleansing of Christians.” Pope Benedict, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the Italian government have all called for an end to the killings in the eastern state. The death toll is now 13 and possibly up to 10,000 people — mostly Christians — have sought shelter in makeshift refugee camps. More than a dozen churches have been burned. Catholic schools across India closed in protest on Friday. Local officials say the week-long violence may be waning, but this remains to be seen.

The criticism from outside the state hinted the critics believed authorities in the state had not done enough to halt the violence. No names are named, but anyone who knows Indian politics can connect the dots. The violence by Hindu mobs broke out after a Hindu leader in Orissa, Swami Laxmananda Saraswati, was killed. The state is run by a coalition which includes the main Hindu nationalist opposition party the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), so suspicions immediately fall on a party that has also been already accused of turning a blind eye to the deaths of about 2,000 Muslims in Gujarat in 2002. The BJP’s Lal Krishna Advani, head of the opposition in the Indian parliament, has said Maoists were suspected of the killings.

Fire at Christian orphanage in Bargah, Orissa state, 26 August 2008/Reuters TVAs our correspondent Jatindra Dash in the Orissa state capital Bhubaneswar wrote: Most of India’s billion-plus citizens are Hindu and about 2.5 percent are Christians. In the Kandhamal area, more than 20 percent of the 650,000 people are mainly tribal inhabitants who converted to Christianity. Religious violence has troubled the tribal regions of Orissa for years, with Hindus and Christians fighting over conversions. While Hindu groups accuse Christian priests of bribing poor tribes and low-caste Hindus to change their faith, the Christians say lower-caste Hindus convert willingly to escape a complex Hindu caste system.

Clock ticking as Vatican calls Catholic rebels’ bluff

While most attention on the Godbeat is focused this week on a possible but not probable Anglican schism, the Vatican has started the clock ticking on a real Catholic schism it wants to settle once and for all. And it wants an answer by Saturday (not much Anglican-style muddling through there!). A slow and patient strategy by Pope Benedict to deal with the traditionalist rebels in the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) has now reached the endgame phase.

Andrea TornielliAndrea Tornielli (left), the well-informed vaticanista of the Milan daily Il Giornale, has produced two scoops in recent days about an ultimatum the Vatican has presented to the “Lefebvrists”. He first reported in Il Giornale on Monday that the pontifical commission “Ecclesia Dei” had told SSPX leader Bishop Bernard Fellay that the Swiss-based rebel group should accept by June 28 the reforms of the Second Vatican Council and the validity of the new Mass (“Novus Ordo”) that replaced the old Latin Mass if it wanted to return to the full communion with Rome that was broken in 1988. Tornielli reported today on his blog Sacri Palazzi the actual conditions as written to Fellay (see Fr. Z’s English translation). If the SSPX accepts them, it can become a “prelature” within the Catholic Church, much like Opus Dei is now. If not, they lost their best chance at rejoining Rome and having any influence on the Vatican.

They have already had considerable influence. Pope Benedict has resurrected the old Latin Mass, one of the main SSPX demands. But that was not actually the heart of the matter. His demand that the SSPX must in return accept Vatican II, including its statements on religious freedom, is the one that sticks in the Lefebvrists’ throats the most. This two-track approach seems to be a strategy to welcome back those traditionalists who really just wanted the Latin Mass, and isolate the harder-line types who rejected Vatican II completely.

UPDATE: Turkish crisis puts “post-Islamist” reform on hold

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and guard of honour in Ankara, 17 March 2008/Umit BektasBlogging takes time, which I didn’t have on Friday after finishing an analysis for the Reuters wire about religion in Turkey posted here. I went to Istanbul to research several religion stories. The main impression I left with was that the prospect for religious policy changes raised by the “post- Islamist” AK Party government in recent years has mostly evaporated. The current political crisis that could end up banning the party and barring Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan from belonging to a political party means the end of any liberalisation. In fact, the steam went out of the reform drive a few years ago after Ankara got the green light to negotiate Turkish membership in the European Union.

Turkey has been a test case for what Islam experts call “post-Islamism,” a trend among Muslim political groups that have given up dreams of some kind of Islamic state in favour of more democracy and human rights that include greater religious freedom (here’s a useful summary of the concept). The idea that Islamists could turn into “Muslim democrats” (or “latte Islamists“!) without a hidden agenda to introduce Sharia law once in power met with considerable scepticism. But the Erdogan government, which promoted greater freedoms in Turkey as a means to join the European Union rather than to break down secularist controls on religion in the public sphere, seemed to be prove this view. His cautious approach seemed to reflect a long-term policy to make changes gradually. It’s too much to say this could be a “model” for other Muslim countries because there are too many aspects specific to Turkey and the limits its powerful secularist elite places on religion in the public sphere. But it could be an important test case for reconciling democracy and religious rights.

Turkish models display headscarves at an Ankara fashion show, 5 March 2008/Umit BektasThe political analysts I spoke to were unanimous in rejecting the idea that Erdogan’s AK Party had a long-term “hidden agenda” to “islamise” Turkey. The real goal of Erdogan’s policy was to establish his bloc of business interests from the more religious countryside as partners in the national power structure dominated by the secularist urban elite. Part of this process was to appeal to the religious sentiments of the masses, but religion was never the core of its program. They dropped this caution after their election victory in 2007 by pressing for an end to the ban on headscarves at universities — and paid the price by provoking the legal challenge to their legitimacy.

Turkish crisis puts “post-Islamist” reform on hold

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and guard of honour in Ankara, 17 March 2008/Umit BektasI’m in Istanbul this week for a few stories. The first one, about how Turkey’s political crisis has put a trend towards a more liberal stand on religious freedom on hold, has just run on the Reuters wire (click here for full text).

I’ll get back to this issue in a later post.

In the meantime, feel free to post questions in the comments box and I’ll try to answer them.

China’s Religious Character May Be Deeper Than Thought

china-2.jpgThe light being cast on China by the coming Summer Games is far brighter than the flickering Olympic flame now wending its way across that vast country. Politics, society, human rights, the status of Tibet and even the environment have been widely discussed.

china1.jpg 

Now a window has been opened on faith and religion in a country where six decades of Communist philosophy and rule might seem to have pushed those subjects into obscurity.

In a recent report the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life has analyzed available surveys, some a few years old, and concluded that 31 percent of the Chinese population considers religion to be very or somewhat important in their lives, with only 11 percent rating it as meaningless. Even the exact starting time of the Summer Olympics is rooted in Confucianism and Chinese folk religions,  the report adds, where the numeral 8 is revered for its luck and power. The games will start on the 8th day of the 8th month of ’08 at precisely 8 minutes and 8 seonds past 8 o’clock.