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Vatican offers symbols of harmony

NCR Staff
Rome and Assisi, Italy

Symbols sometimes go where words cannot -- or dare not -- follow, and for advocates of détente among the world’s religions, a Vatican-sponsored summit of spiritual leaders Oct. 24-28 produced some remarkable symbolism.

When a Hindu woman took John Paul II’s hand and pressed it tenderly to her cheek during a glitzy concluding ceremony on the steps of St. Peter’s, or when Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze processed into the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi alongside Buddhist priests and Muslim imams, as soaring organ music filled the air, the imagery seemed to hint at a new phase in the quest for religious unity.

How much substance lies beneath the symbols, however, remains to be seen.

Because the summit deliberately avoided the most contentious issues dividing the world’s religions, it was unclear how these gestures would actually affect relations. Plans for follow-up were left similarly fuzzy.

It was also never clarified how a commitment to interreligious progress can be reconciled with the Vatican’s recent track record of censuring theologians who offer positive treatments of religious pluralism.

Arinze’s Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue sponsored the four days of talks for 230 representatives of 20 religions, including indigenous groups from America, Africa and Asia (though 98 Christians formed almost half of the participants, with 71 of them Catholics). Delegates came from 48 countries.

Most of the time was spent in small groups organized by language. There were eight groups in English and two in French.

The event was styled as a successor to a gathering of spiritual leaders convoked by John Paul II in Assisi in 1986. That event, however, was a day of prayer for peace; this was intended as a working session for people involved in interreligious dialogue. Three days were spent in Rome. The pilgrimage to Assisi came on Oct. 27, the anniversary of the 1986 gathering.

Thorn in the flesh

The assembly ended with a common declaration rejecting “fanaticism, extremism and mutual antagonisms which lead to violence” -- a statement with obvious relevance in light of conflicts from Chechnya to the Sudan in which religion plays a role.

Participants agreed that resisting extremism is among the core challenges facing mainstream religious bodies. “Fundamentalism will be the thorn in the flesh of the third millennium,” said Judith Mbula Bahemuka, a Catholic from Kenya.

Despite repeated invocations of the “spirit of Assisi,” a shadow from the 1986 gathering hung over the assembly. That day had been bitterly criticized by Catholic traditionalists, and even some members of the Roman curia, on the grounds that it seemed to place all religions on the same level -- that it gave the appearance of relativism and even “syncretism,” the blending of elements of different religious traditions.

At the time, in a rare public break with the pope, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican’s top doctrinal officer, said of the 1986 gathering, “This cannot be the model.”

Vatican officials went to great lengths to avoid similar controversy this time. Arinze stressed that delegates were to “leave aside speculative discussion,” that “listening” was the prime objective. Participants would not pray together, Arinze insisted, because “prayer depends on what you believe, and we do not believe the same things.”

Officially, journalists were discouraged from even going to Assisi to witness the pilgrimage, though most reporters made the trip.

Instead of prayer, there was a joint “moment of silence” in front of St. Francis’ tomb in Assisi -- and TV cameras and still photographers were blocked from the area lest images of anything that looked like common prayer be beamed around the world.

Even these precautions were not enough to prevent the Society of Pius X, the group that formed around schismatic Latin Mass champion Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, from staging a “day of reparation” for the assembly, concluding with eucharistic adoration in a Roman church. The group called it a “blasphemy” that the pope had called together representatives of “20 false religions.”

The effort to avoid controversy frustrated some participants. “The conversations were really not very deep, to be honest,” said Mohammad Sammak, a scholar and chair of a Christian/Muslim dialogue in Beirut, Lebanon.

“The meeting is trying to do the right things, but I wish it would have been more concrete and to the point,” he said. Sammak served as a special representative to the special synod of bishops on Lebanon in 1995.

The interreligious gathering came just after the close of the Oct. 1-23 European Synod, where some speakers voiced alarm about rising levels of Muslim immigration. One warned of the possible “Islamicization” of Europe. Though the assembly did not address these fears, they were clearly on the minds of Muslim delegates.

“This idea of Europe becoming Islamicized is an exaggeration,” said Kamel Al-Sharif, former minister of Islamic affairs for the government of Jordan. “Immigrants are coming into Europe to find work, not to spread Islam.”

Both Sammak and Al-Sharif spoke in interviews with NCR.

Al-Sharif said support for better Muslim-Christian relations has gained ground in recent years in the Islamic world. “When we first started, our own friends would ridicule us, would say that we have sold out Islam to sit down with the infidels. Now these same people want to sit down with us,” he said.

“The mainstream within Islam is for dialogue rather than confrontation,” Al-Sharif said. “But we cannot pretend that other views, on both sides, do not exist.”

Sammak said that Europe’s Muslim immigrants tend to become more militant than they were in their native countries. “The Turks who are going into Germany forgot they’re Muslims at home, but when they get to Europe the first thing they want to do is build a mosque,” he said.

