An unprecedented call from 138 Muslim scholars for better Christian-Muslim understanding had a Warholesque 15-minutes-of- fame in most media last week. Their letter to world Christian leaders got covered widely in English-speaking media (including by Reuters) and much less so in many European countries, possibly because the news conferences presenting it were in London and Washington. Some reactions from Christian leaders were included in the reporting that day. The following day, the reaction from the Vatican — the main addressee of the letter that represents more than half of Christianity — made for another story (here is our report and the original Vatican Radio report in Italian).
The story has now faded from the headlines but it’s one of those developments that cry out for a next step. The Muslim scholars invited their Christian counterparts to a dialogue, so the ball is in the Christians’ court. More specifically, it’s in the Vatican’s court. The Roman Catholic Church is the largest and most centralised branch of the Christian family. The Muslims also have a bone to pick with Pope Benedict, who just over a year ago gave his famous Regensburg speech that implied Islam was violent and irrational. That sparked off violent protests in the Muslim world and, in turn, inspired 38 Muslim scholars to write a first letter in October 2006 that denounced that violence, asked for a dialogue (which Benedict had suggested in Regensburg) and questioned his understanding of Islam.
The latest letter is a follow-up, with a far larger group of signatories and the more ambitious goal of engaging in a theological dialogue with Christians. The wealth of Koran and Bible quotes cited and the argument that Islam agrees with the heart of Christian teaching — to love God and neighbour — showed these scholars want a long and serious theological discussion with Christianity.
The question now is how the Vatican will respond. Soon after his election in 2005, Pope Benedict downgraded the Vatican department dealing with Islam by folding it into the Church’s culture ministry. Muslim leaders complained that this meant he wanted to deal with Islam as a culture and not a religion. After the Regensburg fiasco, many apologies and a fence-mending visit to Turkey, the pope did an about-face in May 2007 and re-established the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue as a separate dicastery (department). But instead of restoring its former head, Islam expert Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, he picked former diplomat Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran to run it.
Even as they presented the appeal in Washington, Iranian scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr (a signatory) of George Washington University and U.S. Islam expert John Esposito of Georgetown University seemed sceptical about the Vatican’s willingness to actually follow up on this invitation. According to the transcript of their news conference, Nasr said “Most of the response that has come from the Vatican, after the Islamic protest and all of these things, has been diplomatic, not theological. The very first meeting in the Vatican [after Regensburg] was with Muslim ambassadors. These are people appointed as ambassadors, many of whom know nothing at all about Islamic issues. What is being evaded all the time are those underlying differences in belief that then cause the political and social differences to manifest themselves on the surface. We have to be honest enough to tackle that, and not to hide it in the closet.”