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Catholic-Muslim dialogue is at the end of the road

We weren’t wrong to begin dialogue, but it seems now to have gone as far as it can

By on Thursday, 3 February 2011

Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, head of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, left, talks with Mustafa Ceric, head of the Bosnia Islamic Community (Photo: PA)

Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, head of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, left, talks with Mustafa Ceric, head of the Bosnia Islamic Community (Photo: PA)

A week ago, I wrote a blog with the headline “Top Muslim scholars seem to be telling us that dialogue with them is a waste of time”: the president of the al-Azhar University in Cairo had broken off dialogue with the Vatican because of the Pope’s absolutely justified defence of the Egyptian Copts against their consistent persecution by the Muslim majority in Egypt; and a colleague had at the same time issued a fatwa justifying the suppression of all non-Muslim religions in the Arabian peninsula. 
I ended by saying that “it is now up to that section of Islamic opinion which fundamentally disagrees with the views emanating from the al-Azhar University to make its views known as vigorously as the ‘scholars’ have done. The ball is now in the court of ‘moderate’ Islamic opinion. Is there anyone out there? If so, for heaven’s sake, say something.”
Well, I have heard nothing, absolutely nothing from any moderate Muslim. And that can’t be because no Muslim is going to read a Catholic blog: non-Catholics often end up commenting on my pieces, having mostly arrived at them after scanning on Google to see what there is out there of interest to them. I bet there will be Muslims reading this. So I repeat my invitation now. But I’m not holding my breath.

So what precisely have we gained, from all these years of “dialogue”? Has it improved mutual respect? I don’t see why we shouldn’t respect Muslims of good will as long as we don’t start saying that we accept their religion any more than they accept ours. The difficulty with this is that showing signs of respect for them as individuals can backfire, and end up looking remarkably like a betrayal of the Catholic faith: the most spectacular example of that, of course, was the kissing by Pope John Paul II of a copy of the Koran. I don’t believe it was, in fact, a betrayal: but nobody who saw it as such can be blamed. The late pope was a great one for symbolic gestures: the trouble is that the symbolism of that one was dangerously ambiguous.
But the pope’s gesture nevertheless did not indicate, despite its deeply risky lack of clarity, any acceptance by him of the Muslim religion. Here is one explanation of his actions, written at the time by the American priest Fr Joseph Jenkins, putting them into context, which was that the copy of the Koran in question was a gift from an Iraqi delegation in the time of Saddam:

“Looking at the incident in question, the Holy Father received a delegation that included the Shiite Imam of Khadum Mosque, the Sunni President of the council that operates the Iraqi Islamic Bank, and a member of the Iraqi Ministry of Religion. The invitation of a papal visit was renewed. They even went so far as to say that it would be “a grace from heaven”. While Iraq has been guilty of real violations of human rights, this Islamic state has been the most tolerant of Christians than any of its Islamic neighbors. Many Catholics hold positions in government, commerce, education, etc.
“The Chaldean Patriarch of Babylon [Iraq], His Beatitude Raphael I Bidawid, was a major spokesman for the delegation. He applauded the Pope’s actions and words as a true sign of concern from the Successor of St Peter…. Islamic peoples are not casual in the giving of gifts. It represents the giver. They knew perfectly well that the Pope was a Catholic Christian, but they gave to him that which was regarded as most important in their life, their own holy book. Thus, at the end of the audience, the Pope showed his deep appreciation to this intimate self-donation, by bowing and kissing the Koran as a sign of respect …  He makes the first move, not in the capitulation of our faith, but in the recognition that the followers of Jesus and those who cherish Mohammed should not be engaged in name-calling, or worse, killing each other.”

Well, fine.  But, just as the great era of ecumenical dialogue with the Protestant churches (except for harmless assurances of mutual respect) has now come more or less to an end, this experiment having gone as far as it can or should, so the necessary process of discovering just how far the Islamic world genuinely shares the recognition, that “the followers of Jesus and those who cherish Mohammed should not be engaged in name-calling, or worse, killing each other”,  has now gone as far as it can. We have the answer: the answer appears to be that this is not an idea it recognises at all seriously.

It is, after all, quite a long time since Christians went in for killing or otherwise suppressing Muslims: the last time I looked, the Muslim world was still at it, name-calling and killing non-Muslims with impunity. Muslim toleration of Christians, wherever Muslims are in a clear majority and culturally dominant, hardly exists (this phenomenon can clearly be seen in certain areas of some English cities). If the president of al-Azhar University really thinks that for the Pope to protest against the oppression of the Copts gives him a good reason to break off dialogue with the Vatican, we should take him at his word. I hope I’m wrong, of course: but it looks to me as though we have reached the end of this particular road. 

  • Anonymous

    1John 2:22 –/– 2 corinthians 6:14-18

  • Anonymous

    You talk about the crusades and the persecutions under the reformation but as long as there is no political rivalry between faiths neither of these two would be necessary to repeat or would have been necessary at the time. We must remember that Islam only occupied Jerusalem by an invasion of the area and was seen as a threat to all of Christianity let alone Christendom (and if you do your homework on the fall of Byzantium you will see that this was a well founded fear.) Similarly the persecutions during the reformation were largely down to power hungry popes, kings and emperors attempting to eliminate potential rivals. If new Christendom is established truly in Christ’s name and by Christ’s laws then neither will be a threat. A Theocratic state certainly grants an absolute stability which will be needed for Christianity to survive if Islam carries on with the support it has at the moment.

