The Vatican needs to show greater respect for Islam if Al-Azhar University is to restore formal relations with the Holy See, and Pope Benedict XVI should still apologize for his comments made over four years ago about Islam, according to two Muslims with close associations to the university.
Speaking to reporters Feb. 23 at a Sant’Egidio conference in Rome, Muhammad Rifaa Al-Tahtawi, a former spokesman of the university, complained of too many “negative signals” coming from the Pope and the Vatican in its relations with Islam and said dialogue should be based on “mutual respect.”
Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the largest religious institution in the Sunni Muslim world, voted Jan. 20 to suspend dialogue with the Vatican because it claimed Benedict was interfering in Egyptian affairs after he called for greater protection and religious freedom for all religious believers in the country.
Both Catholic and Orthodox Coptic leaders said Al-Azhar had misinterpreted the Pope’s words, having mistakenly believed the Pope was calling on Western governments to intervene to protect Christians in the Middle East — words they interpreted as a kind of crusade. Various mainstream media reports were blamed for misleading reports.
However, Al-Tahtawi, who was Al-Azhar’s spokesman when relations were frozen, complained of “different negative signals,” beginning with the Pope’s Regensburg lecture in 2006. “It’s not an excuse to say ‘I didn’t insult you, that I just repeated what someone else has said.’ This is not acceptable,” he said.
When asked: “If that is the case, why can’t Muslims forgive him?” he replied: “It’s not a question of forgiveness. He has given an apology for the Holocaust, but there has been no apology for the Crusades. [We] need this. Why? Because the Pope is not only considered chief of Catholics; he is a man of universal authority.”
As an example, he said Muslims would like the Pope to speak more forcefully against Israel, not simply calling for a two-state solution, but speaking of Israeli “aggression, occupation, and that there are people under siege.”
Al-Tahtawi denied the university, which had close ties with the Mubarak regime in Egypt, was pressured to suspend ties by the former government. “This I know for sure: Even some of the government were not happy with this drastic decision,” he said. “It was resented — our ambassador [to the Holy See, Lamia Aly Hamada Mekhemar] was sent away crying, and the foreign minister asked why they did it. The sheik [Ahmad Mohamed el-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al-Azhar University] did it.”
Al-Tahtawi also claimed the decision was “very popular,” although he said he himself would have tried to prevent it if he had been consulted.
The former spokesman stressed he was speaking in a personal capacity and not as a representative of Al-Azhar. He resigned as spokesman on Feb. 5 in order to join anti-Mubarak protesters in Tahrir Square, saying at the time that his opinion of the previous government did not match that of Al-Azhar.
Asked whether he thought relations would be restored, Al-Tahtawi said he was certain they would be. “I really believe that others are keen to resume this, but they want it to be a fruitful dialogue: not dialogue for dialogue’s sake, but a dialogue that could lead to real results based upon mutual respect.”
Hasan Shafie, a special envoy of the grand imam and also a speaker at the Rome conference, told reporters that Al-Azhar’s decision is not final and that the university never severs ties permanently with other religions or communities. But he said, up to now, the Pope “has not retracted what he said in Germany about Islam and Muslims. We await an apology, not to Al-Azhar, but to the Islamic world.” He added that with his scholarly background, the Pope “should know that Islam is not contrary to reason.”
Pope Benedict gave a lecture on “Faith, Reason and the University — Memories and Reflection” Sept. 12, 2006, at the University of Regensburg. During the lecture, he quoted Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus, who in 1391 stated in his book Dialogue Held With a Certain 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.”
According to the German text, the Pope’s original comment was that the emperor “addresses his interlocutor in an astoundingly harsh — to us, surprisingly harsh — way.”
The Holy Father apologized for any offense he had caused and made a point of visiting Turkey, a predominantly Muslim country, and praying in its Blue Mosque.
Al-Tahtawi said he believed it wasn’t enough to have two meetings a year, one in Rome and the other in Cairo, that result in just a statement. “No, it must be a dialogue between equals,” he said, “and these were the opinions expressed at the time.”
“We have great respect for the Vatican, for the Pope as a man of universal human authority,” he went on. “He is a symbol of peace and justice, so what is required from him is not the same as what is required from me or you. He is judged by his actions, so we want him to be above all differences and make a gesture that will make Muslims feel that he cares for them as human beings, as he cares for everybody.”
When it was put to him that Benedict XVI often says and does all these things, Al-Tahtawi said he needed to do “something stronger.”
Reports at the time of the suspension of ties said that Grand Imam Mohamed el-Tayeb had accused the Pope of not liking Islam, a charge firmly denied by Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, the president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.
Asked if this was the case in a L’Osservatore Romano interview Jan. 29, the cardinal said: “Far from it, just read the words addressed to representatives of non-Christian religions at the very beginning of his pontificate, April 25, 2005, in which Benedict XVI expressed his appreciation for ‘the growth of dialogue with Islam’ and hoped to ‘continue to establish bridges of friendship with all religions, in search of the authentic good of every person and of society as a whole.’”
The cardinal had hoped the scheduled meeting in Rome between the Vatican and Al-Azhar would go ahead, but no meeting was held. However, Al-Tahtawi and Shafie did meet with Archbishop Cyril Vasil, secretary of the Congregation for Oriental Churches, who was also addressing the Sant’Egidio conference on the theme: “A Program for Coexistence: Christians and Muslims for a Future Together.”
Edward Pentin writes from Rome.