Iran and the Pope

Easing Relations

The Vatican and leading Iranian theologians have reached agreement on a declaration on "Faith and Reason in Christianity and Islam." The paper sends out an important signal in terms of easing religious and political tensions. Reinhard Kleber reports

Pope Benedict (photo: AP)
Steering towards rapprochement with Islam: Pope Benedict

​​It has taken its time to seep through to the public consciousness, but relations between Iran and the Catholic Church have become significantly warmer and this joint declaration from the Vatican and Iran could very well open the way up to further progress.

In the declaration both sides emphasized their belief that religion is "intrinsically non-violent". Neither reason nor faith, they stressed, can justify violence.

The discussions in Rome brought together representatives of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and a delegation from the Islamic Culture and Relations Organisation in Tehran.

Pope Benedict XVI received the delegation of Iranian Muslims led by Mahdi Mostafavi on Wednesday. According to an announcement made on Friday May 2 2008, the talks are to be continued sometime within the next two years in Tehran.

"Significant staging post"

According to Peter Hünseler of the Catholic German Bishops’ Conference the joint declaration from Vatican and leading Iranian theologians represents the reaching of a "significant staging post". A "communiqué of high importance," he believes, has emerged from this sixth meeting in a long-standing dialogue with Iranian Shiites.

"Most crucial is the central importance given to renunciation of violence," said the head of the special group set up by the Bishops’ Conference to encourage Christian Islamic Dialogue.

Hünseler also stressed that the clear affirmation of the non-violence of faith and reason and the condemnation of attempts to justify violence in their name constituted a "courageous" act on the part of the Muslim signatories. There were opposing views in Iran.

The seven principles of the joint declaration are also very much in line with the Regensburg lecture given by Pope Benedict back in September 2006, said the expert.

"That speech must have been very disturbing for Muslims initially, but there is no doubt that it also set things in motion, gave both sides things to think about," Hünseler added.

photo: AP
Looking to ease tensions: Iranian spiritual leader Ali Khamenei

​​In the wake of the Pope’s faith and reason speech some things were taken out of context, blown out of all proportion, and there were violent protests in many Muslim countries, but there was also reconciliation and dialogue, Hünseler explained.

Common interests

Maurus Reinkowski, Professor of Islamic Studies in Freiburg sees the declaration as the result of common interests which have clearly found a meeting place. The religious leaders in Iran as well as those in the Vatican, he feels, are increasingly recognising that they face a common struggle against a secular Western "relativism" and the declining values.

With the Pope continuing to fight the good fight against this tendency, his stance was winning a lot of respect in Islamic countries – in spite of the Regensburg speech.

The document has also found approval in the political arena, where it has been welcomed by the German Christian Democratic Party (CDU). Ingrid Fischbach, the party’s Commissioner for Churches and Religious Communities, welcomed the joint declaration as a major step forward in Christian-Muslim relations.

"At a time when the international perception of Islam often seems to be fixated on terrorism and fundamentalism, a declaration such as this can help to point the way ahead," Fischbach said. Great credit was due to both sides for the commitment being shown to the path of joint and peaceful dialogue.

The Free Democratic Party (FDP) spokesman on religious policy, Hans-Michael Goldmann, hailed what he called the "peace-promoting message of tolerance and mutual respect." He wished however "that the Christian-Muslim understanding might be put into practice by ensuring that the rights of Christians, especially those in Iran, were protected.

Reinhard Kleber

© Deutsche Welle / 2008

Translated from the German by Ron Walker

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