Will Mere Talking Bring About Peace?

Last week, it was the head of Roman Catholicism playing host to three days of discussion between Islamic and Catholic scholars in the marble halls of the Vatican.

This week, it was Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah at the United Nations in New York, continuing his campaign to promote religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue.

At the heart of all this ecumenical fervour is one question: does talking matter?

Few would disagree, of course, that talking usually is better than not talking.

Moreover, few would challenge the declaration of the Roman Catholic theologian Hans Küng, which has become a kind of ecumenical rallying cry in the post-September 11 world: “There will be no peace among the nations without peace among the religions. There will be no peace among the religions without dialogue among the religions.”

Yet anyone who has been in an intimate relationship with another human being knows that the quality of the talk and dialogue – and the actions that follow – make the difference.

For the importance of choosing words carefully, a case in point is Pope Benedict XVI, who presided over last week’s Roman Catholic-Muslim forum.

For the Vatican, the gathering was largely an exercise in damage control. The pope’s 2006 speech in Regensburg, Germany, in which he quoted a Byzantine Christian emperor in reference to the Prophet Mohammed ignited a firestorm of criticism.

Some 138 Muslim scholars and clerics issued an open letter protesting about the pontiff’s statement and urging dialogue. They were soon joined by hundreds of other Muslim leaders. A Vatican invitation for dialogue followed.

Still, Pope Benedict has never apologised for what he said in Regensburg; he has said only that he is sorry that people were offended by it , which to many Muslims, only compounded the insult.

The affront still rankles, said Ibrahim Kalin, one of 24 Muslim scholars and clerics who participated in the Vatican forum and praised the meeting. “It was a shock that we haven’t completely recovered from,” he said.

Despite a 15-point joint declaration at the conclusion of the Vatican forum that affirmed all that Islam and Roman Catholicism hold in common instead of conflict, a leading American Catholic cleric who has spoken to Pope Benedict many times said he, unlike his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, had never really understood Islam.

“He doesn’t see it as organically linked to Christianity and Judaism,” said the cleric, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “But he’ll do the right political thing.”

The limitation on all talk of harmony is the pope’s theology, said Paul F Knitter, a prominent ecumenist and a Catholic.

The pope, in a 2007 Vatican proclamation, said Catholic Christianity was truer than Islam or Buddhism or Hinduism or even Protestant Christianity, said Prof Knitter, the Paul Tillich Professor of Theology, World Religions and Culture at Union Theological Seminary in New York. The articulation was considered unusual for a modern pope.

“He sincerely wants to promote better relations with Islam, but it’s not possible on the basis of the theology he espouses,” Prof Knitter said, alluding to a 2007 Vatican proclamations that Roman Catholicism provides the only true path to salvation. The statement was widely viewed as a move away from a period of more open dialogue with other faiths.

If Pope Benedict illustrates the consequences of ill-chosen words, King Abdullah’s trip to the UN underscores the risks of talking but having too little to show for it.

Like his trip to a similar interfaith conference in Madrid in July, the 84-year-old Saudi monarch’s appearance at the UN reflected his determination to repair the damage done to Islam’s image by Islamic militants.

Saudi officials said it also reflected his efforts to put pressure on extremists inside Saudi Arabia’s dominant Wahhabi religious establishment to moderate their views.

Images of the King greeting the pope at the Vatican last year and speaking face-to-face with Rabbis in Madrid in July were televised in the kingdom and were unprecedented for a Saudi monarch.

Yet back in Saudi Arabia, there appeared to be little evidence the strategy was working, which may be one reason the king was not invited to the Vatican to participate in last week’s forum or asked to put together the invitation list. Human rights organisations have criticised Saudi Arabia for a severe lack of religious freedom inside the country. Although there has been some easing on the practice of faith by some Muslim minorities, including Sufis and Shia, non-Muslims are strictly banned from practising their faith or even possessing its symbols and artefacts.

Although up to a million Catholics live in Saudi Arabia, there is not one church in the country.

Critics of the Saudi government say there is nothing wrong with King Abdullah talking about interfaith harmony. The problem, they argue, is his use of international stages to promote what he so far has been unable to do at home.

Does this mean all interfaith talk is ill-fated, cynical beyond repair and destined to collapse under the weight of long-held grievances and mutual misunderstanding?

Hardly, said Mr Ibrahim Kalin, assistant professor at the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University in Washington.

Mr Kalin recalled this week the reply of the head of the Muslim delegation in Rome, Mustafa Ceric, the Grand Mufti of Bosnia, when asked about Pope Benedict’s statements in Regensburg.

“Dr Martin Luther King Jr delivered a ‘I have a dream’ speech, not a ‘I have a complaint’ speech,” Mr Ceric said. “Let us do the same.”