The New Yorker is publishing a long article on the difficult relationship between the Vatican and Islam. “These are fierce theological times. It should come as no surprise that the Vatican and Islam are not getting along, or that their problems began long before Pope Benedict XVI made his unfortunate reference to the Prophet Muhammad, in a speech in Regensburg last September, and even before the children of Europe’s Muslim immigrants discovered beards, burkas, and jihad. There are more than a billion Catholics in the world, and more than a billion Muslims. And what divides the most vocal and rigidly orthodox interpreters of their two faiths, from the imams of Riyadh and the ayatollahs of Qom to the Pope himself, is precisely the things that Catholicism and Islam have always had in common: a purchase on truth; a contempt for the moral accommodations of liberal, secular states; a strong imperative to censure, convert, and multiply; and a belief that Heaven, and possibly earth, belongs exclusively to them. (…)”
ROME – When Zeinep Ozbek told her parents how she planned to pursue her education, they were shocked. Not only was the young Muslim woman about to leave her native Turkey, she was venturing into a strict traditional bastion of Christianity: Rome. Ozbek, 25, is now one of several Muslim students ensconced in the Vatican’s system of higher learning in and around the Italian capital. They attend pontifical universities, schools sanctioned by the Vatican, taking lessons from nuns and priests and sitting in classrooms decorated with crucifixes, in buildings adorned with larger-than-life statues and symbols of papal power. As Pope Benedict XVI travels to Turkey today, international attention is riveted on his attempts to improve troubled relations between Christians and Muslims. But here in Rome, at a more grass-roots level, a less-noticed experiment is taking place. Officially, the Muslim students attend the Jesuit-run Gregorian Pontifical University and other Vatican schools to learn about Christianity. In reality, they have become mediators navigating the suddenly very tricky world of interfaith dialogue and understanding. Some are meeting Christians for the first time, and they are often the first Muslims their Christian classmates have encountered. Several said they wanted to correct Western misconceptions about Islam. Interfaith dialogue was a favorite theme of the late Pope John Paul II, who became the first pontiff to enter a mosque. Benedict asks for an honest interaction that might ultimately lay bare mistrust and chafe historic sensitivities. His speech in September at the University of Regensburg in Germany was seen by many Muslims as an insult to their faith and its founder, the prophet Muhammad. In it, Benedict quoted a medieval emperor who branded Islam “evil and inhuman.” Ever since, in the face of Muslim anger, the pope has sought to explain that he was attempting to illustrate the incompatibility of faith and violence and that he has profound respect for Islam. In Turkey, crowds have been protesting the planned four-day visit. The Regensburg comments also proved problematic for Muslim students in Rome, and raised questions about the pope’s commitment to interfaith dialogue. “All the trouble of the recent months has been pushing people to think carefully about where dialogue is headed, and to realize how much more urgent it is,” said Father Daniel Madigan, head of the Gregorian’s Institute for the Study of Religions and Cultures, where most of the Muslim students are based. The program at the Gregorian is facing some uncertainty because Madigan, a leading expert on Islam and interfaith relations at a time the Vatican needs such insight, is leaving Rome for a position at Jesuit-run Georgetown University in Washington. Ozbek, the Turkish woman working on a master’s degree, had never met a Christian before she came to Rome. The Christian communities in Turkey are tiny and generally linked to ethnic groups such as Greeks or Armenians that Ozbek did not find particularly embracing. Some of her friends and relatives were afraid her immersion in a Catholic world would cause her to lose her identity. But that is a fear of those insecure in their faith, she said; for her, learning about the “richness” of Christianity only expanded her own devotion and helped her see “the other” as a fellow human being. “Generally I’m the first Muslim person they have met and they ask lots of questions,” she said. Ozbek wears a head scarf. An irony of her experience here is that most Turkish universities, obeying a strictly enforced government policy of secularism, would not let her attend class with her head covered. Naser Dumarreh, 34, of Damascus, Syria, said the pious Catholic milieu that Rome provided was more comfortable than a secular Western environment. “I’m living in a Christian society, not a Western society, and there’s not such a big difference from an Islamic society,” said Dumarreh, one of the first Middle Easterners to join the program. The students said they felt a fair amount of pressure as representatives