Card Tauran in Riyadh speaks about the needed interreligious dialogue, education and concrete actions
by Fady Noun

The Vatican and the World Islamic League set up a working group on dialogue in the Saudi kingdom. “Why can’t something that was possible in past centuries, not be possible today?" the cardinal wonders. Opening places of worship to visitors “is the type of spiritual hospitality that helps to promote mutual knowledge and friendship".

Riyadh (AsiaNews) – Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, visited Saudi Arabia (April 14-20), where he was received by King Salman. During his stay, the media described the visit as a "desire for rapprochement", as a "stage in the opening of the Saudi kingdom to other religions", as a "ripples of openness".

However, Tauran’s own words were the most emblematic. For him, “What is threatening all of us is not the clash of civilisations, but rather the clash of forms of ignorance and radicalism,” words that describe in a nutshell all the religious tensions that afflict the world.

The visit itself was the first by a high envoy of the Catholic Church to Saudi Arabia, cradle of Wahhabism, one of the most radical currents in Islam. During his stay, the prelate spoke about issues such as freedom of religion and equal rights for believers of all faiths.

Even if he did not explicitly address the issue of allowing churches in the country or even letting Christians worship, the visit had, at least, the merit of "breaking a taboo" in this matter, this according to an observer, eventually paving the way for more open talk at a later stage.

Strong symbolism

The week-long visit was widely covered by Saudi media, and Cardinal Tauran, on his return to Rome, did not fail to salute its "extraordinary character". In addition to its heavy symbolic value, the visit ended with an agreement to set up a joint working group between the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and the World Islamic League.

This group will be chaired jointly by the head of the Council and the president of the Islamic League. It will hold a meeting, every two years, on a specific topic – alternately in Rome and in a city chosen by the League. These meetings will be prepared by a coordination committee composed of two delegates from each party. This second body will meet annually.

Cardinal Tauran and Sheikh Mohammad Abdel Karim al-Issa, Secretary General of the World Islamic League, signed the agreement. Al-Issa was received by Pope Francis in Rome on 21 September 2017.

"What is threatening coexistence is first of all ignorance,” noted the head of the Pontifical Council. In signing the accord, he said he hoped that it would advance a crucial cause, that of education.

The cardinal praised the efforts of the Islamic League in favour of building bridges between religions. In its desire to open up interreligious dialogue, Saudi Arabia set up the King Abdullah Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue in Vienna (KAIICD) some ten years ago, in which the Vatican is an observer.

Restoring the truth in school curricula

"It will be necessary to choose the topic of the first meeting, something like education," Tauran told the Vatican News Agency, upon his return to Rome. It is necessary “to restore the truth in school programmes, to make sure that one speaks well of Christians", he added. "I think all religions face two dangers, terrorism and ignorance. The future lies in education. I insisted a lot on that in my meetings. There is no other way," the French cardinal explained. "Non-Muslims are still second-class citizens, and it is on that's that we have to work a lot".

On the chances of seeing such efforts succeed, Cardinal Tauran noted how, on the long run, Saudi Arabia is evolving towards greater openness to other religions. "What is needed, he said, is that everything we do, be concrete. Words, texts: We have hundreds of them. I think that the younger generation, which studied outside the kingdom, is not only ready, but also equipped for this kind of new relationship [. . .]. Why can’t something that was possible in past centuries, not be possible today?"

Spiritual hospitality

As a sign of the times, the cardinal celebrated Mass in Riyadh on 15 April for Christian workers and members of the local Christian community, who usually have to worship in hiding. In his homily, he said he was convinced that "Christians and Muslims can live in peace with each other", adding that Muslims and Christians share the same “virtues such as honesty, listening skills and the sense of hospitality".

The cardinal also said that Christian holy places, whether "in the Holy Land, in Rome or in any place of the world, are always open to our Muslim brothers and sisters, to believers of other religions, as well as people of good will who profess no religion." Likewise, he noted that in many countries, mosques are open to visitors, and "this is the type of spiritual hospitality that helps to promote mutual knowledge and friendship and overcome prejudices."