The back page of the May 1st edition of the Vatican newspaper "L'Osservatore Romano" included a headline: "Holy Father meets Muslim delegation from Iran." The meeting followed the Pope's weekly general audience, and it came at the end of a three-day colloquium led by the French cardinal Jena-Louis Tauran, current president of the Papal Council for Interreligious Dialogue, and the President of the Tehran-based Islamic Culture and Relations Organisation, Mahdi Mostafavi.
The declaration at the end of the colloquium was brief, but it made it to the front page of the German daily "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" and was reported widely. The statement was seen, unavoidably, in the context of a lecture on Faith and Reason given by Pope Benedict XVI in Regensburg last year. That lecture began with the thesis that both faith and reason are gifts given by God to humanity. That was followed by the proposition that faith and reason were not contradictory: faith might sometimes go beyond reason, but could never be directed against reason.
This was the sixth colloquium between those responsible for interreligious dialogue in the Vatican and Shiite Muslims, and that fact alone draws attention to something which is easy to forget at a time when the talk is rather of upsurges of tension: there is an unspectacular continuity in relations between the leadership of the atholic church and Muslim institutions.
It was as long ago as 1974 that Pope Paul VI founded a commission for relations with the Muslims, which is part of the Council for Interreligious Dialogue. With the commission, Pope Paul was fulfilling the intentions of the Second Vatican Council, which, in an epochal declaration on the relations of the church to non-Christian religions, dedicated a whole chapter to the Muslims. The document calls on Christians and Muslims to make efforts towards mutual understanding and to work together for the protection and promotion of social justice, "moral values, and, not least, peace and freedom for all people."
An interesting nuance
A joint commission has existed since 2000, in which scholars from the Al-Azhar University in Cairo, which is authoritative in Sunni Islam, meet annually with the Papal Council for Interreligious Dialogue. The joint statement at the end of the commission's most recent meeting in February in Cairo declared that all religions respect "the dignity and honour of the human person without consideration of race, colour, religion or conviction".
Both sides committed themselves to promote "true respect for religions, beliefs, religious symbols, holy Books," and they appealed to the mass media to ensure that freedom of expression was not used as an excuse to offend religion or religious symbols. This issue is also included in the latest statement of the Pope and Shiite representatives; it calls on both sides to promote respect for the symbols "considered to be sacred." The statement also condemns the "derision of religious beliefs". An interesting nuance in the new statement is the point that an "adequate hermeneutical method" is needed to understand holy writings.
Against the background of these existing contacts between the Vatican and Muslim authorities, one can look forward with anticipation to the first meeting of the Catholic-Muslim Forum, scheduled for early November. The forum was founded following a meeting in the Vatican in March this year, which itself was the result of a letter written in October 2007 by 138 Muslim scholars from 43 countries to the pope and other representatives of the Christian churches.
The topic of the forthcoming meeting is to be "Love of God and neighbour." The Vatican-Shiite dialogue is also set to continue: another colloquium is planned for two years time in Tehran.
Rome is clearly trying to nurture relations with Islam and to go beyond the existing circles. There are issues which are of importance to both – not least concerning the protection of religious convictions and symbols against laicist tendencies. But it's unlikely that the alliance will be free of problems. The experience of Catholics in Muslim countries, which those in Rome are well aware of, argue against that.
© Neue Zürcher Zeitung / Qantara.de 2008
Ulrich Ruh is editor of the catholic monthly "Herder-Korrespondenz," published in Freiburg, Germany.
Translated from the German by Michael Lawton