ISLAM & CHRISTIANITY
The Critical Need for Interreligious Dialogue



By   /  15 October 2015   

Pope Francis and Grand Mufti Yaran

Radicalism is incompatible with true religious ethics and must be defeated through a serious and widespread formation to dialogue and a genuine effort by religious leaders and opinion makers to identify people who are bent on portraying false beliefs and behaviors as part of their religious code. Political leaders must support this awareness campaign to prevent extremism and to prepare the ground for moderation. This has particular relevance for the Middle East, where creating room for dialogue is a great opportunity for policy makers, scholars, business and social leaders with the purpose of promoting intercultural and interreligious initiatives that will deal with education, social, economic and political reforms, religious understanding, women’s issues and areas of conflict.
We live in a pluralistic and multireligious society, both in the East and West. Even in the Middle East, where at one time we could see only Christianity, Islam and Judaism, due to recent immigration we are now seeing people arriving from other cultures and religions. Consequently, we are witnessing an end of the polarizing clash between Islam and Christianity with the manifestation of the quest for wider dialogue among the world religions. In this context, an assertion of Benedict XVI in Ankara is of particular relevance: “The religions are able to do their part in tackling the numerous challenges that our societies are currently facing. Surely, recognizing the positive role involving the religions within the bosom of the social body can and must encourage our society to explore more deeply their knowledge of humanity and to better respect its dignity, placing humanity at the center of political, economic, cultural, and social action. Our world must become more aware of the fact that all humanity is profoundly connected and we must invite them to put aside their historical and cultural differences, not in order to clash over them, but rather to foster mutual respect.”[1]

The necessity of having a dialogical approach to people of other faiths is also stressed by Pope Francis in his “Apostolic Exhortation”, where he states: “An attitude of openness in truth and in love must characterize the dialogue with the followers of non-Christian religions, in spite of various obstacles and difficulties, especially forms of fundamentalism on both sides. Interreligious dialogue is a necessary condition for peace in the world, and so it is a duty for Christians as well as other religious communities.”[2] This does not mean to overlook the differences and to put aside the main tenets of each one’s religion, because: “In this dialogue, ever friendly and sincere, attention must always be paid to the essential bond between dialogue and proclamation, which leads the Church to maintain and intensify her relationship with non-Christians. A facile syncretism would ultimately be a totalitarian gesture on the part of those who would ignore greater values of which they are not the masters.” [3]


Dialogue with Muslims

One of the dominant feelings in our society today is a fear of Islam and Muslims, whose world and system of values are seen as distant from Christian ones. However, if you relate with Muslims at a personal level, you will gain a new perspective and feel a greater closeness among “believers”. In fact, when, thanks to this personal relationship, the distance decreases, we realize that the other person is one of us, all barriers collapse and a common humanity and common spiritual values emerge. In fact, we ask ourselves where interreligious dialogue begins. The answer to this question is very simple: dialogue is born where people are of goodwill, because it is a relationship between persons and not between ideologies: “What matters – as it is expressed in a document of the Bishop Conference of Asia – is empathy together with realism and this involves trust that brings about healing, especially of the suppressed memories of the past bitterness”[4].  In this sense an intensive formation that includes a deep knowledge of each religion fosters an empathic attitude, which is a point of departure for healthy Muslim-Christian dialogue. Then it is important to understand the internal logic of the other’s religion and the acknowledgement of religious pluralism in our contemporary context.

In the debates about Islam, we look too often at the “Muslim world” as an abstract category and as culturally distant. In reality, not only is Islam closer to Christianity than we might think, but Islam is a universe constituted by peoples with whom it is possible and necessary to share values and express them through dialogue. As Vatican II has emphasized: “The Church regards with esteem also the Muslims. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all-powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God.”[5]


How to Counteract Radicalism

One of the main factors that hamper interreligious and intercultural dialogue are the radical tendencies, which irrespective of their origin, are one of the most dangerous threats to world peace and security. Religious radical movements, in fact, introduce fundamental and sudden changes by means of uncompromising and hardline policies. And they create an environment where mutual acceptance and understanding have ceased to exist. This gives way to all kinds of animosity toward people of different ideologies, races and beliefs. Consequently, we must build up awareness that radicalism, with its extremist tendencies, is incompatible with true religious ethics and must be defeated through a serious and widespread formation to dialogue and a genuine effort by religious leaders and opinion makers to identify people who are bent on portraying false beliefs and behaviors as part of their religious code. At the same time, political leaders must support this awareness campaign in order to prevent extremism in society and to prepare the ground for moderation. This has particular relevance for the present situation of the Middle East, where creating room for dialogue is a great opportunity for policy makers, scholars, business and social leaders with the purpose of promoting intercultural and interreligious initiatives that will deal with education, social, economic and political reforms, religious understanding, women’s issues, peace initiatives, and potential areas of conflict.


