VATICAN CITY — It was a small but cheering development for Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald.

His dialogue partner on the Islamic-Catholic Liaison Committee, Professor Hamid Al-Rifaie, last month urged Catholics and Muslims to close the gap between them for the common good.

“The world is in need of religious values,” he said, “and it is our duty, Muslims and Catholics, to present common values to guide the march of civilization.”

The liaison committee, which completed its ninth session Jan. 20 at the Vatican, is the highest official meeting between the two faiths. It is co-chaired by Al-Rifaie, president of the Saudi-based International Islamic Forum for Dialogue, and Archbishop Fitzgerald, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. It aims to promote greater understanding between the two faiths and to work toward justice and peace.

This year, participants called for “an immediate end to all conflicts, including all forms of armed conflict,” appealed for “full respect of humanitarian law” and stated that dialogue was the most effective way to end war and to realize “justice and peace among human beings and societies.”

All admirable ideals, but when Christians in Muslim countries continue to be persecuted, are treated as socially inferior and discriminated against under Muslim law, many observers wonder how relevant and authentic the dialogue really is.

Reflecting on his first year as council president, Archbishop Fitzgerald told the Register that “tension has not arisen” between Muslims and Christians in a number of Muslim countries owing to Pope John Paul II's opposition to the war in Iraq. However, he was reticent to say if relations were altogether good.

“Sometimes there are good signs, sometimes there are reversals; this is happening all the time,” Archbishop Fitzgerald said.

Today, many Muslims still identify Christians with colonialism and the Crusades, yet the liaison committee is trying to change this by helping “Christian and Muslim communities around the world to relate better,” Archbishop Fitzgerald said. In turn, it is hoped this “culture of dialogue” will impel political leaders to pay more heed to questions of human rights and freedom.

“If they feel there is pressure on them from their constituents,” Archbishop Fitzgerald said, “they will pay attention.”

But exacting change indirectly means the committee lacks the political clout to radically hasten reform. “The people who can actually make the changes are the political leaders, and we're not meeting with them,” the archbishop acknowledged. “That's not what this committee is about.”

Sensitive Issues

Still, sensitive issues are not wholly ignored. Despite not being included in the final statement this year, Catholic concerns over a growing exodus of Christians from the Holy Land — many of whom are said to be leaving because of discrimination by Muslims — were discussed.

“We got a very good hearing for that,” Archbishop Fitzgerald said. “We do speak about the difficulties Christians face in other parts of the world and it is a forum for that. The Muslims also present to us the grievances they may have.”

Dominican Father Joseph Ellul, professor of ecumenical theology and Islamic studies at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome, concurs that touchy issues are rarely overlooked.

“Where there are cases of unequal treatment of Christians, I have never known any reluctance on the part of Church officials engaged in dialogue about broaching the subject and voicing their concerns,” he said.

But one factor making relations with the Church difficult is the absence of any overriding central Muslim authority with which to deal. Also, while open dialogue has been the salient feature of John Paul's pontificate, it is not a universally supported approach in Rome.

Some Vatican officials told the Register they have grave doubts about both interreligious relations and ecumenism, believing that too much emphasis on dialogue is compromising evangelization and making the Gospel message unintelligible.

It is also of particular concern to the Vatican skeptics that so little seems to be done in Muslim countries to reciprocate acts of tolerance in Christian countries.

But Archbishop Fitzgerald countered this charge, saying that “in some places there has been change.” He singled out Tunisia for opening up religious education and praised “gestures of good will” from rulers in the Gulf who have “put property at the disposal of Christians and allowed Christians to build a church.”

Doctrinal Differences

On doctrinal matters, Archbishop Fitzgerald revealed that a group in the United States had produced a joint statement on revelation.

“We can talk about these things so long as we are exploring these differences,” he said. “We're trying to understand the logic, the coherence of Islam, just as we would like them to understand the coherence of Christianity.”

He noted that the purpose of the dialogue was not to convert the other to each other's religion but to help “one another in our progress toward God.”

The mission of the Church, he said, is wider than “the proclamation of Jesus Christ and inviting people to join the community of the Church.”

“Muslims,” he conceded, “have not developed their thinking along the same lines but in practice this is what they are doing.”

But if questions of doctrine, such as deeply divergent understandings of Jesus and Mary, are not tackled head on, is there not a danger of the dialogue lacking authenticity?

“Not at all,” the archbishop countered. “If we are engaging in arguments that only develop into polemics, this doesn't help at all.”

He believes these issues are more suited for a “growing number” of academics in Islamic universities who are “deepening their knowledge of our faith.”

But even in the lecture hall, progress has been minimal. Greater fruit is said to be borne at the grass-roots level where Christian and Muslim relations are better because they are not so politicized.

Archbishop Fitzgerald agrees, but counsels patience in dialogue at all levels.

“I suppose if we were a commercial enterprise, our stocks would not rate high,” he said candidly. “But dialogue is not like that. It's a very slow process and we cannot expect quick results.”

(CNS contributed to this story.)

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.