As a leading participant in the newly formed Catholic-Muslim Forum — a structure initiated by Muslim scholars — Jesuit Father Christian Troll is at the center of the Church’s dialogue with Muslims.

Father Troll, who is honorary professor of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations at the Hochschule Sankt Georgen (St. George University) in Frankfurt, Germany, spoke recently with Register correspondent Edward Pentin about the new initiative and about Pope Benedict XVI’s approach to Christian-Muslim dialogue.

How much does the Pope’s approach to Catholic-Muslim dialogue differ from the Church’s approach in the past?

Basically, his approach is as much in line with Vatican II as previous approaches. I don’t think there’s any difference there.

But I think, given his temperament and given his academic and critical background, reflecting on things as a theologian, he is critical of certain developments in the name of dialogue — that was already well-known when he was a cardinal.

One such development was that friendliness and openness in dialogue is taken to be an attitude which doesn’t take questions of truth seriously; that to be friendly, open and understanding really matters more than differences in questions of truth, assertions and convictions. These were discussed very little in the dialogues of past decades. It was more of an effort to establish good relations all around.

So the key word there for the Pope is the danger of relativism. He wants a dialogue, certainly on the political level, so that Christians and Muslims can live together peacefully and in solidarity in pluralist societies. That is very clear now, as we saw in his visit to America.

But he warns of an attitude that forgets about the truth on which we stand and for which Muslims stand, and in that respect, Islam and Christianity, on many important points, have very different views that contradict one another. Yet this must be as much part of a dialogue, especially on the theological and intellectual level so that we can better distinguish the level of the dialogue in living together in civil society, the dialogue of values and the dialogue about truth and truth claims.

In pointing out these differences, has the Pope advanced the dialogue?

I have sometimes said that he has put the dialogue into a second gear.

The first gear was understandably to convey to Muslims that we do respect them, that we have got away from the medieval vituperation and vilification of Islam.

But this cannot mean we just give the impression that matters of faith and truth don’t matter in dialogue, or are not important to Christians. So this is what he was really saying in the Regensburg lecture and which led to a big outcry.

Dialogue is not just a matter of good friendly relations but it’s also a confrontation in a sense, and it’s confronting our own faith and confronting the faith of the Muslims with claims of reason, as good theology has to do.

How important do you think the new Catholic-Muslim Forum will be in terms of future relations and dialogue?

First of all, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran [president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue] made it very clear that we have many partners among Muslims. Muslims are, as you know, very diverse in groups.

Now it would be a misreading to say the cardinal has taken this group and this initiative as the big partner from now onwards of Christian-Muslim dialogue. So this must not be misread, because there are certain dangers.

But they have taken the initiative. They have made an astounding claim, namely that at the center of Islam, and of Islamic teaching, is the love of God and love of neighbor. That was never said in tradition.

And that is very interesting for us: How could Christians be against the idea of love? But of course, in order to be taken seriously by other Christians, we have to ask them what exactly do you mean by this? What does it mean in practice? What does it mean in your understanding of your relationship with non-Muslims, with Jews, with Christians and in your attitudes towards violence, etc.?

If you take love of God and love of neighbor as the key of your basic understanding of Islam, what are the practical and normative consequences of your understanding of Islam today, of your Islamic preaching and writing?

And we would like to tell them that, for us, in relationship to non-Christians, the first and basic consequence of love of God and neighbor is the full acceptance of religious freedom, human dignity, and human rights. Then we can explain to you why this is essential.

We don’t want to impose Christian values on you, but there are basic values which are a condition for the possibility of living peacefully and in solidarity together and respecting our differences.

Human rights, human dignity and religious freedom are especially key in this, and we will be judged by these criteria.

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.