Fr. Samir: A Good Start In Friendship At The Catholic-Muslim Forum In The Vatican

The Jesuit Samir Khalil, an expert on Islam and among the participants at the Forum in the Vatican, tells of the paths and hopes created by the meeting. Some difficulties on religious freedom. The common challenge of secularism. Muslims ask for Christians help to counter Islamaphobia.

Vatican City (AsiaNews) – After many years of difficulty, what took place in the Vatican between November 4th and 6th, was the first Christian-Muslim encounter on a worldwide stage.  The group of Muslims hailed from the Arab world, from Africa, America: converted imams from the western world were among the participants as well as imams from the Far East (Indonesia, Malaysia, etc..).

Catholic members too were drawn from across the continents.  The Council for Inter-religious Dialogue had deliberately wanted this heterogeneous mix. Both sides also had women members.

True brotherhood

The most important element that needs to be underlined in the atmosphere of serenity and friendship, respected at all times, both in public and in private one-on-one encounters.  On occasion there were moments of tension, but they were truly rare.  This atmosphere was the direct result of the leadership of the Mufti of Sarajevo, Mustafa Cerić, and Card. Tauran: both of whom have always insisted on talking as “friends, as brothers”.

The program also helped: each day there were 2 brief interventions, Christian and Muslim each lasting 30 minutes in a parallel.  This allowed listeners to perceive the two viewpoints that are distinct, but trying to find common ground.  For the remainder of the day there were other interventions and questions and answer sessions between the two delegations. This meant that for over 5 hours there was the time to exchange opinions and points of view.  All involved were careful of and adherent to the rules and form of the interventions. Even during lunch we mixed freely.  In short it all took place in an atmosphere of informal brotherhood and true friendship.

Another point that must be highlighted is the quality and seriousness of the participants, who were of the highest level from both a spiritual and intellectual point of view.  This gave a stamp of great seriousness to our dialogue. Even the western Imams, who had converted to Islam, had a very broad culture, both of the Islamic world and of the Christian world, with knowledge of medieval sources and of Saint Thomas Aquinas. The address delivered by Seyyed Hossein Nasr [Iranian philosopher and professor in the USA] for example was truly superb.  It greatly contributed to a fruitful and serene dialogue.

Some may claim that the final document (see Catholic-Muslim joint declaration) is too generic.   But we must take into account that this is the first in a series of meetings. What is most important about this Forum is that it is a start. Points 14 and 15 of the Declaration affirm that this is the beginning of a process and that within the next two years we will have to hold another meeting in a Muslim nation yet to be decided on. This means that a slow, but continuous process has begun that may increasingly bear fruits and draw the two communities closer.

The difficulties

Dialogue was frank: we did not shy away from difficulties. We had chosen the title “Love of God and Love of Neighbour” for the encounter.  Despite some pressures to remain within the theological and spiritual fields alone, there was a general consensus to confront theological questions on the first day; on the second the themes of Human Dignity and reciprocal respect.  Some feared these themes, because they risk raising embarrassing problems, above all for Islam, by involving religious freedom, public witness, mission etc. In the end we all agreed to face these themes both on a philosophical level, to ground them in faith, and on a practical level, to suggest some ways they may be applied.  This dialogue too was very fruitful.  Moreover, the Muslims foremost highlighted the reticence of the Islamic world to accept concepts such as equality among all men, common dignity, freedom to practice one’s faith, etc…  Some Muslims almost envy European Christians, who’s longer and more profound historical journey has led them to the conquest of a distinction between faith and politics; between Church and State, even arriving to the point of wars for this. “All of these battles – some Muslims observed – brought your Church to rethink the relationship between Religion and State.  We have had fewer problems.  But this has not allowed us to deepen the distinction.  Then when Europe arrived in our countries, we were unable to absorb this lesson because Europe entered as an enemy and coloniser and this hardened positions”.

This seems to me to be a valid analysis, even if somewhat insufficient. The distinction between religion and politics is not just the result of historic struggles, but of principal: it is rooted in the Gospel where Christ refuses to behave like a political or social leader.  Instead, the context of the Arab tribes in the VII century pushed Mohammad to make socio-political choices.

This led to an interesting debate on secular society, secularisation and secularism.  Many Muslims distinguished between the secular nature of the State which “we Muslims could accept” and secular in the sense of atheistic secularism “which is to be fought”.

This differentiation is of benefit to all, even for our western societies that are drowning in practical atheism. Many frequently quoted from (and expressed their appreciation of) the Pope’s position on “a secular society that is open” [to the religious dimension - see. The Regensburg Address]. It was above all underlined by the Muslim side that the problem of secularism unites both Christians and Muslims. Churches are emptying, they told us; Mosques somewhat less, but this return to the Mosque maybe just a refuge of self-identification, a need to grasp onto something.  There were theological, philosophical, sociological contributions from both parts, greatly enriching for all involved. The problem of secularisation merits a convention on its own.

