First of two parts
Rome, (ZENIT.org): The tragic, violent events of the past days in Beirut and Paris, as well as the recent downing of a Russian plane fill us all with rage, horror and fear and cause many of us to ask: “Is there still space for dialogue with Muslims?” The answer is: yes, now more than ever.
When I returned to Canada in 1994 after having spent the final four years of my graduate studies in Sacred Scripture in Jerusalem, I was certain of one thing: Islam was becoming a growing, global concern and a great pastoral challenge for the Catholic church. Not many people believed me when I shared this with them! Though my biblical studies were at the French Dominican-run Ecole Biblique de Jérusalem and at the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus, I lived in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City. Many of my neighbors and friends were Muslims. I learned Arabic, studied the Koran, and delighted in the Middle Eastern hospitality that the Palestinian people offered so graciously.
In my visits and lecturing in the neighboring Arab lands of Palestine, Jordan, the Sinai and Egypt, I was very struck by the image of believers in Allah who, without caring about time or place, fell to their knees in prayer several times each day. I did not see such scenes in the great Christian cathedrals of Europe, which in many cases had become museums for throngs of paying tourists. I learned that Islam has a total organization of life that is completely different from the Catholic one: Islam embraces everything. The Muslim call to prayer: “Allahu akbar” was never meant to be a call to kill, destroy, mame and cause untold havoc and terror.
Those years in the Holy Lands for me included the first Palestinian Intifada and the first Persian Gulf War. I prayed with my Jewish friends at weekly Shabbat services and High Holy Days at the Hebrew Union College and heard vivid stories of poverty, injustice, and anger from my Palestinian friends. I experienced Ramadan with my neighbors, broke the fast with them, heard about “jihad,” the reality of suicide bombers, the growing phenomenon of false martyrdom, and witnessed the tremendous power that Muslim clerics had over their congregations. Some of this was very frightening to discover and witness.
The recent horrific events in Beirut and Paris, as well as the Russian plane tragedy, and the fallout thereafter have brought back the memories of my Middle Eastern experiences. As a believer in the One God, a Catholic priest, educator and one working in international media, I am convinced now more than ever that dialogue between our religions must combine both an awareness of what we have in common and what profoundly distinguishes our traditions. Islam is not a uniform religion. In fact, there is no single authority for all Muslims, and for this reason dialogue with Islam is always dialogue with various groups. No one can speak for Islam as a whole; it has no commonly regarded orthodoxy. This is not a strength. Muslims believe that the Koran comes directly from God. This makes it difficult for the Koran to be subjected to the same sort of critical analysis and reflection that has taken place among Christians and Jews over the Bible and the New Testament.
There is a noble Islam, embodied, for example, by the Kings of Morocco and Jordan, and there is also the extremist, terrorist Islam, which we must not identify with Islam as a whole; this would be a grave injustice. ISIS is not Islam. ISIS and any form of terrorism in the name of God is an aberration of religion. ISIS’ manipulation and distortion of the massive refugee crisis to infiltrate terrorists into other countries is criminal and evil. ISIS’ reign of terror, immobilizing peoples to act and filling them with fear is evil. We must distinguish between true religion and the twisted religion used to justify hatred and violence. True religion leads people to healing and peace and desires to make the world a better place. True religion respects the sacredness and dignity of the human person. True religion invites people to respond to crises with mercy, charity and hospitality.
In August 2005, after meeting with Jews at a synagogue in Cologne, Germany, during the Cologne World Youth Day, Pope-emeritus Benedict XVI met with representatives of some Muslim communities. His prophetic words then are important for the world to hear today:
“I am certain that I echo your own thoughts when I bring up one of our concerns as we notice the spread of terrorism. I know that many of you have firmly rejected, also publicly, in particular any connection between your faith and terrorism and have condemned it. I am grateful to you for this, for it contributes to the climate of trust that we need.
Terrorist activity is continually recurring in various parts of the world, plunging people into grief and despair. Those who instigate and plan these attacks evidently wish to poison our relations and destroy trust, making use of all means, including religion, to oppose every attempt to build a peaceful and serene life together.
Thanks be to God, we agree on the fact that terrorism of any kind is a perverse and cruel choice which shows contempt for the sacred right to life and undermines the very foundations of all civil coexistence.
If together we can succeed in eliminating from hearts any trace of rancor, in resisting every form of intolerance and in opposing every manifestation of violence, we will turn back the wave of cruel fanaticism that endangers the lives of so many people and hinders progress towards world peace.
…The task is difficult but not impossible. The believer – and all of us, as Christians and Muslims, are believers – knows that, despite his weakness, he can count on the spiritual power of prayer. —
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Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB is the English language attaché for the Holy See Press Office and CEO of Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation
Part 2, the conclusion, of this Forum analysis will come out tomorrow.