In Interfaith Dialogue, Beware Of Saudis Bearing Gifts?

Saudi King Abdullah at Mecca interfaith dialogue conference, 4 june 2008/Ho New - Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah looks determined to get his proposal for an unprecedented Muslim- Christian-Jewish dialogue off the ground. A three-day conference in Mecca to discuss this ended with a soaring declaration of goodwill and benevolent intent. Saudi media reported that Muslim clerics from around the world had supported the call and confirmed that dialogue with other faiths was legitimate in Islam.

The official Saudi Press agency said the meeting recommended holding “conferences, forums and discussion groups between the followers of the prophetic messages and relevant civilisations, cultures and philosophies to which academics, media and religious leaders will be invited”. Given the gazillions Riyadh must be earning with oil at $140 a barrel, it may not be long before we see all sorts of petrodollar-funded “dialogue sessions” being held here and there.

Interfaith dialogue is a good thing, but the recent rising chorus of calls for more such talk hasn’t just emerged out of a vacuum. There is already a decades-long history of dialogue sessions that essentially exchanged pleasantries and generated warm feelings but did little to actually reduce misunderstanding and mistrust. The latest generation of initiatives — for example the Common Word consultations and the “Painful Verses” book we’ve blogged about here — takes the disappointment with earlier efforts as its starting point and aims to tackle the issues that earlier dialogues tended to avoid.

Crosses and minaret in Beirut, 28 Nov 2006/Eric GaillardSo where is King Abdullah on the timeline of interfaith dialogue? Up there at the cutting edge? Or a decade or so behind the times? It’s hard to say if we only have some official reports of his comments to go by. But there are a few red flags popping up in the mostly positive reporting, suggesting that whatever he comes up with may not amount to real progress.

For example, the Sunni-Shi’ite harmony message supposedly sent by the presence of former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani looked a lot thinner when journalists looked beyond centre stage. “Some Shi’ites said that, despite the presence of Iran’s Rafsanjani, few of their number were invited to the Mecca meeting. None came from Europe or North America and one from Saudi Arabia’s own Shi’ite minority which complains that it is given second class status,” our Riyadh bureau chief Andrew Hammond wrote.

Riazat Butt, religion correspondent for the Guardian, covered the conference and heard one of the classic Muslim views that goes against Abdullah’s position and turned some non-Muslims off dialogue with the muftis years ago. She wrote: “Abdullah’s understanding of interfaith dialogue differs from the one held by the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia, Abdul Aziz Al al-Sheikh, who said dialogue with other religions was a way to bring non-Muslims into Islam. The cleric, who is the highest official of religious law, told the delegates that converting people to Islam was the ultimate goal of dialogue, a point made several times. “It is the opportunity to disseminate the principles of Islam. Islam advocates dialogue among people, especially calling them to the path of Allah.”

Riazat ButtThe grand mufti also contradicted Abdullah on dialogue with Jews, who the king has suggested could come to Saudi Arabia for talks on what would be an unprecedented visit. As Butt (right) wrote, “Several clerics, including the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia, said it was almost impossible to talk to them because of the situation in the occupied territories. ‘How can you negotiate with someone who is against you all the time? They seem to be against us in every way so I don’t know how we’re supposed to have dialogue.’ Egyptian cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi said he would only talk to Jews who denounced Zionism and he urged Muslims to talk to Buddhists, Hindus and atheists. His impromptu speech, lasting 15 minutes, garnered the loudest applause, proving his popularity among fellow clerics even if the west views him with suspicion.”

After having a front-row seat at the Mecca meeting, Butt was quite sceptical about the prospects for Abdullah’s initiative. But the attention this idea has been getting at the Vatican and among Jews shows there is a lot of official interest in it. If the Saudis start organising these interfaith talks, do you think they will actually produce more than nice words? Will they reflect what Saudi clerics actually think?

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June 4th, 2008
Interfaith talks on agenda in Mecca, Rome and London
Posted by: Tom Heneghan

Saudi King Abdullah (r) and former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, 4 June 2008/Ho NewThere were interesting words on interfaith dialogue from Mecca and Rome today and London yesterday. Efforts to improve contacts and understanding among the main monotheist religions have been gaining steam recently and we’re starting to see some concrete steps. But, as a meeting in Mecca showed, the road ahead could still be quite rocky.

The Mecca meeting, organised by the Saudi-based Muslim World League, is supposed to draw up guidelines for the inter-faith dialogue that Saudi King Abdullah says he wants with Christianity and Islam. “You are meeting here today to say to the world with pride that we are a fair, honest, humanitarian and moral voice, a voice for living together and dialogue,” the monarch said in a high-minded speech.

But former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, one of the few prominent Shi’ites at the conference, rained on his parade with broadsides against the United States and Israel. But he also said: “To have a dialogue with other religions we need to start talking among ourselves. The call needs to be directed at ourselves first of all, and all the sects need to agree on shared points. As a Muslim and a Shi’ite … I say the things we agree on are many.”

Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, 25 Nov 2005/Jameson WuThat may have been a reaction to a statement this week by a group of independent Saudi clerics saying that Shi’ites, including Lebanese group Hezbollah, were posturing against Israel to hide an anti-Sunni agenda.

On the same day Abdullah spoke, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran said his Vatican department for inter-religious dialogue was drawing up its own guidelines for Catholic dialogue with non-Christian religions. He told Vatican Radio (here in Italian) the guidelines for priests and lay people would be based on the Ten Commandments, which he called “a kind of universal grammar that all believers can use in their relations with God and their neighbour.” This approach neatly links Christians with Jews and Muslims such as the “Common Word” scholars who’ve called for a dialogue based on the principle of love of God and neighbour.

In London, Lambeth Palace issued a statement on Tuesday about an ecumenical meeting that Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams convened on June 1-2 to discuss ways to deepen Christian-Muslim dialogue. More than 40 participants discussed the “Common Word” initiative and “what degree of consensus might be possible as we look forward,” he said. The list of participants shows most of the Christian churches addressed by the “Common Word” letter were present. The statement said: “Delegates at the Consultation were heartened by the great variety of initiatives, some by Muslims and some by Christians, that were taking place at many different levels – many with a well-established track record. A great emphasis was placed on the need to ensure that the results of these encounters were more widely disseminated and influenced the education and formation of young people. The Archbishop agreed to take forward further work, particularly in response to A Common Word.”

There have been several other stories about interfaith dialogue recently, including the following:

* Cardinal Tauran gave a speech in London last month where he said: “There is a change of climate [in interreligious dialogue] now. It is more open minded, there is greater cordiality.” Here are reports in The Times and the Guardian and the speech text in Zenit.
* Tauran also attended the sixth Doha Conference of Interfaith Dialogue in May.
* French bishops issue a document on dialogue entitled “How do Christians and Muslims speak of God?” (here in French). Rev. Christophe Roucou, the bishops’ conference specialist for relations with Islam, comments in this La Croix interview (in French).