Georgetown Scholar: Muslims Comfortable In Dialogue With Catholics

NEW HAVEN, Conn. (CNS) — Roman Catholics can play an important role in burgeoning and, by nearly all accounts, needed efforts in dialogue between Christians and Muslims, said a noted Catholic scholar of Islamic studies.

“Muslims say they’re comfortable dialoguing with Catholics” because of the church’s steadfast positions on questions such as family, abortion and bioethics, said John Esposito, director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University in Washington.

Esposito, 68, participated in a just-completed conference of Christians and Muslims held at Yale University in New Haven. Conference participants hoped to improve interfaith relations frayed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

In an interview with Catholic News Service following the July 28-31 public portion of the eight-day conference, Esposito said that comfort level remains a key cornerstone of Catholic-Muslim relations and is a continuing point of good will.

Esposito’s comments came as a prominent Muslim intellectual praised Pope Benedict XVI for his role in promoting interfaith dialogue.

“After years of attempted dialogue, Islam and Christianity have begun to find consensus on subjects of shared interest,” said Ahmad Vincenzo, the president of Italy’s Association of Muslim Intellectuals. “These topics range from the family to pollution, poverty and the distribution of natural resources.”

Vincenzo’s remarks were reported by the Rome-based Adnkronos International news service July 31.

Esposito noted that Pope Benedict will hold what is being called a landmark Catholic-Muslim meeting in November.

A 2006 speech by the pontiff that cited medieval criticism of Islam sparked a furor among many Muslims and was one of the reasons 138 Islamic scholars and theologians, stating the need for international security and peace, penned a letter in the fall of 2007 on the need for interfaith understanding.

The Yale conference was the first of a series of meetings that formalizes dialogues that began with that initiative, known as the Common Word initiative.

The Islamic scholars’ letter, “A Common Word Between Us,” prompted a formal response from Christian scholars at Yale Divinity School that eventually was signed by hundreds of Christian leaders, clerics and theologians, and has now turned into a formal process of dialogue that began with the Yale meeting and will continue through 2009 with a series of conferences, including one at Georgetown University next March.

Journalists covering the Yale conference were sometimes frustrated by what seemed to be a lack of concrete outcomes from the event — though one outcome was a clear call for Christian and Muslim clerics to speak publicly during a designated week each year in praise of the other’s tradition.

Esposito, a veteran of such conferences, said while the results of such interfaith meetings are often hard to gauge the process under way should be respected. He cited the often-quoted line about religious leaders: “Rome moves slowly.”

He said the focus of the Yale meeting, on theological issues, showed that there are often as many disagreements within religious traditions as there are between them, citing different Christian interpretations over the question “Who is my neighbor?”

“That’s the kind of question that has to be hammered out within traditions,” he said.

He said in the early days of interfaith discussions there was much talk of tolerance.

“Some say that is now dead,” Esposito said, adding “that in a globalized world respect has to be based not merely on tolerance but on equality.”

Esposito noted that the presence and participation of evangelical Christian leaders at the Yale conference and at other recent events signals “an important move” — that evangelicals are now formally joining interfaith dialogues that were once the domain of mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics.

In some ways, he said, that is not surprising, given some common ground between conservative evangelicals and Muslims on social issues such as abortion. But he said it is also indicative of changes within U.S. society, in which Muslims and Christians are literally bumping into each other in everyday life, whether in the street, in hospitals or in Catholic schools, which are popular with American Muslim families because of their strict academic and social standards.

“You can like it or not, but at some level you have to be engaged in a globalized, multifaith world,” Esposito said. “You#8217;re bumping into people and that humanizes them.”

The issue of globalization and faith will be discussed further at Yale this year. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, a Catholic, will team-teach a course on globalization and faith in the fall with Miroslav Volf, founder and director of Yale Divinity School’s Center for Faith & Culture, which organized the recent conference.