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Catholic-Muslim Forum in the Vatican
“A New Era of Openness towards
Catholic-Muslim Seminar Opens In
By Gerard O'Connell, Special Correspondent in Rome
VATICAN CITY (UCAN) -- The first seminar held by the Catholic-Muslim Forum has begun at the Vatican, inspired by the shared conviction that there will be no peace in the world without peace between Muslims and Christians.
The Nov. 4-6 seminar brings together 58 Catholic and Muslim religious authorities, experts and advisors, 29 from each side.
The forum has its origins in an open letter -- A Common Word -- that Muslims sent to Pope Benedict XVI and the heads of other Christian Churches on 13 October, 2007.
In it they emphasized that the world cannot be at peace if Muslims and Christians are not. The 138 signatories called for both sides to dialogue frankly and sincerely, and work together on the basis of principles that Judaism, Christianity and Islam have in common. They especially highlighted central teachings on love of God and love of neighbor.
The broad coalition of Muslim leaders and scholars -- which now has 271 members -- wrote the letter amid tensions and even aggression against Christians after Pope Benedict's lecture at Regensburg University, Germany, on Sept. 13, 2007. The pope cited a 14th-century Byzantine emperor's remarks critical of Islam, which sparked widespread condemnation that Vatican media blamed on "instrumentalizations and misunderstandings" of his lecture.
Against this backdrop, Pope Benedict welcomed the letter as written in a "positive spirit" when he responded to the authors on Nov. 19, 2007, through Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Vatican secretary of state.
"Without ignoring or minimizing our differences as Christians and Muslims, we can and we must give attention to that which unites us," Cardinal Bertone wrote to Jordan's Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad bin Talal, president of the Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought.
The exchange of letters gave rise to contacts between the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and the Muslim signatories, which led to a small delegation from both sides meeting in the Vatican March 4-5 this year. The parties agreed to organize the current seminar on the theme Love of God, Love of Neighbor, the Vatican daily, L'Osservatore Romano, reported in its Nov. 3-4 edition.
French Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, president of the pontifical council and former Vatican secretary for relations with states, or "foreign minister," heads the Catholic side. Participants from the council also include Indonesian Divine Word Father Markus Solo, desk officer for Christian-Muslim dialogue in Asia. Other members include Bishop Andrew Francis of Multan, Pakistan, and three Jesuits known as close to Pope Benedict: Spanish Archbishop Luis Francisco Ladaria, secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and Fathers Christian Troll from Germany and Samir Khalil Samir from Lebanon.
Mustafa Ceric, grand mufti of Bosnia and Herzegovina, leads the Muslim representatives from countries including Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Jordan, Libya, Malaysia, Philippines, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. The three Asian members, not including West Asia, are Din Syamsuddin, president of Muhammadiyah, Indonesia's second-largest Islamic organization; Mohammad Hashim Kamali from Malaysia; and Amina Rasul, convener of the Philippine Council for Islam and Democracy.
For the first two days of closed-door sessions, participants are scheduled to discuss themes based on presentations given from both Catholic and Muslim perspectives. Tuesday's theme is Theological and Spiritual Foundations of Love of God, Love of Neighbor, while Wednesday's focus is Human Dignity and Mutual Respect.
On the final day, participants are scheduled to have an audience with Pope Benedict and a public session at Pontifical Gregorian University, where a joint declaration is due be read out.
L'Osservatore Romano reminded readers this meeting "is not a novelty." Catholic-Muslim dialogue has been going on for a long time, it said, especially since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).
Over the past year the Vatican office for dialogue and Muslim institutions have met frequently in many parts of the world. All this "authorizes us to look to today's meeting with hope," the daily said.
With one-third of the world's population embracing Christianity and one-fifth embracing Islam, these two religions account for more than half the people in the world.
Christians and Muslims live together in various parts of the world for the last 1400 years. The Vatican Council II, through her document Nostra Aetate (NA), invited Catholics to make efforts to understand the different religions especially Islam (cfr. NA 3). We can very well say that the Catholic Church established its first formal relationship with the Muslim faithful through NA - what Pope Benedict XVI called “Magna Charta of Dialogue”.
