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Why a Vatican expert is skeptical on dialogue with Islam January 10, 2008

One of the Vatican's top experts on Islam has offered a sobering appraisal of the prospects for dialogue between the Holy See and Muslim leaders.

To the casual observer, the progression of events looks promising indeed. In Regensburg, when Pope Benedict challenged Islamic leaders to a reasoned exchange, the first responses were hostile-- even violent-- but eventually a group of 138 prominent Muslim leaders replied with a call for dialogue. In November the Pope asked the leaders of that group to come to Rome for in-depth talks, and in December the Islamic leaders agreed.

But things aren't quite that simple, Father Samir Khalil Samir warns us. When Pope Benedict issued his invitation, he provided a list of topics that should be discussed. When they accepted that invitation, the "Islamic 138" offered their own list of preferred subjects. The lists don't match.

Father Samir-- a Jesuit priest who teaches at both St Joseph's University in Lebanon and the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome-- has made an important contribution to public understanding of the delicate exchanges between Pope Benedict and the Islamic leaders involved in the "Common Word" initiative. Yes, the Muslim leaders have agreed to visit Rome for talks with Vatican officials. But as Father Samir demonstrates in a penetrating AsiaNews analysis, those talks run "a risk of hollowness or falsity if the dialogue addresses theology alone, and not the concrete problems of the two communities."

In all of his efforts to promote dialogue with Islam, Pope Benedict has emphasized the role of human reason, Father Samir points out. The Islamic leaders who have ostensibly answered the Pope's call have failed, thus far, to answer the challenge to discuss topics such as natural law and human rights: topics that can be approached through pure reason, without reference to religious differences.

"It seems to me, in fact," Father Samir writes, "that the Muslim personalities who are in contact with the pope want to dodge fundamental and concrete questions, like human rights, reciprocity, violence, etc, to ensconce themselves in an improbable theological dialogue 'on the soul and God.'"

The Jesuit scholar-- who has been a key figure in discussions between Catholic and Muslim theologians, and sometimes a target of sharp criticism from the Islamic side-- is troubled by the letter in which the leaders of the "Common Word" initiative accepted the Pope's invitation to Rome. In that letter, signed by Prince Ghazi Ibn Talal of Jordan, the Islamic leaders indicate that they hope to discuss matters relating to "our own souls and their inner make-up," rather than political or social questions. In the most trenchant passage of his analysis, Father Samir examines this distinction between the "intrinsic" and "extrinsic" aspects of religious faith:

I find this distinction weak and even un-Islamic. Because if "intrinsic" is the soul and "extrinsic" is the world and society, then the Qur'an speaks a great deal of "extrinsic" things, and very little of "intrinsic" things. The Qur'an talks about the world, commerce, life in society, war, marriage, etc., but it says very little about the soul and one's relationship with God. But above all, the Qur'an never makes this distinction. On the contrary; the problem of Islam is precisely that of not making any sort of distinction between these two levels.

At Regensburg the Pope insisted that religious beliefs must be subject to reason, because "not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God's nature." The Pope is prodding Islamic leaders to acknowledge that their faith has been used, all too often, as a pretext for violence and for denying fundamental human rights. In their public statements, the leaders of the "Common Word" group have failed to respond to that papal challenge.

"The greatest danger of the letter of the 138 is in its silences, in what it does not address," Father Samir notes. The Islamic leaders are ready to speak with Christians about their faith. But if they are not willing to discuss the philosophical and political implications of their beliefs, the dialogue can will be stunted. And the problem is all the more acute, Father Samir reminds us, because in the Islamic tradition there is no real distinction between theology and politics.

To be productive, inter-religious dialogue must be based upon the rule of reason. Through reason, the Pope teaches, Christians and Muslims can reach agreement about human rights in spite of their profound religious differences, since human rights are based on natural law, which can be grasped without the aid of divine revelation.

The "Common Word" Islamic leaders are ready to speak with Christians about their faith. But are they ready to subject their religious statements to the rule of reason? Father Samir doubts that even the most accommodating Muslim leaders are ready to take that step.

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