Australia’s Melkite BISHOP ISSAM JOHNDARWISH says those who have reacted dramatically to Pope Benedict’s recent speech on Muslims have missed the point, and that the speech is one of the most important statements concerning interfaith and intercultural dialogue
TO begin, permit me to express my deep sorrow at certain events which followed the misunderstanding of the academic address delivered by His Holiness, Pope Benedict XVI, during his recent visit to the University of Regensburg.
This address must surely rank amongst the most important statements concerning interfaith and intercultural dialogue.
Indeed, the words of the Holy Father touch upon the mystery of the human person at its most profound.
If we read the text of the address with care and without haste, paying particular attention to its contents, we cannot but conclude that the Pope’s comments are directed at those educated in philosophy, theology and the human sciences.
Surely the very title of the address alerts us to this fact, “The Relationship Between Faith and Mind”.
The Pope commences his address with his memories of university life.
He then focuses on what is the thread running through the speech, that the resort to violence conforms neither to the Divine Nature nor to the nature of the human soul.
To this he introduces a second observation, the person who does not make full use of his mind, his reason, works against the will of God.
During his address, the Pope introduced an account of a dialogue between the 14th century Christian Emperor Manuel II Palaeologos and a Persian Muslim intellectual.
It was a rather minor textual component not essential to the general content of the address.
As the Pope had already said, his principal concern was to examine, however briefly, the issue of faith and mind, faith and intellect.
And here the Holy Father focuses on a particular idea, that there can be no dialogue except through the discovery of mind.
It is obvious that the address is formed very much by the Pope’s personal philosophical background – a philosophy firmly grounded in the best traditions of Hellenism.
He speaks of an authentic meeting between the true enlightenment and religion – and that this meeting of enlightenment and religion was one of the foundational components of Western civilisation.
However, as much as we might admire Western civilisation, that does not mean that it is beyond criticism.
In his address the Pope focuses on the mind and criticises the Western intellectual problem which is a part of the Western Christian milieu.
He goes on to ask how we can dialogue with the world, whilst at the same time, rejecting the very religious experience which is basic to the world itself!
As he put it, “No dialogue without the discovery of the mind!”
The first question to be asked is: Why have we faced such an extraordinary reaction from some of our Muslim brothers?
Those who do react so dramatically proceed from the few sentences introduced by the Pope recounting the conversation between the Emperor and the Persian scholar and by which the Holy Father meant to arrive at the proposition that violence is against both the nature of God and the nature of the human soul.
He chose not to speak about the Muslim concept of jihad nor did he express an opinion concerning jihad.
Rather, he wished to reach his central argument that the very nature of God and violence are incompatible, and, that so opposed are they that it is not possible for anyone to use a religious or theological argument to legitimise violence.
It is distressing that violent reactions did come from those who seem not to have read the Pope’s address in an objective way.
It is also to be regretted that some of the Western and Arabic media, and notably Al Jazeera, chose to adopt an inflammatory stance rather than one of reasoned influence guiding public opinion and debate to a more rational interfaith dialogue, especially between Christianity and Islam.
It is also very disappointing that those who worked to direct a negative public response at the Holy Father forgot – or wanted to forget – that the Vatican strongly opposed the war in Iraq, and, indeed, that the Holy See has been generally supportive of Arab and Muslim positions in matters of justice, especially the problems faced by the Palestinians.
As an Arabic Christian, it is perhaps that I am more sensitive to what happens outside the Arab world, despite my sorrow at the assassination of an elderly religious sister in Mogadishu.
However, I cannot understand the behaviour of some of our Palestinian brothers who torched several churches in Ghaza.
They did so at the very time when the Holy See has been and will continue to be attentive to, and supportive of, their cause.
The Pope chose a beautiful verse from the Koran, “There is no compulsion in matters of religion”.
This is clear evidence that he does not see a link between Islam and violence.
The Pope’s address was directed to all people – Christians, Muslims and Jews, believers and non-believers.
He was trying to demonstrate the dangers that arise when we attempt to separate faith and intellect, and, how dangerous is intellect, the mind, without religion.
Throughout his address, it is obvious that the Pope desires only a real, informed and productive dialogue between civilisations and religions.
For him that is the only way for society to progress and to do so in peace and harmony.
I would reiterate, the central problem in the responses to the Holy Father’s words was that so many had not read them in an analytical or scientific manner, but rather reacted to sentences, mere snippets, extracted, out of context, from quite a lengthy document.
Once more, otherwise rational people fell into the trap set by the mass media, the masters of which seem only to wish for division and discord.
A question put to me by some of my Muslim brothers and sisters has been, Who are the winners and who are the losers in the events of the past few days?
The answer, of course, is quite simple. The Muslims have lost! The Christians have lost! All of us have lost opportunities for a fraternal dialogue of love firmly based on an understanding of divine principles!
On the other hand, the winner in all this has been extremism, ignorance, bigotry and atheism.
There has been a victory, at least for the moment, for those who do not wish to see Muslims and Christians at the one table in brotherly dialogue planning for a better future for humankind.
As I conclude, I call upon all Christians and Muslims to work for a more productive dialogue, brotherhood and mutual encounter.
Of one thing we can be sure, neither faith can exist in the world if based on violence. The only forward is fraternal understanding and loving respect.
The best advice one could give in this unfortunate matter has been offered by the Mufti of Tyre and Jabal Amel, the Reverend Ali el Amin, who said to his brother Anise Ghanem, in a radio interview on September 17, “This great gesture by the Holy Father in expressing his regret for what happened shows his humility and the values that he holds – love and forgiveness – and which he has received from Christ.
“What the Holy Father has said should be enough and should open a door on a new era of dialogue and understanding between the Christian and Islamic worlds”.
For the full transcript of Pope Benedict’s controversial speech in Regensburg, Germany, click here
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