A Different Kind of Dialogue

An increasing number of prelates are expressing forthright concerns about Islam.

Charity in truth”—the title of Pope Benedict’s third encyclical—has been a dominant theme of the current pontificate. The question of how Catholics ought to live out this charity in truth with respect to Islam is one of the most important that the Church faces today. An estimated 1.62 billion out of the world’s 6.9 billion people are Muslims. In comparison, there are approximately 1.18 billion Catholics, 1.12 billion Orthodox and Protestant Christians, 935 million Hindus, 484 million Buddhists, and 15 million Jews. “Interreligious and intercultural dialogue between Christians and Muslims cannot be reduced to an optional extra,” Pope Benedict said in Cologne in 2005. “It is in fact a vital necessity, on which in large measure our future depends.”

It is a question that will assume even greater importance in the decades ahead. According to a report released in January by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, the Muslim population will rise by 700 million in the next two decades. The Muslim share of the world population, which grew from 19.9 percent in 1990 to 23.5 percent in 2010, is expected to rise to 26.4 percent in 2030. In essence, the Muslim share of the world’s population is increasing
because Muslims are more faithful to the core teaching of Humanae Vitae than are non-Muslims: the Pew report found that only 39 percent of women of childbearing years in nations with Muslim majorities use artificial contraception, compared to 58 percent of women in all other nations.

The Church’s current era of relations with Islam began with the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), which taught that the Church “strives ever to proclaim the Gospel to all men” and that the “one true religion subsists in the Catholic and Apostolic Church, to which the Lord Jesus committed the duty of spreading it abroad among all men.” In the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate), the Council fathers stated that “the Church regards with esteem also the Muslims,” emphasized what Muslims and Christians hold in common, and urged “all to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual understanding.” The teaching and tone of Nostra Aetate are not unprecedented; in a letter to a North African Muslim king, Pope St. Gregory VII (1073-85) said much the same thing.

Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have seen in Islam an ally against secularist materialism. This alliance was most manifest at the United Nations population conference in Cairo in 1994, when the Holy See, working with Muslim nations, turned back the Clinton administration’s eff orts to enshrine abortion as an international human right.

In line with the teaching of Nostra Aetate, Pope Benedict has said that “past experience teaches us that, unfortunately, relations between Christians and Muslims have not always been marked by mutual respect and understanding. How many pages of history record battles and wars that have been waged, with both sides invoking the name of God, as if fi ghting and killing the enemy could be pleasing to him. The recollection of these sad events should fill us with shame, for we know only too well what atrocities have been committed in the name of religion.”

While emphasizing the need for mutual forgiveness of past events, the popes have not failed to condemn the violence that is currently being committ ed in the name of religion, as well as violations against religious liberty. “Time and again, the Pope has condemned violence against all people—not only that which is perpetrated against Christians,” Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi noted in January. Pope Benedict also further deepened Muslim-Christian dialogue by discussing the role of reason in the two faiths. Repeating an essential message from his famed 2006 Regensburg lecture,

Pope Benedict called upon Muslim leaders at a mosque in Amman in 2009 “to cultivate for the good, in the context of faith and truth, the vast potential of human reason.”

Within this context, a small but increasing number of bishops have broached other topics, with a tone palpably diff erent from most papal statements. In Europe and in Africa, prelates have asked pointedly how Muslim immigration will affect their societies. In Australia, a cardinal has questioned the extent to which Islam is compatible with Western democracy. And at the last Synod of Bishops, Syrian Catholic prelates issued a cride coeur on the causes of the persecution of Christians in the Middle East.

“The fall of Europe is looming”

Father Miroslav Vlk was no friend of Czech communism. Three years after his 1968 ordination, he was ordered to limit his ministry to small towns. Forbidden to exercise his priestly ministry from 1978 to 1988, he worked as a window- washer and bank employee. In 1990, following the Velvet Revolution, Pope John Paul named him a bishop. The next year he became archbishop of Prague, and in 1994 he received a cardinal’s red hat.

In a radically secularized culture— only 28 percent of Czechs believe in God—Cardinal Vlk has expressed deep concern about Islamic immigration. According to the Pew Forum’s study, the number of European Muslims has risen from 29.6 million in 1990 (4 percent of the population) to 44.1 million in 2010 (6 percent). In 2030, the projected 58.2 million Muslims will comprise 8 percent of Europe’s population. Analysts differ widely in their predictions of when Europe may have a Muslim majority.

