About the Catholic Muslim Forum

I haven’t said a lot about the Catholic Muslim Forum that was held in Rome from 4-6 November. I’ve been waiting to hear reactions first. But I had to write a piece for the next edition of Kairos, so that got me thinking about it.

You have to sympathise with Cardinal Tauran’s comment that sometimes there seems to be “too many” dialogues between Christians and Muslims. There are other churches and religions out there that we need to be dialoguing with. But, perhaps given the fact that the geo-political stability of the earth seems to depend upon the one third of the population who are Christian getting along with the one quarter who are Muslim, the importance of the dialogue cannot be overestimated.

In case you don’t know the background to the Forum, here is the potted version from the A Common Word website:

On October 13th 2006, one month to the day after Pope Benedict XVI’s Regensburg address of September 13th 2006, 38 Islamic authorities and scholars from around the world, representing all denominations and schools of thought, joined together to deliver an answer to the Pope in the spirit of open intellectual exchange and mutual understanding. In their Open Letter to the Pope (see english.pdf), for the first time in recent history, Muslim scholars from every branch of Islam spoke with one voice about the true teachings of Islam.

Exactly one year after that letter, on October 13th 2007 Muslims expanded their message. In A Common Word Between Us and You, 138 Muslim scholars, clerics and intellectuals have unanimously come together for the first time since the days of the Prophet r to declare the common ground between Christianity and Islam. Like the Open Letter, the signatories to this message come from every denomination and school of thought in Islam. Every major Islamic country or region in the world is represented in this message, which is addressed to the leaders of all the world’s churches, and indeed to all Christians everywhere.

…Indeed, the most fundamental common ground between Islam and Christianity, and the best basis for future dialogue and understanding, is the love of God and the love of the neighbor. Never before have Muslims delivered this kind of definitive consensus statement on Christianity. Rather than engage in polemic, the signatories have adopted the traditional and mainstream Islamic position of respecting the Christian scripture and calling Christians to be more, not less, faithful to it.

So that is quite a unique opportunity for the Roman Curia (which prefers, wherever possible, to deal with authoritative and comprehensive representatives in all their diplomatic relations) to actually dialogue with “Islam” per se, and not some sect or school of thought within it.

But while the “Common Word” cooperative action has support of some of the national Islamic authorities (eg. King Abdullah II of Jordan is a patron), it really cannot speak for governments as such, and many of the concerns that the Catholic Church has with Islam involve the way it is imposed politically in some places. That was an obvious difficulty in the dialogue.

I found Tom Heneghan’s observation and use of the analogy of “funnel vision” most insightful:

Imagine you’re asked to examine a problem through a funnel but not told which end to look through. Some people will look through the narrow end and get a wide-angle view of the problem. Others will look through the wide end and get a narrow focus on certain parts of it. Both will be looking at the same problem, but in different ways.

This image came to mind after I spoke to members of both delegations in advance of the Catholic-Muslim Forum that starts today in Vatican City. Both sides are looking at the same problem – how to really improve understanding and cooperation between Christians and Muslims – but from different points of view…

The Common Word delegation seems to have grabbed the narrow end [of the funnel] and peered through it, thus getting a broad view of the challenge of deeper Christian-Muslim understanding.

The Vatican side seems to have focused on issues within the Common Word manifesto, looking with two eyes through the wide end to zero in on specific questions.

This is a rough analogy and not meant to criticise either position, since both perspectives can enrich the other. The broad view can help both sides to make progress despite differences on specific points. The narrow view can help clarify details of certain points in the Common Word manifesto.

The result of the talks was a 15 point agreed statement, which in itself is quite an achievement, but is really pointless unless it can be put into action. I guess you could put it in the category of a “choose now which way you will live” address to Christians and Muslims throughout the world, with a “but as for me and my house we will serve the Lord” rider.

The longest point in the statement is point 1, on loving God and loving the neighbour (the broad end of the funnel), but points 2-15 are really where this fine rhetoric hits the road (the narrow end of the funnel). In particular, take special note of point 5:

5. Genuine love of neighbour implies respect of the person and her or his choices in matters of conscience and religion. It includes the right of individuals and communities to practice their religion in private and public.

Now that, if we could get it implimented universally, WOULD be an achievment. Of course, it is precisely this section that has received much attention from the media. One the Religion Report interview with one of the signatories of the original “A Common Word” statement included this exchange:

David Rutledge: The declaration puts a heavy stress on the importance of religious freedom, and specifically the right of Christians to build churches in Muslim countries. Now this is a contentious issue and Saudi Arabia didn’t have a delegate at the talks, and I wonder if you think that takes some of the shine off that statement…?

Ali Lakhani: Well it’s a good point that you make and I think what you are really bringing out is the fact that there are many different shades of articulation of faith, even within a faith tradition like Islam, and certainly in the case of the Saudis… So religion and politics really are intertwined here. In terms of the effectiveness of the declaration without those elements being included, I think that will be something that emerges over time. What has to happen is that there has to be a momentum, a critical mass that builds up over the sort of moderate and centrist views that will eventually be able to engage the less moderate views. But that’s an evolution. So I’m quite hopeful.

But how easy was it even to get point 5 into the final statement? In Heneghan’s interview with Tauran, there is this exchange:

Heneghan: What were the most important points in the declaration for you?

Tauran: The most important for us is the explicit reference to religious freedom in private and public. I think that’s important.

Heneghan: Was it hard to agree on?

Tauran: Yes, a bit. There was some discussion. On the spot, it was not acceptable for them.
But there was a discussion.

Heneghan: I understand that Grand Mufti Ceric convinced the Muslim delegates to support this.

Tauran: You are well informed. [Don’t you just love that?]

Heneghan: Did it take a long time to agree on this?

Tauran: No, there was a desire to achieve results. He represents European Islam, which is more open and sophisticated.

Well, even better informed is Asia Times commentator “Spengler”, who, in a piece entitled “A Pyrrhic propaganda victory in Rome?” reveals all:

An especially Orwellian moment was reported by the Jesuit Samir Khalid Samir (as reported by the Italian service Asia News on November 7):

In the Joint Declaration, “the right of persons and communities to practice their faith in private and in public” emerged in point 5. Serious problems arose. Some Muslims said: “if you include those words you put us in great difficulty. Freedom of religion in our countries is governed by State law. How can we distribute a document that is against State law? We risk being disqualified and marginalized by our society”. Some Muslims suggested omitting at least the words “in private and in public”.

There was also a formula that defended the right to spread ones own faith such as “Da’wa” (mission for Islam) or Tabshir (Christian mission). But it was held to be too strong and so we eliminated it.

All of these difficulties were resolved by the grand Mufti [of Bosnia]. Mustafa Ceric recalled that the formula on religious freedom used in the joint statement “are those found in the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Many Muslim governments signed this declaration. Therefore they must accept it, even though perhaps they don’t practice it”. This solved the problem and eased the path for all to adhere to the final document.

So there you have it. Yes, it was a victory (for the thin-end of the funnel orientated Catholics) to get an agreed committment on religious freedom incorporated into the final statement. But unless the Church can get some committment from Islamic political authorities as well as Islamic religious authorites, such a victoriy does, in the final analysis, appear “Pyrrhic”.

Still, as they are all saying (including his Holiness BXVI who received the Forum members in audience), these are only “first steps” on what will be a long and difficult journey.

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