Nostra Aetate: 40 Years Later
Khaled Akasheh
'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 areas.

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, p. 1853).

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 consolidate.

Liaison Committees

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 take place.

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 2000.

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 academic institutions.

Colloquia

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 Nostra Aetate".

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 international level.

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 communities.

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 forward.

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 understanding.

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 Divine will.

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 category.

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 lacking.

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 neo-colonialism.

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.


Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
28 June 2006, page 8

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