of Islam. “They expect me to know everything about Islam, to be able to quote all the verses of the Koran by heart,” said Mustafa Cenap Aydin, 28, a Turk who has been studying in Rome for three years. But he says there is a mutual learning curve. Until arriving at the Gregorian, he did not know of the many positive references to Christianity contained in the Koran. “I’m not the same Mustafa who came here,” he said. Several of the students said understanding Christianity had broadened their understanding of Islam, a later religion that incorporates some of the earlier Christian and Judaic traditions. “To study in Rome on Christianity means to me to discover the historical, literary and theological background of the Koran,” said Esra Gozeler, who is working here on her PhD and teaches theology at the University of Ankara in Turkey. Omar Sillah, a 30-year-old student from Gambia who is specializing in the three monotheistic religions (Islam, Christianity and Judaism), has seen the traditions of his Muslim faith reflected in Catholicism. He knew Christians before coming to Rome; in fact, he studied at a missionary school in Gambia. But Rome was an eye-opener. After the pope’s Regensburg speech, Sillah said, he was bombarded with e-mails and questions from fellow students. He told them that a religion of violence and evil “is not the Islam that I follow.” His goal, he said, is to show Christians in Rome “by our actions” a different kind of Islam. But he doesn’t mind the endless queries. “That’s our goal – that’s dialogue,” he said.
Pope Benedict XVI has expressed “total and profound respect” for Muslims, as he attempts to defuse a row between Islam and the Catholic Church. He made the remarks in a meeting with envoys from the Muslim world, weeks after a speech in Germany prompted an angry reaction by some Muslims. Iraq’s ambassador said it was time to move on from the row and build bridges. But the Indonesian envoy said he was surprised that there was no direct dialogue at the meeting. In the space of just half an hour, the pontiff made a brief speech to envoys before greeting them individually, but there was no general discussion. Muslim leaders had been demanding an unequivocal apology from the Pope for his words. Dialogue welcomed The meeting was held at the Pope’s residence near Rome. Ambassadors from 21 countries and a representative from the Arab League attended, as well as Islamic representatives in Italy. Of mainly Muslim countries with diplomatic relations with the Vatican, only Sudan failed to attend. “I would like today to stress my total and profound respect for all Muslims,” the Pope said in the speech. He called for “sincere and respectful dialogue”, adding that Christians and Muslims alike must reject all forms of violence and respect religious liberty. Correspondents say the latter was a reference to restrictions on the church’s activity in some Muslim countries. “Since the beginning of my pontificate I have had occasion to express my wish to continue to establish bridges of friendship with believers of all religions, showing particularly my appreciation in the belief in dialogue between Muslims and Christians,” he said. “…The inter-religious and inter-cultural dialogue between Christians and Muslims is, in effect, a vital necessity, on which a large part of our future depends.” He also quoted his predecessor, John Paul II, stating the need for “reciprocity in all fields”. Iraqi ambassador Albert Yelda said he was satisfied by the Pope’s remarks. “I think it is time to put what happened behind us and build bridges among all the civilisations,” he said. But in a BBC interview, the ambassador of Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim nation, pointed out that the Pope had not referred directly to the speech which sparked the controversy. “We had hoped that there would have been a dialogue, but that was not the case,” Bambang Prayitno said. “There was no dialogue between the Pope and the guests… In general, we were actually a bit surprised that the meeting was a short one and just like that.” ‘Misunderstood’ The pontiff has expressed regret following the reactions in some countries to words of a speech he made in southern Germany earlier in the month. On Wednesday, he told pilgrims at the Vatican that his remarks in Bavaria last week had been “misunderstood”. He said his use of a quote from a 14th-Century Byzantine emperor, Manuel II Paleologos, did not reflect his personal opinion. The quote says: “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” The Pope said his real intention had been to “explain that religion and violence do not go together, but religion and reason do”.
The furore over the Pope’s remarks about Islam has left many Catholics inside and outside the Vatican shaking their heads in disbelief. Aides of Benedict XVI are dismayed that a quotation used to illustrate a philosophical argument should have provoked such anger from Muslims. But for others, the row has highlighted their concerns about the Pope’s attitude towards the Church’s relations with the Islamic world.