From there we passed onto the problem of Freedom of conscience and of religion, a very delicate theme which was treated with discretion and which re-emerged when the moment came to accept the final document.

In the Joint Declaration, “the right of persons and communities to practise their faith in private and in public” emerged in point 5.  Serious problems arose.  Some Muslims said: “if you include those words you put us in great difficulty. Freedom of religion in our countries is governed by State law.  How can we distribute a document that is against State law? We risk being disqualified and marginalised by our society”.  Some Muslims suggested omitting at least the words “in private and in public”.

There was also a formula that defended the right to spread ones own faith such as “Da’wa” (mission for Islam) or Tabshir (Christian mission). But it was held to be too strong and so we eliminated it.

All of these difficulties were resolved by the grand Mufti. Mustafa Cerić recalled that the formula on religious freedom used in the joint statement “are those found in the UN Declaration of Human Rights.  Many Muslim governments signed this Declaration.  Therefore they must accept it, even though perhaps they don’t practise it”.  This solved the problem and eased the path for all to adhere to the final document. Difficulties remain, but at least we have affirmed the principal of freedom.  What’s more, in the Koran there are verses which lend comfort to this position.

The problem of religious freedom also raised the question of how to put the declaration to use.  We all agreed to translate it into our own languages and distribute it as much as possible, sensitising our governments too, even though we do not have the power to force them to change their laws.

Another way to render this encounter beneficial is to educate younger generations to be more objective and respectful of other religions, both through scholastic text books and general publications.  All agreed that “we cannot continue to transmit errors”.  This is why books which speak of Christians should be written by Christians and vice-versa: books which speak of Islam should be written by Muslims and adopted even in Catholic schools”. The theme of education could be the theme of a future Forum appointment.

A common challenge: modernity without God

In conclusion, the encounter was very positive but it also opened questions that require greater study, for example the question of religious freedom.  Muslim tradition affirms freedom of conscience, but does not guarantee community witness because it sees in the witness of another faith the risk of scandal for the Islamic community, and therefore something to be condemned.

But secularism remains the most urgent question, one which has opened a space for a common mission.  In their interventions many Muslims described the secularisation of the world as the most worrying problem that needs to be confronted and this is why they want Catholics to react along with them.  There is a real risk of a fundamentalist vision emerging, in which we ask governments to guarantee religions, but in the end I believe that these demands are honest ones.

The underlying problem is an anti-religious modernity.  Muslims want to build a modernity that is not anti-religious and that is open to God, as Benedict XVI himself continues to preach.

Muslims reaching out to Christians

I had the clear sensation that within the Muslim world there are increased efforts to reach out to Christians.  A factor that pushed for the meeting in the Vatican is the feeling on the Islamic side that we have a common tradition, the so-called Abrahamic tradition. It should be noted that the Koran recognises both Christianity and Judaism. But while relations with the Jews are in ruins, friendship with the Christians is witnessed to its last sura. There is also a political reason: today’s world is dominated by the west, which is of a Christian tradition and therefore it is worthwhile to dialogue with Christians and above all Catholics.  An interesting fact is the “confession” made by a Sunni Muslim who said he felt closer to Catholics then to Protestants “because you and we refer to tradition as a normative value and because together we represent over a third of the world”.

A final reason is their hope for help from Christians to defend themselves from Islamaphobia.  Muslim leaders feel that the world views their religion as a religion of violence, terror, etc…

In the first draft of the Final Declaration there was the word “terrorism”: Muslims wanted it removed and substituted with a more generic word (“violence”). The reason being “because people associate terrorism and Islam”. There is the real risk in today’s world that Islam is to be totally condemned.  The pope in his discourse clarified that we must be against violence, even that which is carried out in the “name of God”.  Muslims feel they are being attacked by all and accused by all of terrorism.  One of them said: “I am not Bin Laden. Why are you making me carry the burden of what Bin Laden does?”. They all recognise that these attacks do not come from Christians but from the secularised and atheistic world and this is why they are reaching out for the help of Christians.

There is therefore the desire to overcome barriers and quarrels to jointly face the challenge of secularism towards religions. One Muslim said he no longer accepted the division between “House of Peace (Dar-al-Islam)” and “House of War (Dar al-Harb)”, which reflects a division of the world along political-religious lines and ferments the jihad against the west.  He prefers the definition “House of Witness”: wherever you may be, in the Islamic world or the Western world, what is important is that you witness your faith. In the end, these Muslims want Muslims and Christians to offer a common witness in the face of rising secularism.