Interview with Father Paolo Dall'Oglio

''We Know We Have Brothers and Sisters in the Islamic Tradition''

What are the prerequisites for meaningful inter-religious dialogue? This question has been addressed to Father Paolo Dall'Oglio, who was recently awarded the Euro-Mediterranean Award for Dialogue. An interview by Traugott Schoefthaler

Father Paolo Dall'Oglio (photo: Anna Lindh Foundation)
Bridging the gap between Christians and Muslims - Father Paolo Dall'Oglio

​​The Anna Lindh Foundation, being the youngest Institute of the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership, wants to promote 'Mutual respect among people of different religion or any other belief'. What is Deir Mar Musa doing to promote such respect?

Father Paolo Dall'Oglio: First of all, a word of thanks to the Anna Lindh Foundation for the Award itself. I was astonished, as I had no expectations about this, but I am of course very happy for the group that works together, not only monks and nuns, but voluntary workers and others who together form a very interesting and committed group of people.

As to the concept of respect: this is often underlined in European documents; this is strange for us. Respect is so far from being enough that therefore it is not on our agenda. We are interested in the parallel concept of hospitality, to be able to welcome others 'under our tent' and accept, receive, appreciate their own hospitality. To be able to respect others, you have to recognize them as subjects worthy of being respected, having characteristics that enable respect.

By the very fact of being 'other' (nation, tribe, religion), a guest becomes an icon, an embodiment of 'otherhood', which, for religious people, is God Himself. In the name of God, the host receives the guest, recognizing in his face the image of God the Guest.

So, what is Deir Mar Musa trying to do?

Father Paolo: One, it offers a large room in our hearts and minds to Islamic/human/cultural reality, a warm room of consideration, curiosity appreciation, with a desire for friendship, communion and interaction, mystical, spiritual, embodied in a monastery. Thus we know deeply that we have brothers and sisters in the Islamic/Sufi tradition.

In this monastery, we have been trying to rediscover and re-express, with more awareness and free choice, the ancient structure of inter-relationship between this kind of Christian institution and the still young Islamic community. Prophet Mohammed had been in contact with monks and the monastic tradition from his childhood. It is a matter of fact that in Syria the monastic concept is considered very positive, the most loved face of Christianity amongst Islam.

We are happy to say that the Moslems of this region consider this monastery as their own. We are honoured to see that Moslems and Christians, Syrians and foreigners, find in Deir Mar Musa a symbol of hope for a common future, to be built with a shared responsibility. Respect is only the always necessary first step.

Do you agree with the statement that lack of mutual respect is one of the most burning problems in our Euro-Mediterranean region? And what are the reasons?

Father Paolo: I feel embarrassed in front of this second question. I feel somehow the big difficulty of Westerners is to understand why Islam is so aggressive towards the occidental way of life with its pyramid of values, principles and life-style.

The West finds it difficult to understand how deep rooted this contention is. Why so much negativity? It depends on two things: first, we have to accept that the Islamic world around the Mediterranean has been victim of colonial projects; even Turkey, though not directly, has been 'Westernized' through a tragic process in which Oriental Christians have paid a very high price.

Then, the Zionist nation was created in the heart of the Arab world (Islam and Oriental Christian). Furthermore, two empires, (capitalism and communism) both of them from the West, came to impose their logic and their own internal fight upon the Arab/Islamic world.

Secondly, in the present day, the feeling of being economically colonized is so deep, the regimes being so dependent on Western economic interest – it is so evident. The impression that the Israeli/Arabic war is also a way of expanding spaces for Western markets, arms, and then after the end of the Cold War, this enormous feeling of being victim of a process of globalization, in which Western lifestyle is imposed as being the only reasonable, really human, feasible one, without the people in the West having the capacity to question their model.

Having in Islam an enormous desire for emancipation, having a project for a future built on its own values, hope in its own literature, imagination, desires, aesthetics: Moslems in many different ways feel a need for fighting to resist Western/worldly power, and for fighting back in order to create a space for Islamic hope. It is clear to me that there are many different 'Islams' as there are many different 'Wests'.

Remember that Eastern Churches are more deeply part of Arabic/Islamic civilization than somehow of Western civilization, participating in their own ways. Yes, I believe in respect, but for this, we have to come to an awareness of the lack of respect that characterizes our history; before judging the Islamic reaction, we have to come to an awareness of Western action.

Western culture, although very plural in its expressions, is in fact very ideological seen from the outside. Once again, I agree about respect, but as something offered rather than requested or expected.

Christians in Malta or in Egypt pray to Allah because this is the word for God' in their language. Most Moslems feel offended when Christians tell them that they would not pray to the same God. What is your position?

