Last week, it was the head of Roman Catholicism playing host to three
days of discussion between Islamic and Catholic scholars in the marble
halls of the Vatican.
This week, it was Saudi Arabia’s King
Abdullah at the United Nations in New York, continuing his campaign to
promote religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue.
At the heart of all this ecumenical fervour is one question: does talking matter?
Few would disagree, of course, that talking usually is better than not talking.
few would challenge the declaration of the Roman Catholic theologian
Hans Küng, which has become a kind of ecumenical rallying cry in the
post-September 11 world: “There will be no peace among the nations
without peace among the religions. There will be no peace among the
religions without dialogue among the religions.”
Yet anyone who
has been in an intimate relationship with another human being knows
that the quality of the talk and dialogue – and the actions that follow
– make the difference.
For the importance of choosing words
carefully, a case in point is Pope Benedict XVI, who presided over last
week’s Roman Catholic-Muslim forum.
For the Vatican, the
gathering was largely an exercise in damage control. The pope’s 2006
speech in Regensburg, Germany, in which he quoted a Byzantine Christian
emperor in reference to the Prophet Mohammed ignited a firestorm of
Some 138 Muslim scholars and clerics issued an open
letter protesting about the pontiff’s statement and urging dialogue.
They were soon joined by hundreds of other Muslim leaders. A Vatican
invitation for dialogue followed.
Still, Pope Benedict has never
apologised for what he said in Regensburg; he has said only that he is
sorry that people were offended by it , which to many Muslims, only
compounded the insult.
The affront still rankles, said Ibrahim
Kalin, one of 24 Muslim scholars and clerics who participated in the
Vatican forum and praised the meeting. “It was a shock that we haven’t
completely recovered from,” he said.
Despite a 15-point joint
declaration at the conclusion of the Vatican forum that affirmed all
that Islam and Roman Catholicism hold in common instead of conflict, a
leading American Catholic cleric who has spoken to Pope Benedict many
times said he, unlike his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, had never
really understood Islam.
“He doesn’t see it as organically
linked to Christianity and Judaism,” said the cleric, who spoke on
condition of anonymity. “But he’ll do the right political thing.”
The limitation on all talk of harmony is the pope’s theology, said Paul F Knitter, a prominent ecumenist and a Catholic.
pope, in a 2007 Vatican proclamation, said Catholic Christianity was
truer than Islam or Buddhism or Hinduism or even Protestant
Christianity, said Prof Knitter, the Paul Tillich Professor of
Theology, World Religions and Culture at Union Theological Seminary in
New York. The articulation was considered unusual for a modern pope.
sincerely wants to promote better relations with Islam, but it’s not
possible on the basis of the theology he espouses,” Prof Knitter said,
alluding to a 2007 Vatican proclamations that Roman Catholicism
provides the only true path to salvation. The statement was widely
viewed as a move away from a period of more open dialogue with other
If Pope Benedict illustrates the consequences of
ill-chosen words, King Abdullah’s trip to the UN underscores the risks
of talking but having too little to show for it.
Like his trip
to a similar interfaith conference in Madrid in July, the 84-year-old
Saudi monarch’s appearance at the UN reflected his determination to
repair the damage done to Islam’s image by Islamic militants.
officials said it also reflected his efforts to put pressure on
extremists inside Saudi Arabia’s dominant Wahhabi religious
establishment to moderate their views.
Images of the King
greeting the pope at the Vatican last year and speaking face-to-face
with Rabbis in Madrid in July were televised in the kingdom and were
unprecedented for a Saudi monarch.
Yet back in Saudi Arabia,
there appeared to be little evidence the strategy was working, which
may be one reason the king was not invited to the Vatican to
participate in last week’s forum or asked to put together the
invitation list. Human rights organisations have criticised Saudi
Arabia for a severe lack of religious freedom inside the country.
Although there has been some easing on the practice of faith by some
Muslim minorities, including Sufis and Shia, non-Muslims are strictly
banned from practising their faith or even possessing its symbols and
Although up to a million Catholics live in Saudi Arabia, there is not one church in the country.
of the Saudi government say there is nothing wrong with King Abdullah
talking about interfaith harmony. The problem, they argue, is his use
of international stages to promote what he so far has been unable to do
Does this mean all interfaith talk is ill-fated,
cynical beyond repair and destined to collapse under the weight of
long-held grievances and mutual misunderstanding?
Mr Ibrahim Kalin, assistant professor at the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal
Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University in
Mr Kalin recalled this week the reply of the head of
the Muslim delegation in Rome, Mustafa Ceric, the Grand Mufti of
Bosnia, when asked about Pope Benedict’s statements in Regensburg.
Martin Luther King Jr delivered a ‘I have a dream’ speech, not a ‘I
have a complaint’ speech,” Mr Ceric said. “Let us do the same.”