Education

Among the basic areas where a dialogical attitude can be enhanced is the field education, which cannot be considered an isolated one, but interacts with it and is influenced by other sectors in society, such as family, media and so on. In this sense Governmental policy, particularly in religious education, but also policy towards religion in general in a multireligious country, should aim at creating an atmosphere of tolerance, respect, and appreciation, as it is stated in the “Charter of Values of Citizenship and Integration” promulgated by the Italian Home Ministry when it suggests that “it is convenient to educate the youth to respect the other’s religious beliefs, without finding in them elements of division”.[6]


Rational Approach to Holy Books

The concept of the basic unity of the three monotheistic religions and of their Scriptures goes back to the sources of Islam: the Holy Qur’ân, which has been part of the Muslim tradition throughout the ages. The Bible and the biblical stories played an important role in molding the Muslim faith and created a link between Muslims, Christians, and Jews right from the beginning of the Islamic era. Unfortunately, the mutual ignorance of the Scriptures both by many Muslims (of the Bible) and by many Christians (of the Qur’ân) has made them both overlook how much in common to share.

A rational approach to the holy texts, as well as regarding the nexus of faith, reason, and religion, and the ability of human reason to grasp that nexus should be part of Muslim-Christian Dialogue. It is what Benedict XVI stated in Regensburg, “theology rightly belongs in the university and within the wide-ranging dialogue of sciences, not merely as a historical discipline and one of the human sciences, but precisely as theology, as inquiry into the rationality of faith. Only thus do we become capable of that genuine dialogue of cultures and religions so urgently needed today.… A reason which is deaf to the divine and which relegates religion into the realm of subcultures is incapable of entering into the dialogue of cultures”.


Peace

Although the core of all religious messages is the call for peace, the internal fighting, communal riots, religious wars, as well as wars among people and countries has always afflicted our global village—what the Italian poet Dante Alighieri calls: “the threshing floor that makes us so ferocious”.[7] Thus the cooperation of cultural and religious groups is absolutely necessary in order to overcome every kind of tension and to pave the way to coexistence and peace. In this context, all religions and religious communities are called to work together and to commit themselves to raising awareness about belonging to a single human family for which all bear a common responsibility. For Christians, this is wonderfully expressed in a Vatican II document: “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts.”[8] Consequently, interreligious dialogue, as expressed in the scholarly statement of Benedict XVI, is of particular relevance: “The relationship of Christianity with the religions of the world has become today an internal necessity for the faith: it is not a game of curiosity, which would like to construct a theory about destiny of others—only God decides this destiny, and He does not need our theories .… But today, there is more at stake: the sense of our being able and having to believe.”[9]


Freedom of Religion

There will be no peace and welfare for humanity without respect for religious tolerance: “This council greets with joy the first of these two facts as among the signs of the times. With sorrow, however, it denounces the other fact, as the only to be deplored. The council exhorts Catholics, and it directs a plea to all men, most carefully to consider how greatly necessary religious freedom is, especially in the present condition of the human family. All nations are coming into even closer unity. Men of different cultures and religions are being brought together in closer relationships. There is a growing consciousness of the personal responsibility that every man has. All this is evident. Consequently, in order that relationships of peace and harmony be established and maintained within the whole of mankind, it is necessary that religious freedom be everywhere provided with an effective constitutional guarantee and that respect be shown for the high duty and right of man freely to lead his religious life in society”.[10]

Recently in the “al-Azhar Declaration on the Future of Egypt”,[11] state institutions are asked to ensure a “full commitment to protecting and fully respecting places of worship of the followers of the three heavenly religions, to safeguarding the free and unrestricted practices of all religious rites, to respecting different worship practices without demeaning the people’s culture and traditions”.[12] It is also relevant that in another “Declaration” by the same University it is stated that “Freedom of belief and the right connected to it of full citizenship (muwâtana) for everyone, based [in turn] on absolute equality in rights and duties, is considered the cornerstone of the modern social order. This freedom is guaranteed by diriment and ever-valid religious texts and by explicit constitutional and juridical principles. …. Each individual in society has the right to embrace the ideas he prefers, provided it does not harm the right of the society to preserve the heavenly faiths”. [13]


