Exceeding Expectations

The Catholic-Muslim forum in Rome has put relations between the faiths on a new footing

It is hard to imagine a more promising context for talks between Muslims and Christians than a week in which Americans elected as their president a Christian with Muslim relatives who once attended a predominantly Muslim school. As three days of talks in and around the Vatican wound up last night, it looked as if the “Obama effect” had played its part in what the Islamic delegation at least regarded as a very fruitful exercise.

It helped that its members arrived with low expectations. An advance party, which visited the Vatican earlier this year, left feeling distinctly iffy about the prospects.

“We were frankly apprehensive”, one of the delegates told me after the talks. “We thought there was a real possibility things could go wrong.”

But they didn’t. The declaration called the mood “warm and convivial” and the Pope’s body language when he met the Islamic delegation earlier today was uncharacteristically demonstrative. A shy man, he nevertheless embraced both the leader of the Muslim party, Mustafa Ceric, the Grand Mufti of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Seyyed Hossein Nasr, professor of Islamic Studies at George Washington university.

More importantly for the long-term though, the two sides agreed a meaty joint declaration. It runs to well over a thousand words and includes more than a dozen points on which they were able to see eye to eye. Some of these affirmations are wide-ranging. One renounces “terrorism, especially that committed in the name of religion”.

The declaration also states that Catholic and Muslims agree that “Human life should … be preserved and honoured in all its stages”. It commits the signatories “jointly to [ensure] that human dignity and respect are extended on an equal basis to both men and women.” It affirms that “Genuine love of neighbour … includes the right of individuals and communities to practice their religion in private and public.” And it maintains that “Religious minorities are entitled … to their own places of worship.”

These latter avowals will be music to the ears of Roman Catholics and other Christians concerned at the restrictions placed on members of their faith in, for example, Saudi Arabia (which, interestingly, did not have a delegate at the talks, though King Abdullah is himself promoting a separate bridge-building initiative).

Just as importantly, in the light of the row over the Danish cartoons of Muhammad and, indeed, the Pope’s own, intensely controversial 2006 speech at Regensburg in Germany, the two sides agreed that “their [religions'] founding figures and symbols they consider sacred should not be subject to any form of mockery or ridicule.”

The Muslim side had hoped the meeting could lay the ground for a “crisis management” procedure for disputes, or perceived disputes, between the two religions. The declaration doesn’t go that far, but it does say that the two sides agreed “to explore the possibility of establishing a permanent Catholic-Muslim committee to coordinate responses to conflicts and other emergency situations”.

Considering the state of Muslim-Christian relations just two years ago, before the original 38 scholars fired off their “Common Word” letter, this is frankly impressive progress. In his speech to the visitors, the Pope expressed his well-known caveat that action was needed to ensure that the “positive developments” that can emerge from the meeting of a “small group of experts and scholars” need to be shared with the wider world. He may not have said so in so many words, but what he was clearly thinking about were the Muslim clerics who give their blessing to violence. That point had earlier been taken up by Nasr who noted that:

… both our histories have been intermingled with periods of violence, and when religion has been strong in our societies various political forces have carried out violence in its name.

The Vatican is very wary of recognising the Common Word group as the sole voice of Islam, which it clearly is not. The Pope called the meeting “one more step along the way towards greater understanding … within the framework of other regular encounters which the Holy See promotes with various Muslim groups.”

But that is not how it looked by the time the talks were over on Thursday. The Common Word delegation is far and away the most senior and influential to have been assembled in the Islamic world. And its members walked away from their encounter at the Vatican with a statement of principles that could become the basis for an altogether more substantial relationship than in the past.

It looked, indeed, as if the Muslim-Catholic dialogue had been lifted onto a quite different, and more elevated, plane.