Why MPAC Declined To Join Interfaith Meeting With Pope Benedict

The Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), a leading civil rights group, Thursday (April 17, 2008) declined to join a meeting between the visiting Pope Benedict XVI and about 200 religious community leaders in Washington, DC, due to the absence of a “meaningful dialogue on Muslim-Catholic issues.” The Pope’s meeting with Muslim, Jewish, Hindu and Buddhist and other religious leaders came less than a month after the Muslims were offended by Pope’s baptizing of a controversial journalist with an Italian-Egyptian Muslim noted for his unsubstantiated criticisms of Islam and Muslims.

While declining the invitation, MPAC Executive Director Salam Al-Marayati, said  “We would like to engage Pope Benedict XVI in honest and serious dialogue that does not overlook real differences, but builds mutual respect between the Vatican and the American Muslim community.”

A letter was delivered to the Pope on behalf of MPAC that called for a substantive dialogue as part of the Muslim-Catholic agenda. Dr. Muzammil Siddiqi of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), and Imam Sayid Hassan Al-Qazwini of the Islamic Center of America were co-signatories on the letter which states:

“We have always sought and will continue to seek harmonious relations with our Catholic neighbors and fellow citizens. This requires that we engage each other in honest and serious dialogue that does not overlook real differences, but always remains respectful and truly sincere, and gives each side ample opportunity to express its views.”

Dr. Muzammil Siddiqi and Imam Sayid Hassan Al-Qazwini were among Muslim leaders who attended the interfaith meeting with the Pope despite reservations. Dr. Muzammil Siddiqi, who is also the co-chairman of the West Coast Muslim-Catholic Dialogue, said “Our going there is more out of respect for the Catholic Church itself ….Popes come and go, but the church is there.”

But Salam al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, was more blunt: “the event seemed more ceremonial than substantive.” He was disappointed that no time was made in the Pope’s six-day trip for even a brief private meeting with U.S. Muslim leaders.

Muslims are disenchanted by the Pope’s mixed messages since September 2006, when he indirectly hit out at Islam during a theological lecture to the staff and students at the University of Regensburg, where he taught theology in the 1970s. The Pope quoted criticisms of the prophet Mohammed by a 14th century Byzantine Christian emperor, Manuel II, during a debate with a learned Persian:

“Show me just what Mohammed 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.”

Despite massive protests in the Muslim world, the Pope did not back away from his comments but only said that he was misunderstood.

Unfortunately, the Pope has continued to send mixed signals on relations with Islam.

In October last year, 138 Muslim scholars from 43 countries issued an unprecedented appeal entitled “A Common Word” that urged a serious dialogue between Christians and Muslims on the basis of the shared values of love of God and neighbor. Dozens more scholars have since signed the appeal. Protestant churches have mostly reacted in a positive way, but the Roman Catholic Church — which accounts for more than half of the world’s Christians — has been hesitant and after a long delay agreed to hold a dialogue which is scheduled for next November.

Tellingly, in a replay of September 2006 attack on Islam, this year, he seized the March 22 Easter service to make a coded but fierce attack on Islam when the pontiff chose to baptize at St Peter’s Basilica a controversial Muslim, Magdi Allam, 55, who received first communion at the age of 14.

Who is Allam? An Italian citizen, Egyptian-born Allam is a deputy editor of Corriere della Sera newspaper. He built his career attacking what he calls the “inherent” violence in Islam and support of Israeli violence against Palestinians while denouncing Palestinian resistance. Tellingly, two years ago, Allam co-shared the Tel Aviv University-based Dan David Prize worth one million dollars. He recently published a book under a provocative name: “Long Live Israel – From the Ideology of Death to the Civilization of Life: My Story.” Allam, who often indulges in fear mongering by raising the specter of “Islamization” of the Italian society, supports a ban on building mosques in Italy.

Not surprisingly, Allam’s high profile baptizing was interpreted by Muslims as patronization of Allam’s anti-Islam views by the Vatican. Here conversion was not an issue since there is no compulsion in Islam. The Quran says clearly: “Let there be no compulsion in religion” (Verse 2:256). Obviously, the high profile conversion was used for anti-Islam and anti-Muslim propaganda.

To borrow Aref Ali Nayed, Director of the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre in Amman, “the whole spectacle… provokes genuine questions about the motives, intentions and plans of some of the pope’s advisers on Islam.” Aref Ali Nayed, a key figure in a group of Muslim scholars launching discussion forums with Christian groups, says Pope’s actions came “at a most unfortunate time when sincere Muslims and Catholics are working very hard to mend ruptures between the two communities”. 

Nayed was one of 138 Muslim scholars from 43 countries who last October issued the unprecedented appeal entitled “A Common Word.”

Muslims wish to continue Catholic-Muslim dialogue that was well reflected by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Islamic Society of North America and other leading Muslim groups whose officials chose to attend the interfaith meeting with the Pope.

MPAC’s decision to decline the invitation to the interfaith meeting with the Pope sent a strong message that his contradictory messages are disappointing and that Muslims want a real and meaningful dialogue with the Catholic Church to promote the cause of global peace.