Middle Eastern Christians

The issue of religious freedom and the necessity of dialogue in this sense is a pressing concern for Middle Eastern Christians who want to share with Muslims the need for clear, strong safeguards for adherents of minority religions in Muslim societies, where an interpretation of the Islamic law often dominates that seems to deny the right of people to practice and teach their own faith. This in spite of the fact that some Muslim thinkers of the Middle Ages and later periods were among the first actually to incorporate ideas of tolerance and safeguards for minorities within their legal systems. Thus Muslim-Christian dialogue will help and sustain the tradition of those Muslim thinkers today to develop into even more positive understandings of the role of minorities in Islamic societies.[14] It is what the Special Assembly for the Middle East of the Synod of Bishops states: “The specific, irreplaceable Christian contribution to the societies in which we live is to enrich them with the values of the Gospel. … In more than one area, these values, especially human rights, coincide with those of Muslims. Consequently, there is much to be said for promoting these values in cooperation with one another.”[15]


Conclusion

The shared heritage of both Christianity and Islam shows an inner desire for love, peace, and justice and issues a call to hope for those who are in despair in the present world crisis through their message and their lives. Sharing common values implementing human rights standards, transparency, accountability, participation and non-discrimination is the duty of the followers of the two monotheistic religions in their path toward a universal physical and spiritual development of humanity that may lead us out of the tunnel of the present moral and financial crisis, which requires patience, endurance and capacity of dialogue. I will conclude with the words of Pope Francis: “In order to sustain dialogue with Islam, suitable training is essential for all involved, not only so that they can be solidly and joyfully grounded in their own identity, but so that they can also acknowledge the values of others, appreciate the concerns underlying their demands and shed light on shared beliefs. We Christians should embrace with affection and respect Muslim immigrants to our countries in the same way that we hope and ask to be received and respected in countries of Islamic tradition. I ask and I humbly entreat those countries to grant Christians freedom to worship and to practice their faith, in light of the freedom which followers of Islam enjoy in Western countries! Faced with disconcerting episodes of violent fundamentalism, our respect for true followers of Islam should lead us to avoid hateful generalizations”.[16]

__________________________

[1] Meeting of His Holiness The Pope Benedict XVI with the Diplomatic Corps in the Apostolic Nunciature of Ankara, November 28, 2006.
[2] Apostolic Exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium” of the Holy Father
Francis, Roma  n. 250
[3] ibid. n. 251
[4] Final Statement of the Twelfth Bishops’ Institute for Interreligious Affairs(BIRA)  on the Theology of Dialogue,” 21-26 February 1991, Hua Hin, Thailand, IV/12, 46 Hua Hin, Thailand 1991
[5] Nostra Aetate, “Declaration on the relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions”, Roma, 8/10 1965, n. 3
[6] Charter of Values of Citizenship and Integration, approved with a Decree of the Italian Home Ministry, Roma 23.04.2007. Art. 25
[7] Dante Alighieri, La Divina Commedia, Paradiso Canto XXII, 153
[8] Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World “Gaudium et spes”, promulgated by His Holiness Pope Paul V on December 7, 1965, n 1
[9] Joseph Ratzinger, Il Nuovo Popolo di Dio, Queriniana, Brescia 1971, pp. 391-392.
[10] Declaration on the Relation Religious freedom “DIGNITATIS HUMANAE”, promulgated by His Holiness Pope Paul V on December 7, 1965, n. 15
[11] al-Azhar Declaration on the Future of Egypt, Institution d’al-Azhar Bureau du Grand Imam d’al-Azhar, Rajab 1432 A.H. June 2011
[12] al-Azhar Declaration on the Future of Egypt, Institution d’al-Azhar Bureau du Grand Imam d’al-Azhar, Rajab 1432 A.H. June 2011, n. 6
[13] Declaration by al-Azhar and the intellectuals on the legal ordinances of fundamental freedoms,  S.E. Shaykh al-Azhar, Dr. Ahmad Muhammad at-Tayyeb 8/02/2012., n.1
[14] Jews, Christians and Muslims: The Way of Dialogue, Appendix 6 of the Lambeth Conference 1988.
[15] Lineamenta – Special Assembly for the Middle East of the Synod of Bishops, Vatican City, 10-24.10, 2010, n. 85
[16] Apostolic Exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium” of the Holy Father
Francis n. 253.

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