Some time ago, I wrote this article. In the wake of Pope Bennedicts recent religious and political blunders, it may be important to look at an area where (until now) success has been seen in the Catholic and Ecumenical relationships with Islam and Islamic peoples, esp. in the Middle East.
Therefore, I encourage the various Christians, Jews, and others of the Abrahmic faiths to get back to business after reading this piece.
A VISIT FROM THE HOLY SEE—ARCHBISHOP IN KUWAIT PROMOTES DISCUSSION BETTER RELATIONS WITH ISLAM
By Kevin A. Stoda
A little over one year ago, the Archbishop Mounged El-Hachem (Apostolic Nuncio to the State of Kuwait) visited the Aware Center in Surra, Kuwait to present a “Dialogue between Christians & Muslims Today”.
This was the third lecture in a series of lectures on tolerance held at the Aware Center this autumn. This was also fairly timely lecture as King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia had recently visited the Vatican—the first rapprochement ever from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia with the head of the Catholic Church in the World.
In introducing the Archbishop that November 2007 evening, Dr. Theresa Lesher, who is Muslim, made three main comments about Islam.
First, she stated that according to Mohammed, the prophet, “God honors his churches and synagogues.” Second, Islam recognizes Jesus as one of the greatest prophets of the faith. Finally, both Islam and Christianity are institutions of peace.
A poem was then read and the Holy See’s Archbishop Mounged El-Hachem stood up to speak.
The ARCHBISHOP’S SPEECH
The Ambassador of the Holy See began by clarifying as follows: “Regardless of race, gender or culture, people and information are moving around the globe very fast these days. This occurs with such speed that we often don’t know each other well enough before we react. This means we need to have multicultural dialogues and inter-religious dialogue.”
Archbishop El-Hachem indicated that this was why the Pope had asked him and others to become more proactive in promoting dialogue, especially now important in the wake of what has occurred in recent years between East and West.
Archbishop Mounged El-Hachem, who had served prior to this as Archbishop to Lebanon, explained that his speech had three foci: (1) Introduce the broad history of relations among these two faiths, (2) Elaborate on the Vatican II documents of 1965 concerning the relationship between the Church and other faiths around the world, and finally (3) Review the status of interfaith dialogue today.
The archbishop then began, “Muslims are the majority in many countries in Africa and Asia. Christianity makes up the majority in the West. In some countries, Christians and Muslims live in harmony with their various religious practices—i.e., living out their religious lives without restrictions.”
“However, in some other countries, there are many restrictions.” The Monsignor continued, “Christianity was present in Mecca and Medina in the time when of Mohammed lived. The relationships between Christians then and there with the Prophet—and in Jerusalem all the way to Ethiopia—were well known and good.”
“During the Califate, churches were protected by and cooperated with the Califate. Meanwhile dialogues between East and West was initially strong. Books from Greece and Syria were translated into Arabic.”
With somewhat an apology, the religious leader next lamented, “The Crusades led to conflict and persecution, but otherwise over a great period of centuries relationships were still often very good among many Muslims in the Middle East & Africa and various Christians in Europe and elsewhere—this was especially true during the more recent centuries. However, a renewed friction arose again in the 20th Century.”
The 20th CENTURY
The Ambassador of the Holy See explained, “The disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, creation of the state of Israel and other new regional states, the discovery of oil, and the end to prolonged colonization of all sorts led to a New Balance among the faiths and faithful in and outside the Middle East.”
“The good news was,” according to the Archbishop “a new stage of mutual study has also begun. Nowadays, from Egypt to Lebanon, from Qatar to Europe, and in Kuwait at places, like the Aware Center, dialogues between Muslims and Christians has been carried out.”
This was the second visit to the Aware Center by the Archbishop in the past year.
Next, the Archbishop began to refer often to the 1965 document of the Second Vatican Council called “Nostra Etate, Dignitatis Humane, and Lumen Gentium”, and he emphasized the documents important focus on having the church and Christians come to respect and grow closer to other faiths by focusing on the common grounds, rather than the differences among faiths.
In short, the “Nostra Etate” sought to promote good relationships with Christians and peoples of other faiths.
Even more importantly, the archbishop stated, “The ‘Nostra Etate’ charges that ‘Christians are to recognize the facets of truth in other faiths where true Christian faith is manifest.'”
“This means that the Church has high regards for Islam and the role of Muslims in humanity. The church also acknowledges and appreciates, for example, that Islam venerates both Jesus and Mary. Moreover, Christians respect the fact that Muslims recognize the resurrection and other facets of Christianity.”
The Catholic representative to Kuwait then stated that until recently Islam was not united at all in the West’s calls to rapprochement between their faith and the approach to other religions of the world. However, this is likely because Islam is much more decentralized in structure than the Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant and Evangelical churches in the West.