The leaders of Muslim communities in Italy endorsed on Monday statements by pope Benedict XVI who warned that Africa and Asia feel threatened by the West’s materialism and secularism. “We agree with the pope,” said Roberto Piccardo, the spokesman of Italy’s largest Muslim group UCOII. “It is true that Muslims are puzzled by a West which is hostage to a materialistic system.” Mario Scialoja, the former president of the World Muslim League, also expressed support for the pope’s words, saying that the “West’s exclusion of God leads to the wrong life models.” Pope Benedict XVI gave a speech Sunday in Munich which made headlines in all the main Italian newspapers for its indirect reference to Islam. “People in Africa and Asia admire our scientific and technical prowess but at the same time they are frightened by a form of rationality which totally excludes God from man’s vision, as if this were the highest form of reason,” he said. Expressing concern that secularism and materialism have replaced religious faith in the West, Benedict XVI also said non-Western societies “don’t perceive the Christian faith as the true threat to their identity but instead contempt of God and cynism.” Yahya Sergio Yahe Pallavicini, the deputy leader of another leading Muslim group in Italy, COREIS, called for “more cooperation between different religions so as to make sure the West doesn’t become a place of materialism, loss of values and the absence of references to the sacred and spirituality.”
Migrant workers from Christian, Muslim and other backgrounds have common interests and should seek to support each other, the final text of the twelfth plenary session of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People declared last week. Overall the statement also encourages the Catholic Church to move away from a Christendom mentality and to embrace social pluralism, women’s perspectives, integrated education, the rejection of religious sectarianism and violence, and a recognition of common humanity in and through differences of belief. Entitled ‘Migration and itinerancy from and towards majority Islamic countries’, the new Vatican document explores these issues through the global phenomenon of human mobility and examines a range of religious and spiritual challenges – alongside social, cultural, economic and political concerns. Says the Pontifical Council: Catholics, in particular, are called to practice solidarity with Muslim immigrants, to be open to sharing with them and to know more about their culture and religion. At the same time they are [able] to bear witness to their own Christian values in the light of [the] new evangelization, which of course respects freedom of conscience and religion. The _new evangelisation’ is a Catholic pastoral process of formation whereby the Gospel is discovered and shared through listening and dialogue – rather than through the manipulations of proselytism. The statement calls for a mutual process of acceptance and integration, claiming: While it is necessary to welcome Muslim immigrants with respect for their religious freedom, it is likewise indispensable for them to respect the cultural and religious identity of the host societies. The Council suggests that the principle of reciprocity requires a distinction to be drawn between elements of a religious or social culture which need to be respected and those which may threaten or marginalize others. The role of legislation is to maintain public space and civil rights for all. The statement continues: It is therefore necessary to move towards a distinction between the civil and the religious spheres in Islamic countries, too. In any case, it is fundamental, in this context, to distinguish between the West and Christianity, because often Christian values no longer inspire the attitude, position or actions (also with regard to public opinion) in the so-called western world. Regarding the situation in a number Islamic-majority countries, the Pontifical Council declares: Christians and migrant workers in general, who are [often] poor and without real contractual power, have great difficulty in having their human rights recognised. It says that Muslim nations should be expected to practice the minority rights they rightly expect elsewhere. The document also speaks of the need for a renewed commitment to involve women in decision making, especially in issues affecting them, as well as in the work of convincing parents to provide girls with an education equivalent to that given to boys, who should obviously include ethical formation. The section on schools and education emphasizes that it is also important to assure education to the new generations, because the school has a fundamental role to play in overcoming the conflict of ignorance and prejudices; and [it is also important] to have a correct and objective knowledge of the other’s [beliefs], with special attention to the freedom of conscience and religion. It goes on: Muslim parents and religious leaders must be helped to understand the righteous intentions of the western educational systems and the concrete consequences of their refusal of the education imparted in the schools of these systems within which their children live. The Pontifical Council argues that religious, civil and human rights are mutually necessary in secular, Muslim-majority and Christian-majority contexts, and that conflict needs to be addressed with a definite intention to prevent war, violence and terrorism. It is in any case necessary to avoid the abusive use of religion to inculcate hatred for believers of other religions, or for ideological and political reasons, the document asserts. It concludes: It is therefore hoped that Muslim and Christian intellectuals, in the name of a common humanism and out of their respective beliefs, would pose for themselves stark questions about the use of violence, often still perpetrated in the name of their religions.
VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – Spain asked the Vatican on Friday to back an initiative promoting Western-Arab understanding, in a bid to give fresh impetus to the plan after Muslim protests against cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad. Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos made the request for support of the “Alliance of Civilisations” during talks with Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano and Foreign Minister Giovanni Lajolo, a Vatican statement said. Spain and Turkey launched the initiative last year and this month called for calm and respect after violent demonstrations by Muslims against the cartoons. Muslims consider any depiction of the Prophet Mohammad blasphemous. Pope Benedict has condemned the cartoons, which were first published in Denmark and reprinted in Europe and the Middle East, saying freedom of speech did not mean freedom to offend a person’s religion. Spain and the Vatican have had strained relations since the government of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero legalised homosexual marriages last year despite strong opposition from the country’s powerful Catholic Church. Moratinos’ visit to the Vatican appeared to be an attempt by Madrid to mend ties ahead of a visit by the pope to Valencia in July to attend a rally of Catholic families.
ITALIAN bishops gave warning yesterday against Catholics marrying Muslims, citing cultural differences and fears that children born to mixed marriages would shun Christianity. Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the president of the Italian Bishops Conference, said: In addition to the problems that any couple encounters when forming a family, Catholics and Muslims have to reckon with the difficulties that inevitably arise from deep cultural differences. Cardinal Ruini, one of the right-hand men of Pope Benedict XVI, said that it was often the woman who married a Muslim man and it was she who converted to Islam. In a statement, the bishops said that if an Italian woman married a Muslim immigrant and then settled in his country of origin, her rights were not guaranteed in the way they are in Italy or in other Western nations. In addition the children of mixed marriages tended to be brought up as Muslims and not as Catholics. Such marriages should, therefore, be discouraged. Church officials said that there were 200,000 mixed marriages in Italy, with 20,000 this year alone, an increase of 10 per cent on the previous year. The statement enraged liberal groups, which accused the Roman Catholic Church of interfering in Italian affairs. Emma Bonino, a leader of the Transnational Radical Party, accused the Vatican of seeking to affect the general election, due in April, as politicians from the Right and Left courted the Vatican to gain Catholic votes. She said that the Vatican had taken strong stances on issues such as abortion, same-sex unions, and euthanasia in violation of the 1929 Lateran Treaty between the Vatican and the Italian State. Mara Tognetti Borgogna, a sociologist at Bicocca University, Milan, said of mixed marriages: Each case is different. It depends on the circumstances.The most critical moment usually comes when the children reach adolescence and come into conflict with one parent or both over their life choices. Signora Borgogna said that they could work, but you need a high level of mutual tolerance between two languages, two religions, two ways of looking at the world. On the other hand, the mixed marriages we have now are a kind of social laboratory, because that is the way our society is going.
The Vatican will not allow Muslims to pray once more in the Mezquita, the former mosque that is now the cathedral of Cordoba, telling them they must “accept history” and not try to “take revenge” on the Catholic church. “We, too, want to live in peace with persons of other religions,” Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, president of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue, told the Vatican’s AsiaNews agency. “However, we don’t want to be pushed, manipulated and go against the very rules of our faith.” Mgr Fitzgerald criticised the authorities of the southern Spanish city for lobbying to have the building, once one of the world’s biggest mosques, opened to Muslim prayer. “[They] have not the necessary theological sensitivity to understand the church’s position,” he said. He claimed Spanish Muslims who had been publicly lobbying for the right to pray had yet to make a formal request to the Vatican. The archbishop said the Vatican had been careful not to demand similar rights at mosques which were once Catholic churches – though he acknowledged that Pope John Paul II had prayed at a mosque at Damascus in Syria.
Centuries after Christian building was put at the centre of C_rdoba’s mosque, Vatican hears Spanish appeal to allow Islamic worship there. Muslims across Spain are lobbying the Roman Catholic church in the southern city of C_rdoba to make a symbolic gesture of reconciliation between faiths by allowing them to pray in the city’s cathedral. C_rdoba’s renaissance cathedral sits in the centre of an ancient mosque complex, and local Muslims want to be allowed to pray there again. They have appealed to the Vatican to intercede on their behalf.