|'Dialogue' between Christians and Muslims
Before tackling the subject of the present situation of
Christian-Muslim dialogue 40 years after the publication of Nostra
Aetate, the Second Vatican Council's Declaration on relations between
the Catholic Church and other religions, some important observations need
to be made.
The first is that dialogue between followers of Christianity
and Islam precede the actual Declaration by many years.
"Dialogue" between the two communities, in fact, goes back to the
beginning of Islam, and the Qur'an itself invites Christians to dialogue
with fair words in order to adore the one God (cf. Qur'an 3, 64)
and invites Muslims to discuss with Christians in a courteous manner. It
is also true that there are Qur'anic verses of a more severe nature with
regard to both Christians and Jews, referred to in Qur'anic texts as
ahl al-Kitâb (People of the Book).
After the Islamic conquests, both the
Christians living in the areas now ruled by the Muslims and the conquerors
themselves had to find a modus vivendi by means of a certain type
of dialogue of life. There were then, above all under the Abassîd Caliphs,
debates between exponents of Christianity and Islam, sometimes in the
presence of the Caliph himself. These can properly be called theological
dialogue. The example could be given of the dialogue between Patriarch
Timothy I and Caliph al-Mahdî (II A.E./VII A.D.), and that between Anbâ
Jurjî Sim'ân and three Muslim lawyers (fuqahâ'), in the presence of
Emir Mushammar al-Ayoubî at the beginning of the 13th century.
The second observation is that this
article deals with Christian-Muslim dialogue solely at the level of the
universal Church, and more particularly, at that of the Pontifical Council
for Interreligious Dialogue (PCID).
Among the activities of the PCID those
concerning Christian-Muslim relations are the most numerous and certainly
the most structured. What follows is an overview of the most important
Special Muslim Commission
Two Commissions were set up on 22 October
1974: the Commission for Religious Relations with Jews, in the Secretariat
for Christian Unity, and the Commission for Religious Relations with
Muslims (CRRM), as a distinct body, but connected with the Secretariat for
Non-Christians, now the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.
The scope of the Commission "is to promote and stimulate religious
relations between Muslims and Catholics, possibly in collaboration with
other Christians. Within this framework the Commission is also available
to other bodies seeking information and help in realising their own
projects" (Historical note on the CRRM, Annuario Pontificio 2005,
Since dialogue with Muslims forms a
fundamental part of the work of the Dicastery, the need for a special
commission was seen to be less important. In practice the Commission has
become a body which reflects on Muslim-Christian relations and has
concerned itself with various subjects such as current contemporary
movements within Islam, religion and politics, and prayer with Muslims.
Message for end of Ramadan
The first message sent to Muslims for the
feast of 'Id al-Fitr, which concludes the month of fasting of
Ramadan, appeared in 1967. Since then, with the single exception of 1970 —
probably for practical reasons — a message has regularly been sent each
year to Muslims on this occasion. Since 1973 the message has been signed
by the President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue,
but in 1991, after the first Gulf War, the late Pope John Paul II signed
the customary message himself.
The message is not limited to sending best
wishes to Muslims on the occasion of their feast, but opens a horizon for
reflection and exchange of views on current themes of common interest.
The replies received from Muslims, more numerous
each year, often comment on the subject of the message.
For the local Churches, the message
becomes an occasion both to strengthen existing bonds of friendship and to
create new ones. In this regard, one can confirm that the message is
eagerly anticipated by both Muslims and Christians. It constitutes a
bridge of friendship between the two communities which it is important to
One of the particularities of
Muslim-Christian dialogue, and at the same time one of the ways in which
it is realized, is through the liaison committees. The other particularity
is that of the regularity — year, month, day — with which the meetings
The Muslim-Catholic Liaison Committee with
four international Muslim organizations was set up in 1995. This committee
normally meets once a year in order to study together a selected theme
from the point of view of the two religions, and to discuss the current
worldwide situation of relations between Christians and Muslims, in
particular where tensions and conflicts exist. A joint communiqué is
normally published at the end of each meeting. The subjects studied
include the promotion of a culture of dialogue.