A CHANGE IN THE WIND
The Archbishop noted with a smile, on October 13, 2006 a most amazing document was publicly signed and issued to churches around the globe. That document was the first ever offensive by Muslim scholars, Imams, and leaders of a great variety of Shia, Sunni, Sufi and other groupings of Islam to promote wide-scale dialogue among Christians and Muslims.
[A writer for the Christian Science Monitor, Dan Murphy, clarifies what the historic October 13, 2006 document to the Vatican and others was exactly about, “Thirty-eight Muslim scholars from 20 countries sent a letter to Pope Benedict XVI urging mutual tolerance and respect . . . , and 500 prominent Muslims signed a religious ruling rejecting violence against civilians.”]
The quite pleased Archbishop, Mounged El-Hachem, revealed that since last October 2006 some 250 Islamic scholars have now signed on to the original document in support. More importantly, in the intervening period Citizen Muslim scholars from 49 different countries have now become recommended as signatories to that letter.
The archbishop emphasized, “This was a very important event in the history of humanity, especially successful, in that the Islamic Scholars cited Christian Bible and Jewish Holy texts in the document. The letter invites Christians to interfaith dialogue. Moreover, it promises that Muslims will not make attack on people’s of Christian faith unless attacked first.”
The Archbishop continued, “The survival of the world is at stake! Our souls are at stake if we don’t make every effort to live in sincere peace and harmony. This is why the October 13 letter was written to the Pope.”
He added, “The letter was written not only to the pope but to all Christians all over the world. It has led to the positive response: (a) God is one. (b) God loved us. (c) We are called to love our neighbors.”
Finally, the catholic archbishop noted, “This was a call to spiritual discussion. Replies to the letter have come not only from the catholic church but from the World Council of Churches, the Archbishop of Canterbury and from all over the planet.”
It is in this context that on November 6, 2007 the Saudi King Abdullah came to meet the pope in Rome.
The archbishop finished the reading of his speech with a famous quote, “‘Man is an enemy of what he ignores.’ This is why, it is very important that we get to know each other—i.e. not avoid and ignore each other.”
He stressed that in both East and West, “Even people of different faiths who live on the same building or in the same streets with one another have never read each others’ holy books. By reading them, we would have a start.”
In conclusion, “Violence—Never Again! Terrorism—Never Again! War—Never Again! Intolerance—Never Again!” This is what our interfaith dialogue seeks.
A FEW PRICKLY QUESTIONS
At the end of the speech there was time for only a few short questions (due primarily to the fact that numerous visiting VIPs had shown up late—leading to a 25 minute delay in the start of the archbishop’s speech).
The first question asked was about the “Trinity” and “the three persons in one”. The archbishop disappointingly struggled to explain this distinction but was unable do the topic much justice, i.e. he wasn’t very convincing, especially to the great numbers of Muslims in the audience.
However, the archbishop shined on the final question of the evening, which he answered quite diplomatically.
This was a question concerning “the value to Christians of the Holy Book, the Koran”.
The Vatican representative to Kuwait replied, “Concerning whether the book is considered Holy. The answer is frankly, ‘No.’
The archbishop added “The fact is, the church doesn’t recognize any letters or books written after the death of the Disciple John in a.d. 95 as Holy Books. However, there are many truths in the Koran—even if we don’t consider it a ‘revealed truth’. There are many common beliefs and truths revealed in the Koran—many that parallel the material in Christian ‘revealed books.'”
He continued, “The dogma of the 2nd Vatican Counsel has set down—and as was approved by Bishops from all over the world—that there are truths common to both religions and books. This, therefore, is indirect recognition of the words passed from Mohammed as Prophet. That is, we have to respect him and the Koran even if we don’t see his words today as ‘revealed text’.”
The audience seemed a bit dissatisfied because no deep dialogue had really begun between the adherents of various faith traditions that evening at the Aware Center.
Many would have liked to have asked about and discussed difficult and perplexing questions about the faith and how life is actually lived in Islamic and in Western lands.
This frustration among the audience demonsrates that more critical and positive dialogue is welcome in Kuwait, a Middle Eastern country which allows various faiths to be practiced here to a moderate degree.
However, in contrast to the Christian and Jewish dialogue–which swung into high gear after the tragic events of the WWII era–, Christians and Muslims need to still do a lot more dialoguing in the near future.
“Jewish-Polish Dialogue” http://www.dialog.org/dialog/dialog.html
“King Abdullah and Pope Benedict Meet,” http://www.saudi-us-relations.org/articles/2007/ioi/071106-abdullah-benedict.html
Murphy, Dan, “MUSLIM SCHOLARS WRITE THE POPE – AND EVERYONE ELSE”, HTTP://WWW.CSMONITOR.COM/2006/1019/P01S03-WOME.HTML
“Nostra Etate”, http://www.dialog.org/dialog/nostra-eng.html
“Open Letter to His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI by 38 Leading Muslim Scholars and Leaders”, http://www.islamicamagazine.com/online-analysis/open-letter-to-his-holiness-pope-benedict-xvi.html