In January 2010, a month before his retirement, Cardinal Vlk spoke about Muslim immigration and the future of Europe. “At the end of the Middle Ages and in the early modern age, Islam failed to conquer Europe with arms,” he said, echoing comments he had made the previous year. “The Christians beat them then. Today, the fighting is done with spiritual weapons, which Europe lacks, while Muslims are perfectly armed. The fall of Europe is looming. If Europe doesn’t change its relation to its own roots, it will be Islamized.”

“Europe will pay dearly for having left its spiritual foundations,” he added. Between immigration and higher birthrates, the growth of the Muslim population is a matter of “simple mathematics.” But in the future “there may also come a wave of conversions to Islam” as Europeans seek something more than the “spiritual emptiness of their lifestyle.”

This wave of conversions may already have begun. Some 5,200 Britons convert to Islam each year, and 62 percent are women, according to a recent survey; the average convert is 27 years old.

“Unfortunately, Cardinal Vlk is, I think, correct in his fears concerning Europe,” says Dr. Sandra Keating, a theology professor at Providence College. Keating, who serves as a member of the Mid-Atlantic Muslim-Catholic Dialogue and a consultor to the Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations with Muslims, told CWR that

Western Christians and secularists have convinced themselves that what they hold dear—separation between Church and state, individual rights and freedoms, the understanding of human dignity and equality of all human beings, democracy and tolerance, our understanding of just war, pacifism, etc.—has come about in opposition to Christian hegemony. In fact, I believe all of these concepts have deep roots in the Christian intellectual tradition and find their foundation in the Trinitarian, incarnational, and sacramental theology of Christians. The assumption that Muslims will buy into them because they are not tied to a religious tradition, but rather what all human beings long for, is quite naïve.… In fact, there is very little in Islamic tradition to support the concepts mentioned above, and liberal Muslims today are working hard to build an Islamic vision that can be viable in the modern world. It is a tough row to hoe.

“I have assumed that spiritual values belong to the foundations of human identity,” Cardinal Vlk told CWR a year after his retirement. Stating that he wished to compare “the cultural world of Islam with Europe, which sprang from Christian roots,” Cardinal Vlk said that “these values have important consequences for further development,” as indicated by his comments. “Europe needs to find its own identity; otherwise it will be very difficult to construct its own unity without these foundations.”

“Unfortunately there were not many reactions” from Catholics to his comments, he added. “I think that the dangerous consequences of this development that I described are not taken seriously by some.”

Prelates’ concerns about the consequences of Muslim immigration are not limited to the Czech Republic. Cape Verde, a largely Catholic island nation 300 miles off the coast of Senegal, is in “danger of invasion by Islamic force, due to the big immigration of brethren from the nearby continent and the perspective of a big investment of Islam,” Bishop Arlindo Gomes Furtado, the nation’s leading prelate, said at the 2009 Synod of Bishops for Africa.

“We’re at a turning point in the religious history of our country,” reported Archbishop Jean-Pierre Catt enoz of Avignon, France, in December 2010. “Gallic families, traditionally Christian, have on average two children. Muslims families living in France have most often four, five, six children.… I have spent 15 years in Muslim lands. I am prepared to live in a France with a Muslim majority. I simply wonder about the conditions in which we’ll live together.”

Islam and Western democracies

Like Popes John Paul and Benedict, Cardinal George Pell of Sydney believes that Catholics and Muslims can work together to combat the forces of secularism. On the day he became archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal Pell preached that “all monotheists, Christians and Jews, Muslims and Sikhs, must…not allow the situation to deteriorate as it had in Elijah’s time, 850 years before Christ, where monotheism was nearly swamped by an aggressive paganism, by the followers of Baal.” Cardinal Pell has also noted his commitment to Muslim-Catholic dialogue. In the past decade, Cardinal Pell has referred to Islam more than 20 times in his homilies and other writings. He developed his reflections at greatest length in his 2006 address “Islam and Western Democracies.”