The Joint Committee of the Permanent
Committee for Dialogue with Monotheist Religions of al-Azhar — the most
prestigious of the Sunni institutes — and the PCID was set up in May 1998,
with the signing of an Agreement in Rome. The date proposed by the Muslim
partners for the annual meeting of the Committee is 24 February, the date
of the visit of Pope John Paul II, of venerable memory, to al-Azhar in
At these meetings a theme is also chosen
which is presented from both Christian and Muslim points of view. One of
the themes dealt with recently, in connection with the mission of al-Azhar,
was the formation of missionaries and du'ât (which literally means
those who call to Islam). Sometimes particular situations are discussed,
such as the war in Kosovo, for example. Again, a joint communiqué is
released at the end of the meeting.
The Coordinating Committee with the World
Islamic Call Society (WICS), whose headquarters is in Tripoli, Libya, was
set up at a conference in Tripoli on 18 March 2002. The six members of
this Committee meet each year, in Rome or Tripoli, either to prepare a
colloquium or for its realization.
An exchange of information takes place on
the activities undertaken by the two institutions, and about the current
situation of relations between Muslims and Christians, above all in the
areas where WICS is active, for example in sub-Saharan Africa. Among the
subjects which have been studied together has been that of mission and
da'wa (the call to Islam).
On 25 April 2002, representatives of the
PCID and of the Department for Religious Affairs of the Cabinet of the
Prime Minister of Turkey signed a "Declaration of Intent"; included among
its aims is the promotion of interreligious dialogue in all its forms, in
particular through facilitating contacts and collaboration between
The colloquia organized with the WICS have
already been referred to above.
In addition to these, there is a
colloquium with Iranians (to be exact, with the Islamic Culture &
Relations Organization of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance in
Tehran) which is held every two years either in Rome or in Tehran. Each
colloquium is prepared through a preliminary meeting. The subject of the
most recent meeting, which took place in Tehran from 14-16 November, was
"Human dignity with special reference to Bioethics".
The 'Nostra Aetate' Foundation
The "Nostra Aetate" Foundation was set up
on 19 May 1990. Although it is open to students from all other religions,
most beneficiaries to date have been Muslim.
The principle purpose of the awards is to
allow students belonging to other religions to deepen their knowledge of
Christianity through studies in one or other of the Pontifical
Universities in Rome, with a view to their teaching and/or involving
themselves in interreligious dialogue in the future. The study of
Christianity in Catholic institutes, taught by Catholic personnel and
based on Christian sources, is what this Roman experience represents, to
which is added, wherever possible, the experience of living in a Catholic
community. To date, around 50 people, coming mostly from the Mediterranean
countries, have benefited from an award.
To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the
Declaration Nostra Aetate, the Foundation organized a first reunion
of former award holders, held in Rome this pas 26-29 September. One of the
participants, a university lecturer, spoke of the need for "a Qur'anic
Days of Prayer for Peace in Assisi
The two dates of prayer for world peace
held in Assisi, 27 October 1986 and 24 January 2002, and that for Peace in
the Balkans, again held in Assisi, 9-10 January 1993, have seen a wide
participation of Muslims from all over the world, one sign, among others,
of the appreciation for the person of Pope John Paul II and of his action
on behalf of world peace and concord between people of all religions, as
indeed among all people of good will. Those who were able to travel on the
"Peace Express" with Pope John Paul II were able to admire the humility
and commitment to peace of this old and already very sick man who was
still determined to make himself a pilgrim for peace.
