02.11.2009Catholic-Islamic Dialogue: Interview with Christian TrollFor Freedom of FaithThe beginning of November saw the first Catholic-Muslim Forum held in the Vatican – which came about on a Muslim initiative. One of the participants was the Jesuit and professor of Islam Studies, Christian Troll. In an interview with Lewis Gropp, he talks about freedom of religion in Europe and Islamic countries, and the challenges of the Enlightenment for belief
Pope Benedict XVI with representatives of the Muslim delegation at the Catholic-Islamic Forum at the Vatican, 6 November. In the background: the popular but controversial Tariq Ramadan What are the successes of the Catholic-Muslim Forum from your point of view?
Troll: The meeting is a positive start; the atmosphere at the talks was good. The new aspect is that the initiative came firmly from the Muslim side, and that this group wanted to set new accents by placing the focus on the dual command of love that we also know in Christianity. The Muslim representatives cited the commandment to love God and love thy neighbour as thyself from the Old Testament and St. Matthew's Gospel, explaining that it is also a central commandment of Islamic law – which gave us a completely new starting point. What was said was that we would take this affirmation as a common ground for dealing with issues together.
So it was less of a political approach; they consciously placed the focus on a theological statement, and that gave us a brave thesis! Had the Muslim delegates said, the focus for us is solely God's mercy and the call for people to be merciful, that would have been less surprising. But this vocabulary of God's love of humankind and humankind's love of God is actually relatively insignificant in the Qur'an. It plays a major role in the great Sufi tradition, on the other hand, so it's clear that a large part of the Muslims who are actively behind this initiative are strongly influenced by Sufism.
What would you say about the fact that there were no representatives of Islamism at the meeting? Is that a possible option for the future?
"There is no point to faith if it is not chosen by free will." Christian Troll, honorary professor for Islam and Christian-Muslim Dialogue (photo: St. Georgen) Troll: It is an option to some extent, yes, because Islam is very diverse, so initiatives of this kind always have to be examined as to which weightings are taken into account. The Vatican has been involved in other, longer-running dialogues with Muslim institutions, for example the Al-Azhar University, the Muslim Call Society from Libya and the Shi'a Establishment in Iran. In this case, the make-up of the forum came about because the Muslim representatives took the initiative, and there's no particular institution involved.
So one can't say that the initiative came from the royal family in Amman or the Center for Strategic Studies in Amman. Instead, there are a number of individuals on the Muslim side who are particularly significant for the project: Aref Nayed from the University of Cambridge, Prince Ghazi, the president of the Jordanian Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought, Timothy Winter alias Abdal Hakim Murad, a professor at Cambridge University, and Sayed Hussein Nasr, the former director of the University of Teheran under the shah and now in exile in the USA, where he has been a professor at George Washington University for many years.
The Muslim delegation in Rome was relatively strongly centred on Muslims from the "West", from the USA and Europe. But Tariq Ramadan also took part. There were relatively few participants from the Middle East: Mustafa Sherif, a former minister of culture from Algeria, and an ayatollah from Iran, who was very quiet though and hardly spoke, and is more of an academic – Professor Damat. The head of the delegation, by the way, was Mustafa Ceric, the Grand Mufti of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Called for freedom of religion in the East and West: Mustafa Ceric, Grand Mufti of Bosnia-Herzegovina and a participant at the Catholic-Muslim Forum Was there a delegate from Saudi Arabia?
Troll: No, there was nobody present from Saudi Arabia. The delegation that came to Rome was dominated by prominent Muslims from the West, as I said.
After the meeting, the Pope once again urged both political and religious leaders to ensure that believers around the world can practice their religions freely. Do you think that message is appropriate in this case, considering most of the individuals at the meeting were from the academic sector and thus have little influence over politics, let alone freedom of religion in Saudi Arabia?
Troll: It's not so easy to draw that line any more; the spheres are all connected nowadays. Incidentally, the Vatican said from the very beginning, at the preparatory meeting in March, that it made little sense to focus on a strictly theological issue. The Vatican's position was that it was very commendable that the Muslims placed the focus on love of God and one's neighbour – and it wanted to respond to that. So we dedicated the first day to the issue, but our primary concerns are human dignity, respect, human rights, freedom of religion – and all this also plays a very large role for Muslims in Europe.
The religious police force headquarters in Saudi Arabia: there are no churches in the Gulf kingdom. Freedom of religion was the central topic at the first Catholic-Muslim Forum Freedom of religion plays a major role in the Middle East in a different way, more with respect to the Christians and other minorities there, to say nothing of the Baha'i in Iran! These are global problems today, and that was the subject of the second day.
And one can't talk about human dignity and respect without talking about freedom of religious practice. There were also four bishops from countries with a Muslim majority present at the meeting: Bishop Multan from Pakistan, the apostolic legate of Abu Dhabi, whose diocese covers six or seven Arab countries with two and a half million Catholics, the bishop of Kirkuk in Iraq and the Melkite Archbishop of Aleppo. Naturally, they expressed very determined standpoints on the subject of freedom of religion, which were listened to very carefully by the Muslim side and supported to a large extent by a man like Mustafa Ceric. Ceric himself calls for the same thing from Europe.
The common factors are always particularly emphasised at religious dialogue meetings. But what about the more problematic passages in the Koran, for example sura 9, the call to fight Christians and Jews? Were these aspects addressed as well?