Sammak said that Muslims have little experience living as a minority. “The laws of Islam are based on Muslims being the rulers,” he said. “It will take time for immigrants to sort out how they can maintain their religious identity in harmony with their neighbors.”

Despite the tensions created by migration, Al-Sharif said Europe has an obligation to find ways to respond positively.

“One should not forget that these are the old colonial powers, who are largely responsible for the situations in Algeria, in Africa,” Sharif said. “It’s a matter of justice for them to carry some of the burden.”

The Latin-rite bishop of Tripoli, Giovanni Martinelli, told reporters that he disagreed with a bishop from Turkey who voiced fears about Islam at the European Synod. “I fear the Christians who don’t live in a Christian way in the Muslim countries more than I fear the Muslims,” Martinelli said.

One often-voiced complaint about Islam from Christians is about “reciprocity” -- meaning that Islamic nations should permit the same religious freedom found in Western nations. Arinze raised the issue in his intervention at the European Synod.

Al-Sharif said Westerners must understand that the demand for reciprocity cuts both ways. “In Jordan, there is a former foreign minister who is a Christian. When it came Jordan’s turn to chair the World Muslim Congress, this man, a Christian, became chair of the Muslim Congress,” Sharif said.

Claiming Christians

“At this time he took part in a Muslim delegation to the Vatican, and I remember him asking the pope and the cardinals: ‘When will we see a similar kind of tolerance in Western nations?’ There are no Muslim ministers in European governments, even though there are many qualified for the jobs,” Al-Sharif said.

Sammak voiced annoyance at the way Christian leaders in the West sometimes “claim” Christians in the Middle East whenever disputes between Christians and Muslims arise. “These people are not Westerners, they are part of the Middle East, and their future is part of the future of the Middle East itself,” Sammak said. “The Europeans and Americans should not exploit situations to drive wedges between us.”

Both men said that only in Saudi Arabia are severe restrictions imposed on the practice of other religions -- and that the policy has it origins in the sacred status Muslims accord to the Arabian Peninsula.

Al-Sharif said the peninsula has a status for Muslims similar to Vatican City for Catholics. “You don’t see any mosques inside the Vatican,” he said.

He added that the Saudi government is aware that the country’s tiny Christian population does hold services in house churches, and it tolerates the practice.

Sammak said he thinks the Saudis should be more accommodating. “The prophet even invited Christians to pray inside his own mosque,” he said. “I don’t see why they shouldn’t be allowed to build churches.”

Sammak said that while the interreligious assembly had generated some new friendships, it left the big questions hanging.

Likewise, the assembly skirted the most contentious issue currently facing the Catholic/Jewish relationship: the possible beatification of Pope Pius XII, whose role during World War II remains deeply controversial.

One Jewish delegate told NCR that the debate over Pius was “a side issue” in the relationship. “Only in the media do you hear about it,” said Ron Kronish, an American-born rabbi who runs an interreligious group in Israel.

For other Jewish participants, however, the controversy over Pius was very much alive.

“I do not believe it serves the interests of the Roman Catholic church to proceed with this beatification,” said David Sobel, rabbi of the largest synagogue in São Paolo, Brazil. “Beatifying the pope of silence, instead of condemning the omission that helped lead to the annihilation of millions of Jews, would be to close one’s eyes to the truth,” Sobel said.

Sobel, who pulled two journalists aside in Assisi to make his statement, called the debate over Pius “a matter of grave moral implications.”

“We cannot look forward without looking back,” Sobel said.

Another Jewish leader at the assembly told NCR that he believes that the Vatican understands how Jews would react to the beatification of Pius XII, and for that reason the effort will not go forward.

Pius XII and sainthood

“I have this on the authority of decision-makers in the Vatican,” said Sigmund Sternberg, an English businessman and a longtime veteran of interreligious dialogue. Sternberg is among only a handful of Jews to hold papal knighthoods (he is a knight commander of St. Gregory; his wife is the only Jewish dame of St. Sylvester).

“The Vatican cannot issue denials” every time someone reports that beatification is imminent, Sternberg said. But as with the rumored beatification of Queen Isabella of Spain -- under whose authority Spanish Jews were forcibly converted -- Sternberg says he is confident the Vatican will not proceed.

Sternberg was involved in the negotiations in 1988 that led to the removal of hundreds of small crosses from Auschwitz. “I was told the army and the police would never do it,” he said. “These things take time, but the Vatican is listening.”

He said that Catholic/Jewish relations have “never been better.”

Sternberg said, however, that if the Vatican did proceed, it would be “harmful” for relations with Jews. “Pius could have saved the Jewish community in Rome,” Sternberg said. “I do not believe it would be justified to beatify him.”

