Over the next three days, the Vatican is playing host to a meeting of the minds between 24 Catholic theologians and 24 Islamic theologians. The aim is to ease the tensions between the two religions. “Love of God, Love of Neighbour” is the theme of this first Catholic-Muslim Forum. Points for discussion include shared theological and spiritual foundations, human dignity and the need for mutual respect. The Pope will close the meeting on Thursday.
The Forum is a response to a controversial speech given by Pope Benedict XVI in September 2006 at the University of Regensburg in Germany. In it, he quoted the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Palaiologos: “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached“.
Storm of protest
The quote formed part of a lengthy and complex theological tract and the Pope did not present it as representing his own views. Nevertheless, it unleashed a storm of protest throughout the Muslim world. Yet alongside the fierce demonstrations and serious threats, there were also more tempered responses. The most prominent of these was an open letter addressed to the Pope and other Christian leaders, penned by 38 moderate Muslim theologians and spiritual leaders and entitled ‘A common word between us’. Under this motto, taken from the Qu’ran, they called for greater understanding and regular dialogue. In the meantime, this group of influential Muslims has grown to 271.
The Vatican, embarrassed by the outcry surrounding the Pope’s speech, seized upon this opportunity to put things right. It wasted no time in entering into high-level discussions with the letter’s signatories.
Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, invited a Muslim delegation to the Vatican. In March, this produced an agreement for structural dialogue and paved the way for the joint Forum now meeting in the Vatican for the first time. The Pope himself will receive the participants on the closing day.
Since the sessions are taking place behind closed doors, the Council of Tauran is not expected to produce any bold statements in the immediate future. But, as the initiators are at pains to point out, that was never the intention. The main aim is to enable prominent Catholics and Muslims to engage in a frank exchange of views about the issues which concern them.
For the Vatican, these include the recurring persecution of Christians in Iraq, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Turkey. The Muslim delegates are sure to address the issue of how Western media have treated cartoons and films which give offence to Muslims.
The Turkish Islamic scholar Professor Ibrahim Kalin, spokesman for the Muslim delegation, hopes agreement can be reached on forming a joint crisis team to prevent the escalation of potential conflicts. As a successful example of this process, he referred to discussions with the Dutch Muslim community on the eve of the release of the anti-Islam film Fitna by right-wing politician Geert Wilders. Contrary to all expectations, the film met with a calm and measured response.