Turkey’s ruling AK Party, which has its roots in political Islam, has preached a message of religious freedom as a way to expand liberties for believers in the officially secular country. It has assured the European Union it would respect freedoms for religious minorities. There has been some progress for minorities, but it is halting. The government’s focus seems to be more on assuring religious rights for pious Sunni Muslims, as in ending of the university headscarf ban. Religious minorities still face an uphill struggle to practice as they see fit.
Remember ping-pong diplomacy, the exchange of ping-pong players between the United States and communist China in the 1970s that was one of the first steps that led to a thaw in relations between the two countries? If the Vatican had a ping-pong team, perhaps China would have considered sending their squad to the walled city in Rome for a match.
The nascent Catholic-Muslim dialogue sparked by the “Common Word” initiative was never going to be easy, even under the best of circumstances. There is a lot of suspicion, misunderstanding and different agendas to deal with. And then there are the surprises that can come seemingly out of nowhere and blow the effort off course, at least temporarily. One of these was the baptism of the Egyptian-born Italian journalist Magdi Allam by Pope Benedict that popped up by surprise on Saturday evening and highlighted some of the twists along the path of 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.
As readers of this blog will have noticed, I posted a note yesterday about calls by Italian intellectuals for Pope Benedict to break his supposed silence over Tibet. On Wednesday he did so at his weekly general audience, making a carefully worded appeal (here in Italian) for an end to the suffering of the people there.
Rising tension between Christians and Muslims in the Arab world have come out in the open with the expulsion of foreign Christian charity workers from Jordan and the conviction of a Catholic priest in Algeria. Although the cases seem different, the background is similar. Evangelical Christians have been increasingly active in the Islamic world, doing charity and development work and also seeking to convert Muslims. The missionary part is usually a crime in Islamic countries and local authorities — rightly or wrongly — often suspect the charity part is a cover for this proselytism. This sets the stage for clashes over religious freedom, national laws, Christianity, Islam and modernity — an increasingly frequent mix in a globalised world. It also has serious effects on the long-established but fragile Christian communities living in those Muslim countries.
Preparations are under way for a planned visit to the Vatican by representatives of the “Common Word” Muslim appeal for a theological dialogue between Christianity and Islam. This group of Muslim scholars and leaders got to be known as the “138” because that was the number of initial signatories, but the total has grown to 221, so that label is a bit confusing now. Anyway, veteran vaticanista Sandro Magister informs us that five Muslim representatives were at the Vatican early this week to start preparing for the visit expected to take place in the next month or so. One interesting aspect is simply the geographical mix of people involved — they come from Turkey, Britain, Jordan, Libya and Italy.
Anyone looking at Turkish newspapers or television these days would be forgiven for thinking Turkey was in a deep political crisis over government plans to lift a decades-old ban on female students wearing the Muslim headscarf in universities. The two sides — the secular Turks who long held sway here and the newly empowered pious Turks — are debating the issue in the winner-take-all way Turks like to talk politics. The liberal daily Radikal found the tension rising so much that it ran a front page headline this week reading “Republic of Fear” with a reprint of Edvard Munch’s painting “The Scream” on the cover.
The Roman Catholic Church statement about evangelisation last Friday was one of those classic Vatican documents that are short on news but long on content. We covered it in a news story from Vatican City, but it was not top news that day (“Christians should spread the faith” is not exactly a new message). The document also avoided the blunt tone that sometimes comes out of the Vatican — an angle journalists were watching out for — and dealt with a sensitive issue “softly, softly,” as one theologian put it.
Six international human rights groups have appealed to the U.N. Human Rights Council to press Pakistan to release Asma Jahangir, the world body’s special rapporteur on the freedom of religion or belief. The Pakistani lawyer, a leading human rights campaigner in her country, was put under house arrest in Lahore when President General Pervez Musharraf declared a state of emergency on November 3.