Vatican official: Relations with Muslims better, but problems remain

VENICE, Italy (CNS) — Relations with Muslims have improved significantly in recent years, but problems remain on issues like conversion and freedom of worship, the Vatican’s top interreligious dialogue official said.

Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, said one of the biggest challenges was to make sure that the greater openness shown by Muslim leaders — the “elites” involved in dialogue — filters down to the average Muslim in the street.

So far, that does not seem to have happened, the cardinal told a conference in Venice June 22.

Cardinal Tauran recounted an episode in Jordan that occurred a week before Pope Benedict XVI arrived to a warm official welcome from government and Islamic officials. A Christian woman fell on a street in Amman and asked passers-by for help; two Muslim women on the scene walked away, saying they could not assist an infidel, he said.

“I don’t think that’s the reaction of a good Muslim. But this is the reality on the street. On one hand we have the elites, on the other the masses,” Cardinal Tauran said.

The cardinal said that at the official level the Vatican’s various dialogues with Muslims have attained “a climate of greater trust.”

“On the part of our dialogue partners can be seen a desire to give a more positive image of Islam,” he said. Christian and Muslim leaders also are increasingly aware that cooperation is needed to remedy secular societies’ “deafness” to God and to help build peace in the world, he said.

He cited important agreement on principles of religious freedom in statements produced by recent interreligious encounters, including the World Conference on Dialogue in Spain in 2008, which was initiated by Saudi Arabian King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz; a new Catholic-Muslim Forum at the Vatican last fall; and a Christian-Muslim encounter in Jordan in May.

Participants at these meetings rejected the idea of a “clash of civilizations,” affirmed the importance of defending family values and refused the exploitation of religion for fanaticism or violence.

But the cardinal also pointed to what he said were “serious difficulties” that remain to be addressed.

For one thing, he said, even the most enlightened Muslim leaders can’t convince their fellow Muslims to accept the principle of freedom to change religions, according to one’s own conscience.

The cardinal also said that in Saudi Arabia there has been “no positive signal” on the church’s request to obtain a place for the celebration of Sunday services for the almost 2 million Christians who reside in the country.

Cardinal Tauran was a key speaker at the June conference organized by Oasis, a journal launched by the Patriarchate of Venice in 2005 that deals extensively with problems of Christian minorities in the East.

The cardinal’s talk was titled “Should We Be Afraid of Islam?” and he began by saying that it was a question on many people’s minds.

“Islam makes people afraid: It is a fact. For many people, Islam is reduced to fanaticism, holy war, terrorism, polygamy and proselytism, all preconceptions that circulate in the Western world,” he said.

But such perceptions are based primarily on ignorance, he said.

“Should we be afraid of Islam? No, certainly not,” he said. But only dialogue allows people to overcome such fear, by informing them about the religious traditions of the others, identifying what unites and what separates them, and cooperating as much as possible in the societies where they live, he said.