Father Paolo: I know that there are Christians believing that their God is not the same God as Moslems. We Oriental Christians have been saying 'Allah' with Moslems for centuries, and even before, we have had such deep common experiences of relationship with the Divine. There is also a consciousness of pre-Islamic, pre-Christian Eastern populations, saying to the Almighty the same ancient Semitic common term, Elohim, Iil, El, Aloho Allah.

What a tragedy that more than one billion people are thought to be misguided by a non-existing or non-right God. Our experience in Deir Mar Musa is deeply the one of a common worship and a common relationship with the One God, the Merciful Creator, the One who sides with the poor, oppressed, and abandoned those little ones who are thirsty and hungry for justice.

Inter-faith dialogue meetings usually end with conclusions on common values. What can we do in order to agree also to mutual respect of differences?

Father Paolo: OK for mutual respect about differences, but what about liberation processes from unjust regimes, from aristocratic privileged systems, old-fashioned kingdoms or remnants of tyrannical, hyper-nationalistic power systems? What about liberation of territories from illegal occupation, what about this prison of border-control, unobtainable visas? What is concretely the most universal system is mafias, by now international and on the way to being global. Respect is not a passive attribute, it is a fight.

After the unfortunate communication accident of Pope Benedict XVI at Regensburg which provoked unwillingly a deep wound in Islamic feelings because it touches the very person of the prophet of Islam, a press communiqué came saying very sincerely that the Pope was sorry to have caused pain, and he confirmed to them his feelings of esteem and respect. I am happy after all that in the story, the question of the status of the prophet Mohammed and the need for esteem and respect come to be tied together. I see here a programme for the future of deep dialogue.

Between different religions, it is normally not too difficult to agree on the value of equal dignity of all human beings. It seems, however, very difficult to apply the United Nations principle of "Equal dignity of all cultures, provided that Human Rights are respected" to the coexistence of different religions. What can we do in this respect?

Father Paolo: This is a difficult issue and I'm not sure if I have the right cultural background to address this. I am not a scholar in UN History and Human Rights. Some questions arise here about how to find equilibrium between the rights of individuals and groups, between religious tolerance, and conscience freedom on one side and, on the other side, the right to self-promotion and defence of cultural/religious identities.

Once again, the concrete possibility of leading together depends on the concrete capacity of care for each other, not only respecting but with mutual recognition of others' values and by opening ourselves to living complementarily and with reciprocal consciousness of dynamic function integration.

Somewhere, this will create dynamic, successful societies, somewhere else, more a patchwork of ghettoes. I hope that we will have as few 'walls' as possible, not only the Sharon Wall but bureaucratic walls, the walls of cultural discrimination. Fighting for the right of people to move in a world that belongs to all of us.

The Catholic Church has appointed a Cardinal for relations with non-believers. What can we do to improve relations between churches and other religious organizations of such non-believers?

Father Paolo: There was in fact a special office in the Vatican, created after Vatican Council II, for dialogue with atheism: it was in the time of Communism. Then this office was dismantled and its role has been played by the Pontifical Council for Culture. The risk now is that some people are asking also to dismantle the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue, reducing it to just inter-cultural dialogue.

I'm personally afraid that some Christians wish to see the Catholic Church as the symbolic representation of the superiority of the Western cultural model, to be proposed as truth for all humanity. These people are afraid of cultural pluralism and they look at history as the confluence of nations all over the world coming to the highest human civilization model conceived, celebrated and realized by the Hellenistic Judeo/Christian-rooted West, just keeping, perhaps, some light folklore particularization.

I do not believe this is the right way of imagining the future. I hope for Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Moslems around the Mediterranean to be able and to have the passionate desire to build together a pluralistic civilization. I believe in a stainless steel resistance to Western assimilation and forced global acculturation to keep and preserve treasures of human wisdom and divine experience for future generations.

In Europe and in the whole Mediterranean area, some or even many Christians, Jews and Moslems pretend to know exactly God's will and, therefore, try to impose it on others. Should we promote more modesty in this regard, as a means to further mutual respect?

Father Paolo: Paradoxically, I am tempted to say that it is because we do not know enough God's will that by consequence we try to impose our own issues on others, in order to heal the anguish that comes from fearing an undefined world and an unknown future. I do feel that if the children of Abraham deepened their knowledge of the will of God, they would discover a marvelous place of harmony. It needs the active and particular participation of each of them.

Interview: Traugott Schoefthaler

© Anna Lindh Foundation / 2006

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  • Deir Mar Musa Monastery
  • Anna Lindh Euro-Mediterranean Foundation