COMMENTARY
 
Message from the Vatican: Reciprocity in ties with Muslims
Weekly Pulse
March 31-April 6, 2006
In its search for better relations with the Islamic world, the Catholic Church is turning a spotlight on the role that culture can play in fostering understanding between peoples of different faiths.

Attending a mass at the grotesque St. Peters Church in the Vatican City on March 27, conducted by one of the cardinals of Pope Benedict XVI, it felt as if Christian-Muslim relations have really come of age since the days of the Crusades. Pope Benedict, elected last April following the death of Pope John Paul II after prolonged illness, is all for improving relations with the Muslim world. So are some 165 of his cardinals, 15 of which elected just days ago.

Unlike his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI does not only talk about the need for dialogue between two revealed religions, he is taking practical steps for the purpose. In February, for instance, he appointed British Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald as the chief papal emissary to Egypt and delegate to the Arab League.

Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald is probably the best mind at the Vatican working on Christian-Islamic relations. After years of dialogue with Islamic leaders—and as a fluent Arabic speaker—Fitzgerald is well qualified for his new role in Cairo. The Egyptian Capital is home to the Al-Azhar University, which is arguably the closest thing in the Muslim world to a Vatican.

The Vatican City is a tiny sovereign state of the Holy See, located within the city of Rome. The entire state is about 109 acres. It is governed by the Pope, and is the capital of the Roman Catholic Church of both East and West.

Each day, the Vatican receives tens of thousands of tourists and worshippers, not necessarily Christians alone. More than anything else, it is the very grandeur of the place that is spiritually satisfying. Even otherwise, the entire Italy is all about history, but the sort of historical imprints that the Vatican City are, indeed, soul soothing even for an adherent to Muslim faith like one.

The Vatican's desire to maintain good relations with the Muslim world was given new impetus in the days after the 9/11 attacks on the United States, especially after that famous slip of the tongue by US President George W Bush whereby he used the word ‘crusade’ to depict his war on terrorism.

Recent weeks and months have seen renewed tension between the Western and Muslim worlds, following the publication by Western/European newspapers of the cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). In its search for better relations with the Islamic world, the Catholic Church is turning a spotlight on the role that culture can play in fostering understanding between peoples of different faiths.

Besides the appointment of Archbishop Fitzgerald as a special envoy of the Holly See to Egypt and the 22-member Arab League (based in Cairo), Pope Benedict XVI assigned on March 11 French Cardinal Paul Poupard, the culture minister, the additional responsibility of heading the department for dialogue with non-Christian religions, particularly Islam.

A leading theologian before becoming Pope last April, Benedict has long thought contact with non-Christians should not focus only on religion, where agreement can be difficult if not impossible. The perception among cardinals at the Vatican is that culture should be a better idiom for improving inter-faith ties, since it deals with broader values and norms of a society.

Last August, the Pope, himself of German origin, had told Muslim leaders in Germany that Christian-Muslim dialogue was “a vital necessity on which in large measure our future depends.” On March 16, he repeated this message, by saying that Christians, Jews and Muslims must work together to promote peace and teach respect for religions and their symbols.

Pope Benedict condemned the publication of blasphemous cartoons of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) in Danish and other European newspapers, saying “Judaism, Christianity and Islam believe in one God...It follows, therefore, that all three monotheistic religions are called to cooperate with one another for the common good of humanity, serving the case of justice and peace in the world.”

However, the Pope also said violent protests against the perceived offence were wrong. The talk at the Vatican was that some 150 cardinals discussed the implications of blasphemous cartoon issue for inter-faith relations before last Friday’s consistory to elevate 15 more cardinals.

The closed-door discussion also included the human rights of Christians in some Muslim countries. The Pope’s aides have been stressing the Vatican's view that the rights of minority Christians in Islamic countries had to be respected as part of reciprocity for the religious freedoms available to Muslims in Christian countries.

Of particular concern for the Catholic Church, especially Pope Benedict, was the case of Abdul Rahman, whose appeal was being heard at the Afghan Supreme Court against an earlier Afghan court verdict to put him to death for converting from Islam to Christianity. The Pope had officially called for the charges to be dropped. The verdict by the Afghan Supreme Court to free Abdul Rahman of the charges was, therefore, welcomed by heart by the Pope and his Lieutenants.

While welcoming reciprocity from the Muslim world, the Vatican has shown no hesitation from being at the forefront of Muslim world concerns. For instance, Pope Benedict, like Pope John Paul II, has been a vocal critique of the war in Iraq.

In fact, for quite some time, the Vatican has this tradition of standing for the causes of people facing injustice. Pope John Paul II was, in fact, popularly known as a political Pope, for playing a leading role in the downfall of Soviet Communism. However, he leftist-liberal critics saw hypocrisy in the former Pope’s anti-Communist crusade, as it helped the United States-led Capitalist bloc to suppress genuine Marxist-nationalist movements in Central America.

Like Pope John Paul II, the current Pope believes in universalizing the Church. Three of the 15 new addition of cardinals at the consistory are, for instance, Asian—a Chinese, a Korean and a Filipino. “The Church is not Western. It is catholic,” the Pope said recently, using the term derived from the Greek word for “universal.”

The Pope’s visit to Turkey in November this year is another potentially significant overture towards improving the Catholic Church’s ties with the world of Islam—ties that are always at risk from rhetorical references from an extremist fringe of Islam about the crusades. Pope John Paul II, for his part, had formally apologized to the Muslim world for the crusades.

When he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict had given a controversial interview arguing that Europe's roots are Christian, and that a Muslim country—that is, Turkey—would not fit in. However, after his election, there seems to be a change of heart, as Turkey will be the first Muslim country the new Pope will visit, during which he will also try to improve the Catholic Church’s relationship with Orthodox Christians, whose symbolic head, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, is based in Istanbul.

Islam is the fastest growing religion in Europe, and it is second after Christianity in Europe as well as globally in terms of population. The Catholic Church has the largest number of Christian followers. Given that any initiative pertaining to the world of Christianity’s relationship with the Muslim world taken by Pope Benedict XVI must be taken seriously.