Though five Hindu delegates from India were present, the assembly did not address the pope’s trip to India (scheduled for Nov. 5 and 6) to present the concluding document from the 1998 Synod for Asia. The visit has been bitterly criticized by Hindu nationalists who charge that Christians are coercing poor Indians into conversion.

The resentment in India has spilled over into violence, as several Christian clergy -- including Catholic priests and nuns -- have been beaten, harassed or murdered in recent months. Australian Protestant missionary Graham Staines and his two sons (ages 8 and 10) were burned alive in their jeep in early 1999.

Several Hindu groups have published demands in newspapers that the pope declare that following Jesus Christ was not the only means toward salvation. They also demanded the pope ban conversions and apologize for the killings and forced conversions in India’s Portuguese colonies of the 16th century. Many Hindus were outraged when the U.S. Southern Baptist church recently published 40,000 prayer books that lobby for funds to convert Indians “lost in the hopeless darkness of Hinduism.”

The only mention of the papal trip came during the concluding ceremony, when Hindu delegate Usha Mehta departed from her prepared text to add two final points. She asked forgiveness on behalf of all Indians for “gruesome violence against Christian missionaries by some misguided Indians,” and she said all Indians would deliver a “hearty and cordial welcome” to the pope in November.

Despite the effort to steer clear of potential flash points, participants were able to agree on a call for greater interreligious collaboration. They asked world leaders to work to eradicate poverty and pledged to seek forgiveness for past wrongs committed in the name of religion.

Lady Rosalind Preston, a Jewish delegate from England, spoke of the need for a “healing of memory” about sins committed in the name of religion.

Delegates emphasized the need for education about religions. They pledged to encourage the media to report religious issues responsibly and to work to ensure that textbooks offer balanced presentations of religious subjects.

Exactly how these statements would be translated into action was not clarified. English Bishop Michael Fitzgerald, Arinze’s secretary at the Council for Interreligious Dialogue, told reporters there was no plan for another meeting like this one. Instead, he encouraged local groups involved in dialogue to “continue this movement in various ways.”

Kenya’s Mbula Bahemuka said that if there is to be another summit of religious leaders, it should be held outside Europe. “A conference like this in a Third World country would make a much bigger impact than in Rome,” she said.

No discussion of disciplined Jesuit

The taboo within the assembly on controversial matters extended not only to disputed points between the religions, but also to Catholicism’s own self-understanding.

Several Catholic theologians who work in the area of religious pluralism have become the objects of doctrinal investigations in recent months, most notably Belgian Jesuit Fr. Jacques Dupuis of Rome’s Gregorian University.

Though the Vatican has not officially revealed the grounds for the Dupuis review, sources in Rome say Ratzinger’s office believes that Dupuis sacrifices too much of Christ’s uniqueness in order to claim that the Eternal Word is active in other religions.

Retired Cardinal Franz König of Austria, an expert in interreligious relations who helped draft Nostra Aetate, warned the congregation that its treatment of Dupuis threatened to cast a chill over the entire dialogue process.

Arinze rejected suggestions of conflict between hosting summits for religious leaders and disciplining theologians who affirm pluralism.

“There is no mixed message, except for those who have not studied carefully what the theological discussion is,” Arinze said at a Vatican news conference, in response to a question from NCR. “Theology motivates and directs our action. It must be based on good theology.”

Arinze declined to comment on the Dupuis case. He seemed annoyed at the question, saying, “it’s not fair, it’s not right” for him to speak about a specific theologian.

“The style of dialogue in the life of the church is something new, something really started by John XXIII,” Arinze said. “So theological investigation has some distance to cover. This means that none of us has all the answers.”

Despite the deliberate ambiguity about what comes next, as well as the decision not to engage tough questions, organizers of the assembly said that the very act of bringing people together had value. Standing in St. Peter’s Square Oct. 28 for the concluding ceremony, one did have the sense of something exceptional happening.

The soundtrack for the evening came from Gen Rosso, a youth-oriented, multi-lingual rock band connected with the Focolare movement. The group had composed a snappy number called “Vive!” for the event, which they belted out several times. During the last reprise, the crowd roared approval as a Jewish choir made up of cantors sporting tuxedoes and yarmulkes started to clap and sway along to the beat.

At one point several thousand people held small candles aloft, and as the light bounced off the cobblestones, the square literally seemed to shimmer with good will. (The moment of silence was robbed of some of its magic, however, as dozens of Italy’s wildly popular cellular phones repeatedly broke through the quiet).

In the end, perhaps the symbolism made its own statement.

“The church has to be a church in dialogue,” Bishop Michael Fitzgerald, secretary of the Council for Interreligious Dialogue, told NCR. “We have to be concerned with the whole of humanity, thus including people of different religious beliefs. We have to acknowledge one another, respect one another and live peacefully together.

“That’s what this is all about.”

National Catholic Reporter, November 12, 1999