“Can Islam and the Western democracies live together peacefully?” the Australian cardinal asked. “Views on this question range from naïve optimism to bleakest pessimism.” He elaborated:

Most ordinary people, both Muslim and non-Muslim, share the desire for peace, stability and prosperity for themselves and their families. On the pessimistic side of the equation, concern begins with the Qur’an itself. In my own reading of the Qur’an, I began to note down invocations to violence. There are so many of them, however, that I abandoned this exercise after 50 or 60 or 70 pages. … It is difficult to recognize the God of the New Testament in the God of the Qur’an, and two very different concepts of the human person have emerged from the Christian and Muslim understandings of God. … The history of relations between Muslims on the one hand and Christians and Jews on the other does not always offer reasons for optimism in the way that some people easily assume. The claims of Muslim tolerance of Christian and Jewish minorities are largely mythical, as the history of Islamic conquest and domination in the Middle East, the Iberian Peninsula and the Balkans makes abundantly clear. … The history of Islam’s detrimental impact on economic and cultural development at certain times and in certain places returns us to the nature of Islam itself. … Considered strictly on its own terms, Islam is not a tolerant religion and its capacity for far-reaching renovation is severely limited. To stop at this proposition, however, is to neglect the way these facts are mitigated or exacerbated by the human factor. History has more than its share of surprises.

“Every great nation and religion has shadows and indeed crimes in their histories,” Cardinal Pell continued. “This is certainly true of Catholicism and all Christian denominations. We should not airbrush these out of history, but confront them and then explain our present att itude to them. These are also legitimate requests for our Islamic partners in dialogue. … Can we discuss Islamic history and even the hermeneutical problems around the origins of the Qur’an without threats of violence?”

Australian Muslims have taken issue with Cardinal Pell’s address. “Cardinal Pell would do well to pursue his research on Islam with a more balanced approach,” Sherene Hassan of the Islamic Council of Victoria wrote in The Age in 2006. “George Pell has failed to contextualize the invocations to violence in the Koran. … When Islam started in Arabia, the Muslims suffered extreme persecution at the hands of the pagan Arabs, who worshipped 360 idols. … After the Muslims endured 11 years of intense suffering, verses were revealed in the Koran by God instructing them to fight against the disbelievers.”

“Cardinal Pell’s statements had no significant impact on either Muslims or Catholics,” Omer Atilla of the Australian Intercultural Society told CWR. “The majority of Catholic archbishops in Australia do not think like Cardinal Pell and encourage Catholic-Muslim dialogue.”

“The cardinal’s knowledge is not as extensive as it should [be] and certainly not as extensive for someone who wants to make such definitive statements on Islam,” said Salman Sayyid, director of the International Centre for Muslim and Non-Muslim Understanding at the University of South Australia. Sayyid told CWR that “many of the elements of his lecture replayed some of the neoconservative themes, for example that the Qur’an is inherently violent; thus it added more heat than light on a topic which animates much public discourse.”

“An important point is that one should not confuse religion with some of its followers,” adds Atilla. “There is no doubt that there are misguided individuals in the Islamic community, just as there are misguided individuals in the Christian and Jewish communities. We cannot blame religion for the violence committed by these people.”

“Although [Cardinal Pell’s] general intuition and concerns are correct, it is very unfortunate that he has relied on writers whose theories have not been substantiated in the scholarly community,” says Keating, finding fault with authors cited by the cardinal on the origins of the Qur’an. “What this has done is cast doubt on much of what the cardinal has said and written, even when it is true. For example, he has drawn attention to the complexity of Christians and Jews living under Muslim rule in Spain and in the Ottoman Empire, but this has not gained much hearing. These places are continually held up by Muslims and others as potential models for today with little regard for the reality of daily life for most people at the time.”

Cardinal Pell “has continually pointed out the dangers of assuming that Muslim immigrants will make a seamless transition to modern democracy once they accept the ‘obvious’ separation of religion from state and culture, a point that I completely agree with,” she adds.

While few prelates have echoed Cardinal Pell’s remarks, he is not alone, nor are his concerns confined to the West. In 2009, Archbishop Norbert Mtega of Songea, Tanzania, expressed concerns about Islam and democracy in East Africa. Tanzania a nation of 41 million people, is 30 percent Catholic and 35 percent Muslim.

“We love Muslims,” Archbishop Mtega said at the 2009 Synod of Bishops. “It is our history and culture to live with them. But the danger which threatens Africa’s freedom, sovereignty, democracy, and human rights is first the Islamic political factor—that is, the intended plan and the clear process of identifying Islam with politics and vice versa in each of our African countries. Secondly, it is the Islamic monetary factor, whereby huge sums of money from outside countries are being poured in our countries to destabilize peace in our countries and to eradicate Christianity.”

