Earlier this month a rather historic gathering of Roman Catholic and Muslim leaders took place at the Vatican. It was the first meeting of the newly formed Catholic-Muslim Forum. The Forum participants, 28 Muslim and 28 Catholic representatives, met at the Vatican Nov. 4-6 to discuss the first topic of their newly established dialogue, “Love of God, Love of Neighbor.” The group was chosen by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and the 138 Muslim leaders who sent an open letter to Pope Benedict XVI and other Christian leaders last October. Members of the forum expressed that Muslims and Christians must work together to protect religious freedom and learn more about one another’s faith so that they may more effectively witness to the world the reality of God.
“We are challenged to demonstrate, by our words and above all by our deeds, that the message of our religions is unfailingly a message of harmony and mutual understanding. It is essential that we do so, lest we weaken the credibility and the effectiveness not only of our dialogue, but also of our religions themselves,” said Pope Benedict in his address to the forum at its concluding session. He added that we often face a world beset by “discrimination and violence, which today religious people experience,” these persecutions, “represent unacceptable and unjustifiable acts, all the more grave and deplorable when they are carried out in the name of God.”
The meeting was inspired by the “Letter” 138 Muslim scholars wrote to Pope Benedict and other Christian leaders proposing a new level of Christian-Muslim dialogue. The “Letter” presented the dual commandment of love of God and love of neighbor as a “common word” of Islam and Christianity and as a possible topic for a dialogue that would go deeper than discussing traditional moral, social and cultural values by focusing on theological and spiritual similarities and differences.
In discussing the Forum, the Holy Father said that he is well aware that there are “different approaches” in matters regarding God from a Christian and Muslim vantage. He drove home his point by explaining that the Incarnation, God becoming man, is a central tenet in the Christian faith that is not acceptable by Muslims. The Incarnation, the pope explained, is a sign of God’s “infinite and eternal love” for us and is what inspires Christians to love others as brothers and sisters.
Love for God and neighbor explained Pope Benedict, also requires believers to respect the dignity of each person and to work together to ensure that each person’s rights, especially the right to freely profess and practice their faith is guaranteed. In response, some of the Muslim participants called upon Catholic leaders to recognize that most times the limitation of human rights is a decision made by political leaders, not religious leaders. Pope Benedict responded that both “political and religious leaders have the duty of ensuring the free exercise of these rights in full respect for each individual’s freedom of conscience and freedom of religion.”
Mustafa Ceric, the grand mufti of Bosnia-Herzegovina, responded to the pope’s remarks by saying that dialogue is the key not only to justice and peace, but also to countering exaggerated forms of secularism that have led to “wealth without effort, pleasure without conscience, education without morality, business without ethics, politics without principles, science without responsibility, faith without sacrifice and religion without compassion.” The mufti said to the pope, “Love is strengthened by working to overcome conflicts together.”
In conclusion, Pope Benedict challenged the scholars and all Christian and Muslim believers, “Let us unite our efforts, animated by good will, in order to overcome all misunderstanding and disagreements. Let us resolve to overcome past prejudices and to correct the often distorted images of the other which even today can create difficulties in our relations.” The Forum ended with an appeal on the “need to worship God totally and to love our fellow men and women disinterestedly, especially those in distress and need. God calls us to work together on behalf of the victims of disease, hunger, poverty, injustice and violence.”