TORONTO (CCN) — There can be no question that Muslim-Catholic dialogue matters. More than one billion Catholics and over two billion Muslims combine to cover the globe, penetrate every culture and express their ideas about the world, human life and God in hundreds of languages.
In the year of mercy, Catholics and Muslims have a common vocabulary at their disposal and with it an unprecedented opportunity to advance the dialogue, scholars, clergy and journalists told a gathering at Toronto’s University of St. Michael’s College March 3.
In a year which Catholics have dedicated to thinking, praying and acting on God’s mercy, we can’t help but notice that every Muslim begins every prayer, five times per day, “In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.” Of the “99 beautiful names of God,” the Most Merciful has a status higher than any other.
The common ground of mercy inspired the Turkish-Canadian Intercultural Dialogue Institute to organize a Catholic-Muslim conference under the Shakespearean title of The Quality of Mercy is Not Strained.
In the 51 years since Nostra Aetate declared the church open to dialogue with other faiths, the dialogue with Muslims was first slow to take off and then stumbled over Pope Benedict XVI’s 2006 speech quoting 14th-century Byzantine Emperor Manuel Paleologos II on the question of faith and violence in Islam. The speech touched off worldwide protest, resulted in the the murder of a nun in Somalia, burning of church doors in Nablus and a fatwa calling Muslims to kill the pope issued by a terrorist network in Pakistan.
But the speech and its aftermath also resulted in A Common Word Between Us, a Muslim initiative to encourage dialogue which was signed by significant leaders in every branch of Islam.
“A Common Word is a most uncommon document,” Franciscan Friar of the Atonement Elias Mallon told the conference. “They were able to come together for this most amazing document. We Christians couldn’t do the same.”
Mallon is a scholar of ancient semitic languages who has spent 30 years in interfaith dialogue — a particular priority of the Atonement Friars.
For Muslims, mercy isn’t only a description of God, it is also an absolute commandment of God, said Haroon Siddiqui, emeritus editorial page editor of The Toronto Star.
“Hell is portrayed as full of tyrants. Heaven is full of the poor,” observed Siddiqui.
The point of dialogue between Muslims and Catholics is not to simply tick off similarities between the two Abrahamic faiths, said Mallon.
“The worst kind of dialogue is what I call the dialogue of the mirror,” said Mallon. “We discover that we have a great deal in common, we declare the dialogue a success and go home unchanged.”
By ignoring the “irreducible particularity of every religion” we short circuit dialogue which has the potential to deepen the faith of each partner as they rearticulate the truth they know and examine it in light of the other.
Real dialogue is also the only antidote to demagoguery, demonizing and constant conflict, said Siddiqui.
“Not all Muslims live up to the Islamic ideal,” said the journalist. But confusing misguided bands of terrorists with an entire religion only obscures the true nature of forces at play in the Middle East, North Africa and Northern Nigeria.
“We fall into the trap of this propaganda that this is a war of Christians against Muslims. It’s not. These are geopolitical issues,” he said.
The chaos unleashed by the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, 1991’s Operation Desert Storm and the 1980 to 1988 Iran-Iraq War has very little to do with Scriptures and theology. But if we want to talk about deeply held faith and high ideals we need peace and democracy as a basic pre-condition, Siddiqui said.
“We have been duped into fear,” he said. “To the point where we have lost our democratic values.”