Islam and Mideast Christians

The Syrian Catholic Church, an Eastern Church in communion with the Holy See, has 159,000 members, principally in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon, and the United States. At the 2010 Synod of Bishops for the Middle East, Syrian Catholic prelates were particularly forthright about the persecution they face. Archbishop Basile Casmoussa of Mosul, who was kidnapped and released by terrorists in 2005, rued “the waves of terrorism inspired by religious ideologies, Islamic or totalitarian, denying even the principle of equality, to benefi t a fundamental negation which crushes minorities, among which are Christians, the most vulnerable.”

Noting “the alarming decrease of births among Christians, faced with an ever-growing natality among Muslims,” Archbishop Casmoussa lamented “the unjust accusation against Christians of being troops loaned or led by and for the so-called Christian West, and thus considered as parasites in the nation. Present and active here well before Islam, they feel undesired in their own home, which becomes more and more a ‘Dar al-Islam’ [abode of Islam].” The archbishop compared the elimination of Iraqi Catholics to the Armenian genocide and warned that Eastern Catholics in the Middle East have “undergone the same historic fate of dhimmitude, the future being shaded for all by the same symptoms of disaggregation.”

Archbishop Flavien Melki, who serves in the Church’s patriarchal curia, asked the other synod fathers:

Is it even thinkable that the Arabic countries of the Middle East, where fundamentalism is becoming more entrenched, will accept in the near future abandoning their theocratic regimes founded on the Qur’an and the Sharia, which constitute flagrant discrimination towards non-Muslims? To me this seems to be in the domain of utopia, for the centuries to come. Apart from Lebanon, Middle Eastern Christians, who number about 15 million, have been for the past 14 centuries submitt ed to forms of multiple persecution, massacres, discrimination, taxation, and humiliation. Even today, in the third millennium, we watch powerless, with a wounded heart, the trials of our brothers in Iraq and their massive exodus.

Archbishop Emeritus Raboula Beylouni said he “wished to draw att ention on the points that make [dialogue] encounters diffi cult and often ineff ective,” adding:

In the Qur’an, men and women are not equal, not even in marriage itself where the man takes several wives and can divorce at his pleasure; nor in the heritage where man takes double; nor in the testifying before judges where the voice of one man is equal to the voice of two women. The Qur’an allows the Muslim to hide the truth from the Christian, and to speak and act contrary to how he thinks and believes. In the Qur’an, there are contradictory verses which annul others, which gives the Muslim the possibility of using one or the other to his advantage, and therefore he can tell the Christian that he is humble and pious and believes in God, just as he can treat him as impious, apostate, and idolatrous.

The Qur’an gives the Muslim the right to judge Christians and to kill them for the jihad (the holy war). It commands the imposition of religion through force, with the sword. The history of invasions bears witness to this. This is why the Muslims do not recognize religious freedom, for themselves or for others. And it isn’t surprising to see all the Arab countries and Muslims refusing the whole of the “human rights” instituted by the United Nations. Faced with all these interdictions and other similar att itudes should one suppress dialogue? Of course not. But the themes that can be discussed should be chosen carefully, and capable and well-trained Christians chosen as well, as well as those who are courageous and pious, wise and prudent…who tell the truth with clarity and conviction.

“We must act quickly to reform the Islamic regimes,” Archbishop Melki added. “Middle Eastern Christians by themselves cannot achieve this goal. They must be helped by the universal Church and the democratic nations. The Holy See could intervene in this with the countries with which they have diplomatic relations. European countries, the United States and the countries that respect human rights should put pressure on all levels on the regimes that infringe [upon] the inalienable rights of the human being, to lead them to reform their laws, inspired by the Islamic Sharia, that treat religious minorities like second class citizens. And why not ask the international tribunals to plead the cause of Christians, victims of discrimination, and demand that Islamic countries treat their Christian subjects, following the example of the European states, who give Muslim minorities, who have become citizens, the same rights as the original inhabitants?”

Two months later, the head of the Syrian Catholic Church spoke in a tone more consistent with the typical tenor of Muslim-Catholic dialogue. Addressing the First International Congress of Muslim-Christian Brotherhood in Damascus, Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan said that “Muslims and Christians should live in peace together and should witness to their common life in Syria in peace to all humanity,” adding, “We are full of hope to cooperate with the grace of God more closely with our Muslim brothers and sisters in the future…. The first and most important issue is to condemn all terrorism, particularly terrorism in the name of a religion.”


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About J. J. Ziegler 55 Articles
J. J. Ziegler writes from North Carolina.