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Catholicism and Islam sit down to talks

MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political observer Andrei Fedyashin) – Pope Benedict XVI has blessed the creation of a permanent instrument of dialogue between Catholic and Muslim theologians and religious figures.

The first Catholic-Muslim Forum will be held in Rome on November 4-6, the Vatican announced on March 5. The agreement was reached between representatives of the Holy See and five members of a delegation representing the “moderate wing of Islam”. They represented almost all the trends of that world religion and theologians from more than 40 Muslim countries.

The Roman Curia seems to be confident that the very first meeting will be a success. Otherwise it wouldn’t have announced that its participants would be granted an audience with Christ’s Vicar and moreover that another such conference would be held in 2010 in a Muslim country that is yet to be named.

The first stage of the Muslim-Catholic experiment in direct dialogue in Rome will have the shape of a seminar on the theme “Love of God, Love of Neighbor”. The title reveals the goal of the new forum: to try, proceeding from the shared tenets of love of God (Allah, the Beneficent and the Merciful) and love of one’s neighbor in the Muslim and Christian faiths, to find common ground at the “interface of faiths” and put the multibillion army of believers on the road to “mutual respect and understanding”, redirecting the “stray ones” if necessary.

As the Muslim participants in the Vatican meeting have declared, the forum could reconvene at any time in-between scheduled meetings “if emergency global circumstances arise similar to the mass unrest and protests caused by the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in 2006.”

On the whole, the intention is laudable. Vatican had long been expected to take such a step towards dialogue. But the goal will not be easy to reach.

The mutual dislike and hostility in the relations between Christians and Muslims are nothing new, but in the 21st century that old phenomenon got a shot of “growth steroids” in the shape of 9/11 in the United States and the publication of caricatures of the Prophet in Denmark.

It is enough to trace the motives that brought the sides to the dialogue to realize that dealing with Catholic-Muslim relations is skating on very thin ice.

The dialogue arose from a row when Muslims accused the Pontiff of insulting Islam and all Muslims in 2006. It all started when the Pope, delivering a speech at Regensburg University in his native Bavaria, urged the need to cast aside outdated Christian approaches to the Prophet Muhammad, and cited, as an illustration of a biased approach, a tirade by Byzantine emperor Manuel II, who claimed that Islam was “evil and inhumane”. The phrase, plucked out of context, caused an outrage in the Muslim world because it was skillfully “interpreted” and served up by those who had never read or heard the Pontiff. In October of last year a large group of Muslim leaders approached the Pope calling him to a dialogue. He responded and the result is the Rome forum.

Nobody questions that the Christians and Muslims need to understand each other better. This is prompted by the fast-changing demographic and religious map of Europe, where Islam is the fastest growing religion. In 2006, there were 53 million Muslims in Europe, according to the German Central Islamic Archive Institute. Of these, 16 million live in the European Union. Some demographers claim that one in every five Europeans will be a Muslim by 2050, and by 2100 a quarter of all Europeans will preach the Koran. However, these forecasts are not universally accepted.

The secretariat on interreligious affairs of the Jesuit Order, a serious Catholic organization, dismisses the statistics about the growth of the Muslim population. It may have a point. First, it is hard to imagine where all these figures come from if the majority of European countries forbid asking questions about religious affiliation during demographic surveys. The Order’s own studies show that when Muslims join the profoundly secularized European societies their young become Europeanized and the number of believers among them is no greater than among Catholics.

One good illustration of the vagueness of “Muslim statistics” is today’s Russia, which, with certain reservations, may be described as the biggest Muslim country in Europe, although it also covers a large part of Asia. Russian Muslim population is variously estimated at between 14.5 and 20 million. In fact, the CIA claims that there are 26 million Muslims in Russia.

Of course, it remains to be seen how the proposed dialogue will work out. The first question that hardcore skeptics ask in connection with the Vatican-Islamic forum is surprisingly simple: who will represent Islam? If neither the Vatican nor the Islamic world is sure of the answer, is it worth starting a dialogue at all? The supporters of the dialogue respond that it is in any case better than new Crusades.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.