Five years after Pope Benedict XVI’s Regensburg address that ignited protests around the Islamic world, the Catholic-Muslim Forum established to improve interfaith relations has said that what began as formal dialogue has become increasingly characterised by friendship.
The forum, which grew out of Muslim dissatisfaction with comments in Pope Benedict’s 2006 Regensburg speech, held its second round of theological consultations in Jordan last week. The fate of Middle Eastern Christian minorities amid the Arab Spring’s Islamist renaissance provided a sombre background to the meeting, much as perceived Christian misunderstandings about Islam preceded the first session of the forum at the Vatican in November 2008. But increasing contacts between Catholic officials and Muslim scholars of the Common Word initiative, the 2007 Islamic dialogue appeal to Pope Benedict, have created bonds that helped both sides tackle sensitive issues.
“We have realised that we have a common heritage,” Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, head of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue, said at the conference, held on the east bank of the Jordan River near where Jesus is believed to have been baptised. “We have passed from formal dialogue to a dialogue between friends.” Jordan’s Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad bin Talal, who heads the Common Word group and hosted the meeting, recalled the initial strains and said: “Since then, despite some misunderstandings, I dare say the general Muslim-Catholic ambience has ameliorated considerably.”
During the 21-23 November forum, 24 Catholic and 24 Muslim religious leaders, scholars and educators meeting here debated how each religion combines faith and reason – the core message of the Regensburg speech that was drowned out by protests over Pope Benedict’s use of a Byzantine emperor’s quote calling Islam irrational and violent.
Ibrahim Kalin, a Turkish philosopher and chief policy adviser to Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, presented a long paper explaining to the Catholic side how Islam also holds that faith must be tempered by reason. “Islam largely shares this notion of rationality with Judaism and Christianity,” he said, showing how the Qur’an teaches a natural law that would be quite familiar to Thomists. Charges of irrationality persist, he said, because Islam kept a balance of faith and reason while the Enlightenment tipped the focus of Western thought towards reason and science.
Libyan theologian Aref Ali Nayed, who is Tripoli’s new ambassador in the United Arab Emirates, said such theological discussions might seem like a luxury amid the upheavals in the Arab world. But the rise of radical Islamism highlighted the need for reasonable religion to prevail.
“It is extremely important that the massive movements we are experiencing today do not happen at the level of irrationality or mere emotion,” he said. “Such movements must be guided by the light of faith, but reasoned faith that encourages thinking and dialogue.”
Nayed said he hoped for “change that is interreligious, with various directions and ideologies that all of us in dialogue can seek with wisdom and reason”.
In the main Catholic presentation, the Italian philosopher Vittorio Possenti, explained how the influence of Christian personalism, especially in the teachings of Pope John Paul II, influenced the Catholic view of the value and natural rights of every human being.
Strains emerged at times, especially on the issue of conversion. The Church is not allowed to accept any converts in the Gulf countries, one Catholic participant noted, but Christian foreign workers there who switched to Islam got a warm public welcome to their new faith.
Another asked why Muslims, who often accuse Christians of forcing or enticing Muslims to baptism, would not respect the choice made by sincere converts. A Muslim replied that suspicion remained because of forced conversions in the colonial past.
One Muslim suggested Catholics had caved in to modern secularism and should protest more against blasphemous depictions of Jesus.
“There’s a common sense of the urgency and importance of this meeting, even though the context and background we’re coming from are quite different,” said Archbishop Kevin McDonald, the top Catholic official for interfaith dialogue in England and Wales.
That didn’t prevent them, though, from swapping religion jokes during a break on the final day. “Did you hear the one about the preacher and taxi driver?” Bosnia’s Chief Mufti, Mustafa Ceri, asked.
“God sent the preacher to hell and the taxi driver to heaven. When the preacher asked why, God said: ‘When you preached, you put people to sleep. But he used to drive his taxi so fast that he made all his passengers pray for eternal salvation’.”
Archbishop McDonald responded that the Gospel speaks of the weeping and gnashing of teeth in hell. “So a toothless old woman asked a priest if that meant she wouldn’t suffer if she went to hell,” he said. “The priest replied: ‘Teeth will be provided’.”