  • DBMcGinnity

    Dialogue between Catholics and Muslims

    It is little wonder that dialogue between Catholics and Muslims is virtually over, because the first words of the Koran state. “This book in the word of God and it cannot be changed or doubted”. Compare that with the infallibility of the Pope on faith and morals. “The word of the Pope and the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church is absolute and cannot be doubted”.

    It is over 50 years ago since I studied philosophy and theology. When I told my tutor that I did not believe in God he said. “Oh! That doesn’t matter, you can worry when God stops believing in you”. He continued, “concentrate on your studies and stop trying to find God, let God find you”. He was right! God did find me; a gentle god, who did not advocate beating and abusing children. He is a gentle, silent God who does not shout out piety and righteousness from a soapbox. The God I know loves everyone without magic or miracles. The god I know would never spend years talking gobbledygook (as it sounds to many catholics).

    The God I know would never have chosen one race as “A Special People” nor would He have given them Holy Land. My God believes that the world belongs to everyone. My God would never have given permission to an old man sitting to a cave to slaughter the world of infidels if they did not accept the word of Mohammed. My God would never have allowed the Inquisition, The Crusades, The Borgias, The Barberini, The Della Rovere and other corrupt popes especially Hitler’s Pope, Pius XII. (he was the pope when children were been beaten and buggered in Ireland at Industrial Schools and Magdalene Laundries and by the Irish Christian Brothers).

    An old theology professor once asked the class, “What is the opposite to faith?” We all said it was doubt. He said “No! The opposite to faith is certainty”. I pondered over what he said, and then the penny dropped. Yes, he was right. Inflexibility is the opposite to faith. Faith can, and does change in keeping with new information, whereas dogma cannot be changed because it is final.

    The Catholic Church still teaches the dogma that Jesus and the Virgin Mary ascended to heaven body and soul. Well this is biological nonsense, and cannot be logically sustained, because the natural (God Made) laws of nature do not allow this to happen. The intersession of the saints (like the old Roman Gods) can no longer be sustained, and is fanciful superstition like Harry Potter, yet the church insists on the canonisation of saints.

  • DBMcGinnity

    If all the words that Christ allegedly said were written down, they would not fill an A4 page. If all the words that Christ allegedly said were spoken, it would take less than ten minutes to say them . Why do you not try it out for yourself and put it to the test. Allowing for margins of error, take two A4 pages, and allow thirty minutes to speak Jesus’s words. How can anyone logically base the future of the human race on such a few words. There is no actual evidence that Jesus even existed, so it is facile to talk of Christian Armies

  • Aaron

    Oh my gosh the quotation already went explaining that the Pope symbolized his appreciation for the gift giving not the gift itself, oh my gosh people!

    And if you read diplomacy and the ottomans you can clearly read that muslims do not take gift giving casually it is very important to them diplomatically. DIPLOMATICALLY. okay.

  • Aaron (Philippines)

    That is the message of Christ! Your blessed to have known and explained it as such. I have such impatience.

  • Poulettictac

    To dialogue with Islam is exactly the same as having tea and scones with a person whose avowed intention is to dominate you. His belief, eceived from the Koran, i that the worst Muslim is better than the best Kuffar. We are all Kuffars. He believes you are not his equal and tha you are damned. His only reason for contact with you is ether ecause he wants something from you or to convert you to Islam. If he cannot convert you he will either ignore you and your world, seek to gain dominace over you and place you in a socially and politically subservient position to himselfl. If he can do neither, he will kill you. All that is his Muslim duty. Wakey wakey!

  • Anonymous

    All group identities are political identities to some degree or other, hence binding rather than letting go, enslaving rather then freeing. But for the sake of individuals who – for there are such though few – like to seek the Truth surveying the whole circle from end to end, inspite of organised identities called religions, we should keep up dialogue and even praying together wherever possible. Groups are bound, not free in the true sense whereas individuals can be free who are seekers in truth. These are people who change, who cross over from old to new, irrelevant to relevant, from good, better, to The Best in every area of life: Philosophy, Culture, scientic views and opinions and finally most important of all… Religion which mediates God, and God-experience. And no power on earth can stop such individuals who are bent upon discovering The Truth by seeking for themselves that which makes them free in the True sense.

  • Poulettictac

    All that which is conceived and begun in sincerity and in Truth is well conceived and well begun. It must be continued in the same spirit if it is not to corrupt. When it compromises Truth for the sake of spurious unity it loses Truth, altogether and then it loses all value

  • Veronicawhitty

    We spent a year reaching out to Muslim women ,who have a special devotion to Mary,the Mother of Jesus,
    Four of us from the RC Diocese of Hexham and Newcastle Commission for Interreligious Relations approached several Muslim women to see if they would share a joint event to honour Mary and pray for peace.
    The discussions we had with the women we met were deeper and often more suprising than anything that had come out of a seminar.
    Together we composed a programme which respected both traditions keeping to the Bishops`advice in “Meeting God in Friend and Stranger”: ” We don`t come to pray together,but we come together to pray.”page 59.
    The event was held at the ancient shrine to Our Lady of Jesmond,Newcastle-Upon-Tyne on Saturday June 17th last year.It attracted 38-40 women. It was for women and young children only out of respect for the Muslims attending. There were 13 Muslims,the majority from Stockton;one Iranian living in Newcastle and an Afghani living in South Shields.
    It became an ecumenical event as women from two Anglican churches joined us. We provided hal`al refreshments in our local church hall.
    This year`s event,which is now open to all women of any faith and none is at 1 p.m. this Saturday,May 7th.
    It takes 20-30 minutes.
    Further information from me:Veronica Whitty and our diocesan website:
    “The world only goes forward because of those who oppose it,” Goethe said in old age.