Commitment of Pope Benedict XVI
Receiving the Muslim delegates who had
come for the Mass to mark the beginning of his Pontificate, His Holiness
Pope Benedict XVI expressed his particular pleasure at their
participation. He also spoke of his satisfaction for the progress of
dialogue between Christians and Muslims at both the regional and
During his first Apostolic Journey in
Germany, on the occasion of World Youth Day, Benedict XVI also asked to
meet representatives of Muslims in Germany. The Pope spoke to them in
clear and friendly terms, urging them particularly to work out a common
position with Christians with regard to the phenomenon of terrorism in
order to defend the dignity of human life and not to allow those who would
use religion to justify their barbaric deeds to divide the two
Towards an evaluation
Relations between Muslims and Christians
today lack neither signs of hope nor elements for concern.
On both sides there is in general, but
especially among scholars and those involved in dialogue, the desire for
an objective and profound understanding of the other's religion. There are
very many who want to know Christianity through its sources and from
Christians themselves, rather than through the images of it given in the
Qur'an and other Islamic sources which do not correspond to the
Christianity in which Christians themselves believe. This is a major step
In their turn, many Christians want to get
to know Islam, going beyond the image given by the mass media, which tries
always to sensationalize, but also going beyond a vague and distorted
The desire for encounter and exchange is
another sign of hope. One can speak of a certain overcoming of polemic and
prejudice and an inclination to listen and try to understand the reasoning
of the other.
Examples also exist of collaboration in
favour of those most in need, such as the elderly and the handicapped.
There are also forms of friendship and
exchanges at the spiritual level: prayer, fasting and trusting in the
Unfortunately, besides these positive
signs there are also others, less positive and sometimes very worrying.
Religious fundamentalism is a reality for
both groups. On the Christian side, it is most evident among the
evangelical groups who seek to evangelize Muslims without any respect for
their feelings, culture, differences of situation, and without recognizing
the need for prudence and a gradual approach in proposing the Gospel to
Muslims. This does not mean denying the right to mission. This right is a
part of religious liberty. It is a right, moreover, that is claimed and
practised by Muslims in countries with a Christian majority, while all
other Christian missionary activity in countries which have an Islamic
majority is strictly forbidden, with grave consequences also for anyone
who leaves Islam for another religion.
This fundamentalism is strengthened in
situations of political and/or economic injustice, such as that which
exists, for example, in the divide between the rich developed countries of
the northern hemisphere and the poor developing countries of the south. A
great number of countries with an Islamic majority are found in the latter
Using religion for political ends, and
politics for religious ends, is unfortunately not only a constant
temptation but also a reality, especially where democracy and freedom are
The absence of a healthy secularity, that
is, one which does not constantly attack religion, or despise or ignore
it, but is able to distinguish between what is religious and what is
political, is a source of serious harm for politics as well as religion.
The simplest temptation is to seek a compromise based on the wrong
premises and damaging in its outcome.
The challenge of human rights, especially
that of religious liberty, which is the cornerstone of these rights, also
remains. Generally, though with some limitations, freedom of worship is
respected by Muslims, but the same cannot be said for religious freedom in
its wider sense, including the right to change one's religion. Obstacles
exist, arising from both the foundational texts and from tradition. The
subject needs to be tackled together in order to achieve a real benefit
for the human individual, whom God has honoured with the gift of freedom.
The different and at times contradictory
view of the history of relations between Muslims and Christians continues
to feed resentments and feelings of injustices suffered. It is enough to
think of the "conquests" and the subsequent Islamicization of the
conquered territories, or of the Crusades, colonialism and
To recapitulate, a genuine dialogue
between Muslims and Christians, undertaken in charity and with respect for
the truth, is difficult for various reasons: theological, historical and
arising from present situations. But at the same time, such dialogue is
also necessary, especially in the current world situation with its
tensions and conflicts, where religion is often used to increase tension
or to justify conflict and violence.
The Council Fathers, who gave Nostra
Aetate to the Church and to the world, opened a new page in relations
between Christians and Muslims. It falls to the Christians and Muslims of
today and tomorrow to listen to this prophetic appeal, to take up this
inheritance and to promote it, in order to heal the memories of past
wounds, to face the present together and to build a future of true peace.