The Catholic-Muslim Forum formed by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and a delegation of 138 Muslim signatories with their “Open Letter” after the Regensburg lecture are born in the spirit of NA and inaugurates a new era of openness and mutual understanding between the Catholic Christians and Muslims. Both the Muslim and Catholic scholars showed keen interest in the agenda of the first meeting, held from 4-6 November 2008 in the Vatican.
On the first day the members of the forum reflected on Love of God and Love of Neighbour from theological as well as spiritual perspectives. The Christian participants shared the core of their faith: One God; who is triune in nature and God's love for his creation. The Muslim participants shared their understanding of love of God from Qur’ānic and Hadīth’s perspectives as well.
Both Muslims and Christians agreed in their sharing that love is at the heart of both the Christian and Muslim faiths. This love has a universal character. This love invites Christians and Muslims to know and love others. In love they share their faith without forcing the other to change one's faith convictions.
The Catholics highlighted the core of Christ's teachings: God is love, therefore, human beings must love one another (1 Jon 4,16, Jn 15,12). Love is made concrete by forgiving the enemies and praying for them. Love should not be just in words but be shown through deeds (Cf. 1 Jn 4,18).
The Muslims said that love is a timeless transcendent power which guides and transforms the human with mutual regard. This love has been practiced by the Prophet of Islam during his life time. The Muslims appreciate and esteem what is written in a Hadīth saying: "Not one of you has faith until he loves his neighbour the way he loves himself" /Bukhari, Bab al-Iman: 13).
The Love of God and Love of Neighbour from Christian as well as Muslim perspectives form the core of the Letter. As Catholics, we have special and unique ways to understand and reflect on the Gospel. Our Gospel reflections are profoundly rooted in Christ. Muslim friends found it difficult to understand. Similarly, Christians at times may find it difficult to get into the Muslim experience of praying and reflecting with Qur’ān. Both sides may at times encounter difficulties to understand the specificities of faith. But, we need to accept them and move forward. We must go through a way of profound reflection to get the common grounds of Love.
We are happy that both Christians and Muslims showed the good will to reflect profoundly on Love of God and Love of Neighbour and have arrived finally at the conclusion that love is central in our religions. Acknowledging this fact seriously, both the sides discussed ways to heal the broken world and promote peace and harmony among all people.
On the second day of the Forum, we discussed on the theme "Human dignity and Mutual respect" which are very important issues in today's world. As brothers and sisters the Forum entered into an honest and sincere discussion on various kinds of injustice and human right abuses experienced in the history of relationship of both the religions until today. Both sides were courageous to talk about the injustice faced by both sides in various countries.
Religious freedom and freedom of consciousness are two burning points mentioned and discussed during the conference, especially on the second day when we talked about the human dignity and mutual respect. The Muslim delegation admitted that there is a lot of injustice in the countries with Muslim majority. Similarly the Muslims too suffer where they are a minority.
After a long and profound process of discussion and discernment, the two delegations released a 15-point joint statement on the final day.
Among other things, the Conference challenged both Muslims and Christians to respect life and keep the dignity of each person, man or woman, which involves, among other things, respect for freedom of conscience and religion; to counterfeit discrimination on account of faith; the importance of bearing witness through prayer the transcendent dimension of life in an increasingly secularized world; an affirmation to give young people a solid moral, civil, and religious education, and teach them about the faith of others.
The forum has agreed to establish a permanent committee to coordinate responses to conflicts and emergency situations. Finally it was agreed to continue such Conferences once in 2 years in a Muslim-majority country.
On the third day all the Catholic and Muslim delegates were received by Pope Benedict XVI in the Sala Clementina of the apostolic palace.
The Holy Father stressed the centrality of our faith: love of God and love of neighbour. He called upon both Muslims and Christians to live up to the demands of our respective faiths. He urged both sides to be aware of the one and common call to work together on behalf of the victims of disease, hunger, poverty, injustice and violence. Human rights and human dignity should be protected as human life is a precious gift of God.
The conference should be a good bridge for both sides to increase the mutual understanding to overcome prejudices, disagreements and misunderstandings.