The first Catholic-Muslim Forum to take place at the Vatican appears to have matched expectations and offered hope for real progress in dialogue between the two faiths.
Since the meeting between scholars was suggested last year, members of both faiths hoped the unprecedented gathering would increase understanding and cooperation between the two religions at a time when relations between the West and Islam have been under increasing strain.
Father Federico Lombardi, the Holy See spokesman, said the forum, which was held in Rome Nov. 4-6, succeeded in taking dialogue “a significant step forward.” He added that the meeting allowed a more deep and frank exploration of essential themes and successfully expressed that which unites and differentiates the two religions.
The forum was created after 138 Muslim scholars signed an open letter in the fall of 2007 addressed to Christian leaders. Twenty-four participants and five advisers from each religion took part in the meeting, whose theme was “Love of God, Love of Neighbor.”
The meeting was co-sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. The next Catholic-Muslim Forum will take place in 2010 in a Muslim-majority country yet to be announced.
Jesuit professor Christian Troll, an expert in Islam and a leading figure in the forum, was positive at the meeting’s outcome.
“Given the circumstances, quite a lot was achieved,” he said Nov. 10, and he complimented the Muslim delegation for fielding a group of well-respected and influential scholars, such as Tariq Ramadan.
But what did it concretely achieve? Looking at the final joint declaration, what differentiates this from the rather empty and platitudinous Catholic-Muslim statements of the past is the amount of attention given to religious freedom and protection of religious minorities. It was an issue underlined by Pope Benedict XVI in his address to the forum’s participants Nov. 6.
“Political and religious leaders have the duty of ensuring [each] individual’s freedom of conscience and freedom of religion,” he said. “My hope [is] that these fundamental human rights will be protected for all people everywhere.”
Point 5 of the 15-point declaration upholds the right of conscience and religion, adding that it “includes the right of individuals and communities to practice their religion in private and public.”
Points 3 and 6, meanwhile, underline the importance of equal rights and full citizenship for religious minorities and respect for their own religious convictions, practices and places of worship.
These points will be hard for some Muslim political leaders to swallow, particularly in countries such as Saudi Arabia, where Christian worship is all but forbidden. These points were also the most contentious among the Muslim delegates. When asked what were the most difficult aspects of the discussions, Troll summed them up in one word: “reciprocity.”
The Muslim scholars agreed to the final text because they are consistent with the U.N. “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” — something to which many Muslim governments are signatories.
What was not explicitly mentioned in the final statement, however, was the freedom of Muslims to convert to other religions, such as Christianity, without having to face death for apostasy. Troll said he raised the issue in the discussions but added that it was omitted because of probable resistance from Muslim states.
Even so, he said, it is implicitly referred to in Point 5.
Troll said the hope now is that the substance and sentiments of the forum will filter down to the local and community level and, as Pope Benedict XVI said in his address to the participants, remove prejudice and increase understanding between the two faiths.
Moreover, the meeting underlined the importance of something close to the Holy Father’s heart: how both faiths can come together on common issues to face the challenges of secularism.
Many believe the original stimulus for this initiative came from Pope Benedict’s controversial lecture in Regensburg in 2006 that was misunderstood by, and therefore offended, many Muslims.
“One can credit Pope Benedict, whether directly intended or not, with having greatly contributed to putting the dialogue into a second gear,” said Troll. Until recently, he said, the dialogue was about building confidence and friendship. The second gear has been about “courage and determination to talk about some of the real differences and problems.”
The Vatican, however, is slightly playing down these meetings.
Soon after the end of the forum, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, the Vatican’s point man for interreligious dialogue, warned against too many Christian-Muslim dialogues, saying they could lead to confusion (Anglicans and Orthodox also had similar conferences with Islamic leaders recently).
Earlier this year, he expressed his concern that people were becoming “obsessed” with Islam. Troll, however, saw the danger not so much in a plethora of exchanges so much as superficial dialogue. The effectiveness of these meetings, he said, “depends on the persons who take part and their seriousness.”
Some argued this forum lacks some weight: The Vatican has other, more institutional Muslim dialogue partners, such as Al-Azhar University in Egypt (sometimes referred to as the closest Islam has to the Vatican).
Observers say the forum will only really have an impact if it grows in size. That is already happening, according to Troll, who said the number of signatories to the first letter has risen from 138 to 271.
But on the Muslim side, this is not the only initiative aimed at improving dialogue. It is also competing with a flurry of recent interreligious gatherings arranged by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.
In view of Islam’s lack of a magisterium or central teaching authority, the Saudi monarch is keen to fill that gap by staging a series of high-profile interreligious meetings, most notably in Mecca over the summer and at the United Nations in New York in mid-November.
He allegedly views the Catholic-Muslim Forum as made up of self-appointed scholars with little authority, but his own initiatives are not without criticism: Some regard them as overly political and in danger of blurring the distinction between church and state.
Edward Pentin writes