06/22/2009, 00.00
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Progress between Christians and Muslims but problems in Saudi Arabia, says Cardinal Tauran

by Bernardo Cervellera
The president of the Pontifical Council for interreligious Dialogue highlights an improved atmosphere and greater trust in Muslim-Catholic relations, also after Benedict XVI’s trip to the Holy Land. Problems do remain, including the right of Muslims to convert and the possibility to have Christian places of worship in the Saudi kingdom. Oasis conference focuses on tradition and dialogue between religions and cultures. Issues touched include the US, French and British cases, the development of Islam in given nations, and the move away from literalism in Qur’anic exegesis.

Venice (AsiaNews) – Card Jean-Louis Tauran, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, said an “atmosphere of great trust” is emerging in the ongoing Christian-Muslim dialogue despite the fact that in some countries the right to change religion is not guaranteed and that in Saudi Arabia there is no opening in relation to the right to have a place of worship in that country.

Cardinal Tauran made these points at a conference titled Interpreting traditions in the age of métissage taking place today and tomorrow on the Isola di San Giorgio, in Venice, under the auspices of the journal Oasis, which is connected to the Patriarchate of Venice.

The cardinal’s lecture was titled “Should we be afraid of Islam?” In it he stressed the importance of John Paul II and Benedict XVI for whom the dialogue with other religion, Islam in particular, was and is important.

The prelate showed how from 1976 and now (after Benedict XVI’s lecture in Regensburg and his trip to the Holy Land), there is a greater commitment to dialogue among Muslims. From his point of view this is a sign that “some progress has been made.”

Christians and Muslims; said Cardinal Tauran, “are aware that by bearing witness to a coherent life they can counter secularised societies’ deafness to God. We are all persuaded that religions must be a factor of peace, which they are in the service of the common good.”

The cardinal also pointed out that the Catholic-Islamic Forum created in November 2008 is one of the venues that have emerged during this process. In fact the Forum has already met once in the Vatican.

“Serious problems” do remain however. “Even the most open-minded Muslim leaders are unable to get their fellow Muslims to accept that people have a right to change religion in accordance with their conscience,” said the cardinal.  

In many a Muslim country conversion to Christianity from Islam still entails the death penalty or social exclusion.

The second foremost problem is Saudi Arabia. “There have been no positive sign [. . .] when it comes to the possibility of getting a place to celebrate Mass for the country’s two million residents.”

Hence, we must be vigilant, warns Cardinal Tauran, when it comes to religious freedom. And yet, despite everything, we “must still meet to listen, understand and make real but modest suggestions as to what can be done.”

This is the 6th conference that Oasis has organised. Since it was created the journal has come out against the “clash of civilisations”, arguing instead that societies, religions and cultures are mixing and engaging one another in dialogue in what the Patriarch of Venice, Card Angelo Scola, has called the “métissage of civilisations.”

This year’s focus, ‘tradition’, presents Christians and Muslims with a challenge, namely how in modern society they can pass on their faith and in connection with other cultures.

The presentation by Malika Zeghal, from the University of Chicago (US), was one of the most interesting. She spoke about the evolution of Islam in the United States, noting that 9/11 terrorist attack against New York’s Twin towers pushed many Muslims to open up to the broader society in order to explain their traditions and lifestyles so that the latter would not be confused with terrorism.

At the same time she suggested that contact with Western society has led Muslims to criticise those who would keep Islam frozen in time and limit the Qur’anic scriptures to a literal interpretation. Instead these same Muslims are open to the equality of men and women even if they continue to insist on preserving the spiritual values of their traditions.

The same thing is happening in France, according to Prof Azzedine Gaci. A professor of chemistry in Lyon (France) and president of the local Regional Council of the Muslim Faith, he argues that Islam and Qur’anic exegesis are already less monolithic than one might think. De facto, he explained, an Islam à la française is already emerging at a political, financial and intellectual level.

Of Algerian origins, Gaci said Muslims in France have been pushing to get their own sections in local cemeteries and demanding that more slaughterhouses butcher animals in accordance with Muslim rituals (halal).

At the same time though, he said that many French Muslims want to see French mosques run by French-trained imams, people who have been in contact with and immersed in Western culture, not people who come from Muslim countries.

As far he is concerned, this way the danger of fundamentalism can be reduced.

The third speaker was John Milibank, from the University of Nottingham (United Kingdom) said that in his country 90 per cent of young Muslims are extremist.

In his opinion this is due to the fact that coexistence does not have any Christian (and Catholic) tradition as its basis.

British society he believes is tempted to push religious traditions into the private sphere and organise social life around the principle of relativism.

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