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Islam: Pope's Remarks Bring Interfaith Dialogue To Crisis Point

Pakistani protesters burning an effigy of Pope Benedict in Karachi on September 16 (epa) PRAGUE, September 19, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The uproar over Pope Benedict XVI's comments on Islam continues throughout the Muslim world. Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said today that Benedict's remarks, in which he cited a medieval critique of Islam, are in line with what he called a "crusade" against Muslims. The pope has said he meant no offense to Muslims and is sorry for the angry reaction to his speech.

To gain more insight into the pope's thinking on Islam and interreligious dialogue, RFE/RL correspondent Jeffrey Donovan spoke with Kishore Jayabalan. A former official with the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Jayabalan now heads the Rome office of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty.

RFE/RL: A few Vatican observers say the pope's comments have probably set back relations between the two faiths by two decades. They seem to be saying that Benedict has managed to undo with one speech all the progress in relations with Islam accomplished under Pope John Paul II, beginning with the first major interfaith gathering held at Assisi, Italy, in 1986.

Kishore Jayabalan: [That] might be true at a very superficial level because if looked at the meeting of Assisi, when you look at interreligious dialogue -- where you tended to have moderate Muslims speaking to Catholic officials, especially those from the Vatican -- things would seem to be going fine. You would never hear any disagreements.

I myself -- when I worked at the Vatican -- was involved in a meeting with Iranian theologians. And no one wanted to discuss the roots of violence and religion and how terrorism gets started, especially [how] religious-based terrorism gets started. [The pope in his speech] was wondering whether there are certain theological differences that may give rise to religious-based terrorism. And this is the real issue that needs to be debated and that's really being lost because the reaction has been so violent.

RFE/RL: In what way, if at all, did Benedict want to change, prior to his speech in Regensburg on September 12, Catholic-Islamic relations? Some observers, for example, have noted with concern that Benedict seemed to be effectively beheading the Vatican department for dialogue with Islam when, last February, he removed its president, Michael Fitzgerald, and merged the department with the Vatican's Culture Ministry.

Jayabalan: My interpretation of what Pope Benedict wants to do is probably somewhere along the lines of he wants to clarify differences rather than paper over differences, especially theological differences. And my guess is he wants to clarify the differences at the beginning and say what are the differences in our understanding of God and the human being. And I imagine that going away from the softer approach to interreligious dialogue means less papering over, less finding common ground when they may not always exist."

RFE/RL: You seem to be saying something similar to what Vinko Puljic, the archbishop of Sarajevo, recently told the Italian Catholic daily "Avvenire": that "good faith" alone is not sufficient to move Catholic-Muslim relations forward:

Jayabalan: Sure. One of the downsides of interreligious dialogue as it's been going on is that it tends to find people who already tend to agree that there should be interreligious dialogue and that everything is going well and that we just need to talk out our differences.

But apparently that doesn't represent the full spectrum of religious belief. You are seeing that right now: there are aspects of religious belief that simply want to kill if any kind of offense is perceived. I don't think these are those voices that actually want to have interreligious dialogue. The ones that are already involved in interreligious dialogue are assuming that there is some common ground and assuming that there is some room for agreement. But there are large parts of the Islamic world that apparently are not interested in that kind of dialogue.

RFE/RL: But simply saying what you just said has gotten Australia's Catholic leader, Cardinal George Pell, in trouble. Muslim leaders in Australia say Pell has poured more fuel on the fire of the controversy by saying that the violent reaction to the pope's speech justifies his fear by showing "the link for many Islamists between religion and violence, their refusal to respond to criticism with rational arguments, but only with demonstrations, threats, and actual violence."

Jayabalan: The burden of proof here has to be on the people who are actually doing the riots. If you react to a speech that called your religion intolerant and violent by simply furthering violence and intolerance, you are really proving the point that you wish to disagree with. And there are some incredibly violent responses, the least of which are the burning in effigies.

That's not to say that Islam condones terrorism, but someone needs to step up and come through with a real solid explanation of why it's against the teaching of Islam and why these people are actually deviants and outside the faith for doing so.

RFE/RL: So where does the Catholic Church go from here? This is obviously a pretty critical juncture.

Jayabalan: It is. I think it's probably more important that the church stands by its belief that religion and violence do not go together, that the importance -- and this is really the central point in the pope's talk -- that faith and reason allow us to understand one another; that we're using a tool that God has given us to understand and communicate with each other.

And the importance of that interreligious dialogue, intercultural dialogue, cannot be underestimated, because if you separate the two forces; if you separate faith and reason; if you talk away the understanding that God has given us, it really leads to all sorts of perversions. You end up with religious-based violence.

Education And Islam

Education And Islam
An Afghan child prepares for the first day of school(epa file photo)

KEEPING KIDS IN SCHOOL. Education raises many vexing social issues in impoverished and predominantly Muslim countries like Afghanistan and the countries of Central Asia. In these countries, many students fail to complete their education for reasons ranging from poverty to discrimination.
“One of the main problems is the distance between the child’s home and the nearest school building. This is particularly a problem for adolescent girls because families quite understandably don’t feel comfortable allowing the girls to walk long distances unaccompanied to the classrooms,” says a UN aid worker in Afghanistan...(more).

See also:

The Role Of Religion In Classrooms

Madrasahs Reject Government Crackdown Efforts

Madrasahs Lead Religious Teaching Revival

UN Report Finds World's Children 'Excluded And Invisible'