Rome (AsiaNews) – Dialogue between Catholics and Muslims, “is a long road that may last decades, but one that will bring us to recognise ourselves as brothers, even in our diversity”. That is the comment of Fr. Samir Khalil Samir, in the aftermath of the Vatican visit by a delegation of Muslim leaders, signatories of the Open Letter to Christian leaders “A common Word”.
The meeting took place March 4 and 5th last at the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious dialogue. At the end both sides announced the creation of a Catholic-Muslim Forum “to develop greater dialogue between Catholics and Muslims”. The Forum will meet for the first time this year in Rome from November 6th to 8th.
24 religious leaders and academics from both religions will take part in the November appointment. The theme under discussion will be “Love of God and Love of Neighbour”: the two days of meetings will focus on “theological and spiritual foundations” and “human dignity and mutual respect”. At the conclusion of the working session participants will be received by Benedict XVI.
Below is Fr. Samir’s declaration to AsiaNews.
The Commission between Catholics and Muslims, born on March 5th, has been defined as “stable and lasting” and will aim to “strengthen love for God and for Mankind”.
The primary principal at the basis of this meeting was that of arriving at an agreement on a common programme and the creation of a lasting dialogue Commission: not just an occasional event, but a Forum similar to the one which already exists between the Vatican and the Islamic University al-Azhar. This new Jordanian reality presided over by the King [who promoted the Islamic scholars letter to Christian leaders ed], aims to gather to its core a vast number of Islamic religious leaders and academics.
The creation of a lasting Commission – that meets every year, first in Rome, then in Amman – is in my opinion, essential, because it avoids impulsive knee jerk reactions, such as the threat of a break in relations between Catholics and Muslims. Moreover, the decision to call the Commission whenever there is a need is of notable importance.
The second matter of principal was that of establishing the content of these meetings. Participants decided that, by and large, the dominant theme will be, love for God and love for neighbour: in this way the suggestions put forward in the Letter by the 138 scholars – “A Common Word” – which places this concept at the heart of relations between the two religions.
Human rights and mutual respect
For its part the Church accepted this point as fundamental, but it has added 2 further points: human rights and mutual respect. This because faith has two dimensions: the theological and spiritual dimension (understanding which points the religions converge on), and a more concrete dimension, dignity of the person – this is fundamental, because it is the basis for all human rights – and mutual respect.
From a certain point of view, this already has a theological dimension. In fact from the Christian standpoint, man – the image of God – has an absolute dignity, even if atheist or sinner. It is co-natural to man: he is the noblest being in creation. Behind this concept lies the entire programme for dialogue.
Regarding mutual respect, this must be the basis upon which relations with other religions are built. The problem remains this: we know we have diverging dogma, even on some points, opposing. So what can be done? Does this mean that we cannot dialogue? No, dialogue is possible if and when both dogmas are respected.
For example; you, Muslim, say that Mohammad is God’s Messenger, even the “Seal of the Prophets”: it is fully within your rights to claim this, but you must also recognise that for me Christian, it is fully within my rights to say that Mohammad is not the Messenger of God. The parallel cilium that Christianity makes is that Christ is the Son of God. This is his inalienable right, but at the same time no-one can oblige a Muslim to say that Christ is the Son of God.
Mutual respect means: you have your principals and you have the right to express them, but you cannot force me to recognise them as being valid for me. Let us take the expression from the Koran: “To you be your religion; to me my religion” (Koran 109:6), as Mohammad, the Muslim Prophet, said to the unbelievers in Mecca.
Human rights therefore become the cornerstone, because the real point in common between Catholics and Muslims, between all mankind, is our human nature. With this collective concept accepted by all, dogma and religious beliefs can be shared, but also not shared.
Building together a common society for all
This program will be of service as the project of a society of shared vision is slowly built. It is also of use, for example, in the debate which has recently animated Italy: at what point can we say that a foetus is a human being, in the full meaning of the word? If this is discussed within the context of human dignity, then it is from its very beginning. In this way one’s opinions are refined to the point where one can say: let us live together as brothers, knowing that we are different.
This “principal of God” has at its core love for God and love for neighbour. The latter being a concept that needs refining: who is my neighbour? In the Gospel, in answer to a similar questioned posed by a doctor of Law (“And who then, is my neighbour?” Luke 15:29), Christ explains that this is not the true question. The question to be asked is: “How can I become a neighbour to all men, even to my own enemies?”.
Therefore, by applying these distinctions, the newborn Commission has placed the cornerstone for what could become a project for a society that is far wider in breadth and scope, than the society from which it was born.
Is it a dialogue with all Muslims?
All of this however must be inserted into the context of the current Islamic reality. Dialogue will never be possible with a body that represents all the faithful of Sunni Islam: there is no magisterium or hierarchy in Islam. This detail likens the Catholic-Islam dialogue to dialogue with Protestants: who do we speak to? We must have dialogue with each of the groups, starting from the largest, but there too we encounter difficulties. Once the accord was signed with the Lutherans it was not accepted by all of the faithful. One central authority, for all to follow, does not exist.
In a certain sense, the problem is the same with Sunni Islam. Those who sign a declaration can only claim to represent themselves. In a certain sense, this group does have moral authority, but not juridical. The group can serves as a source of moral guidance to help others clarify concepts and ideas. In this case, taking into account the commitment of the Aal al-Bayt foundation and of the vast number of signatories, this group could play a far greater role than its predecessors.
But sooner or later we will also have to dialogue with the Shiites, because it is an important branch of Islam (circa 15 % of all Muslims), who’s principals from the interpretative point of view greatly diverge from those of Sunni’s: they tend to give greater importance to metaphysics and to spirituality. Above all they have a hierarchical system that is unknown of in Sunni Islam and a different theological and exegetic tradition. What’s more, the political and religious evolution of Shiites invites others to create structured relations with them. So much so, that sooner rather than later, dialogue will have to begin with them too.
In short, inter-religious dialogue is something that is built one step at a time, and requires decades. This is perfectly normal; also because we have centuries of parallel history with the Muslims, at times even contrasting history. As a result, if true dialogue is desired, then first and foremost trust must be established, because if trust is lacking than the words themselves are empty. This requires a journey that will take many years to come: it’s sufficient to see similar journeys within the Christian family, to realise how difficult it is. But it is this difficulty which makes it all the more urgent that the journey begins and on a solid basis.
I would like to conclude with a ‘double’ reflection. The first, to note that this entire process (the Letter by the 38 scholars, the Vatican’s response, the letter by the 138 scholars, the Pope’s response through Cardinal Bertone, the response in turn of prince Ghazi and yesterdays encounter) all began with Professor Ratzinger’ address (pope Benedict XVI) in his old University in Regensburg, on September 12th 2006. Everything begun with a phrase of Manuel II Paleologus in his exchange with the Persian elder (al-Mudarris). This one sentence has provoked oceans of debate!
There are those who considered this one phrase and the entire address an error, there are those who considered it a “felix culpa”, and then, there are those who considered it as a “word of truth”. Time and history will tell. What is certain, however, is that address, in its depth and breadth, has forced everyone to reflect. May God be praised! Wa-l-hamdu li-llâh!
The second consideration is this; thanks to the open hearts and open spirits of many people, and in particular those of the Aal al-Bayt foundation, a meeting of minds is emerging from the initial clashing of words. May God be praised! Wa-l-hamdu li-llâhi dâ’iman!
Now, there is a truly beautiful road ahead of us which will bring us to recognise each other as brothers, even in our religious, cultural and spiritual differences.