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Muslims, Catholics Discuss Faith, Reason At Historic Vatican Forum

  • Jeffrey Donovan

Clerics and religious leaders gather during the first Catholic-Muslim forum.

Clerics and religious leaders gather during the first Catholic-Muslim forum.

Roman Catholic and Muslim scholars and clerics have taken a historic step in their relations as the first Catholic-Muslim forum has opened at the Vatican with religious violence, human rights, and interpretation of sacred texts on the agenda.

Along with Catholic scholars and prelates, representatives of Islam's eight schools of thought and jurisprudence are taking part over two days in a dialogue based on the theme “Love of God, Love of Neighbor.” The impetus for holding the talks came after Pope Benedict XVI made controversial remarks in 2006 that linked Islam with violence.

The pope, speaking in the German city of Regensburg, quoted a medieval Byzantine emperor who said Islam had encouraged violence in spreading the faith. That comment sparked a furor among Muslims but ultimately led to efforts by both faiths to improve their mutual understanding.

'Common Ground'

Last year, 138 Muslim scholars and clergy sent the pope a letter -- "A Common Word Between Us And You" -- calling for dialogue to stake out common ground between Islam and Christianity.

"Finding common ground between Muslims and Christians is not simply a matter for polite ecumenical dialogue between selected religious leaders," the letter said. "If Muslims and Christians are not at peace, the world cannot be at peace."

Benedict later agreed to hold a Catholic-Muslim forum every two years. While the agenda for the inaugural gathering has not been made public, reports suggest that besides such topics as love, charity, dignity, and respect, prickly issues like religious-inspired violence and extremist readings of sacred texts will also be broached.

It's unclear when Benedict will address the gathering. But reports suggest he will emphasize mutual respect among religions. On October 26, the pope called attention to violence against Christians in Muslim majority countries like Iraq, calling them “victims of intolerance and cruel violence, killed, threatened, and forced to abandon their homes and roam in search of refuge.”

The forum brings together 24 men and women from each side, with Islam’s various branches represented by the likes of Bosnia’s grand mufti, a Jordanian prince, and an Iranian ayatollah.

Room For Agreement

According to reports, the first day of talks will look at the theological and spiritual bases for both religions' teachings on love and charity. Experts say that topic could provide room for agreement and cooperation. The second day is expected to focus on human dignity and mutual respect.

Last year in their letter, subsequently backed more than 300 important Islamic figures, the Muslim group said that the Koran shows that Islam and Christianity worship the same God. Both religions required their faithful, the letter said, to respect and "love their neighbors as themselves."

The Vatican appears so far to have been more reluctant to stress points of convergence.

In an initial reaction to the Common Word letter, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, the top Catholic official handling relations with Islam, said a theological discussion with Muslims was impossible. "Muslims do not accept that one can discuss the Koran in depth, because they say it was written by dictation from God,” he told the French daily “Le Croix.” ”With such an absolute interpretation, it is difficult to discuss the contents of faith."

Of course, there are currents within Islam that eschew a strictly literal reading of the Koran and profess to be open to interpretations that "neutralize" some parts of the Koran that could be read as a call to violence. Such thinkers include Fazlur Rahman, the Pakistani-born Islamic reform thinker, and Abdelwahab Meddeb, the French-Tunisian writer on Muslim reform.

"So far, in much of the Muslim world, there's been a fairly noncritical attitude that is basically tied to a medieval theology [of Islam],” Francesco Zannini, an Italian author and expert on modern Islam. “I think this is what Cardinal Tauran was referring to. But there's a whole [Muslim] movement, various schools of thought that lead to modernity. That's been going on for some time. On the other side, the pope himself insists on a fundamental element: on our shared rationality."

Rationality, or the use of reason in understanding and interpreting sacred texts, was at the basis of Benedict's Regensburg speech. It was also the main element that Meddeb, often called the "Muslim Voltaire," urged Islam to adopt in an essay published this week in several newspapers, including Italy's "Corriere della Sera."

'Concert Of Nations'

In the essay, Meddeb argues that strains of violence in the Koran have their roots in the Jewish Old Testament. But by placing the Koran in historical context, Meddeb says, Muslims can better understand their faith, divorce it of interpretations that lead to violence, and assume their rightful place in the "concert of nations."

Still, a lot remains to be done for such reformist vision to be achieved, Zannini says. "I would say that a significant part [of Islamic intellectuals] are critically thinking and reflecting on the Koranic text. But still today, substantially, the classical schools [of Muslim thought] are tied to an analysis of the Koran understood in the most literal way as a sacred text."

While Tauran in recent weeks suggested a theological discussion with Muslims might be possible after all, one prominent Italian intellectual -- a former Muslim -- loudly announced this week that such a discussion is impossible.

In a letter to the pope, Egyptian-born Magdi Allam, who is deputy editor of "Corriere della Sera," criticized recent comments by Tauran. Last month, the cardinal, who heads the Vatican Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, said Muslims who engaged in violence "betrayed their faith."

Allam, who converted to Catholicism this year and was baptized by Benedict himself, asked the pope to rule definitively on whether Islam is a valid religion. He argued there is no such thing as "moderate Islam," although there are moderate Muslims. Allam said that a papal statement on the issue is vital for the interests of Christianity and Western civilization itself.

Allam, who lives under police escort in Milan, represents an extreme view of Islam within Catholic circles. Forum participants are likely to openly discuss their differences but also to genuinely seek common ground -- and avoid absolutist polemics.