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Vatican Is Rethinking Relations With Islam

Cardinal Ivan Dias, the archbishop of Bombay, has split the difference. He strongly supported Ratzinger's expression of Catholic superiority but also told a group of bishops recently that the Catholic Church "must make every effort to relate to every human being without any superiority complex."

The church's modern efforts to engage other religions with respect and humility began with the Second Vatican Council of 1962 to 1965, which gave birth to the landmark document Nostra Aetate, or In Our Time. The document repudiated the centuries-old teaching of contempt for other faiths.

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John Paul furthered these efforts in his travels and by hosting inter-faith prayer sessions for peace, beginning with a three-day meeting in Assisi, Italy, in 1986. Among the participants were leaders from the Sikh, Hindu and Buddhist faiths.

There was "a lot of resistance" to the Assisi meetings from the Curia, the Vatican's permanent bureaucracy, according to the Rev. Keith Pecklers, a professor of theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. Some Catholic theologians and Vatican officials have long viewed inter-faith dialogue as a slippery slope toward relativism, the idea that all religions are equally valid. The result, Pecklers said, has been crossed signals.

"You have on the one hand, one curial document like Dominus Iesus, which was seen as offensive not only by people of other faiths but also by Anglicans and other Protestants. And at the same time, the pope himself makes these gestures of respect," he said.

Vatican unease over outreach surfaced in 2003 when La Civilta Cattolica, a Jesuit magazine whose articles have to be approved by the Vatican secretary of state, published a downbeat assessment of Christian-Muslim relations. It said the Vatican's professions of tolerance for Muslims had not been displayed equally by Muslims for Christians.

La Civilta Cattolica noted that Saudi Arabia refused to permit churches to be built on its territory but financed construction of mosques and schools in Europe, including Rome, "the very heart of Christianity."

Early this year, Peter Hans Kolvenbach, head of the Jesuit order, warned against building up illusions in inter-religious talks, particularly with Muslims. "There is an unbridgeable gap between the religions," he wrote. "I repeat that this does not exclude meetings for the purpose of understanding each other better. But an awareness of the impediment makes these meetings become more honest. Otherwise there is a risk of treating the Muslim, theologically, as if he were a Christian of another confession."

Some Vatican officials worry about what they regard as aggressive religious demands within the growing Muslim community in Europe. Last spring, Muslims in the Spanish city of Cordoba asked for permission to pray inside what was once the city's mosque, but which has been a church since 1236. Their request was denied.

"One has to accept history and go forward," Fitzgerald said at the time. "There are some Muslims who view Europe in major decline and have the goal and aspiration to Islamicize Europe."

The church's dialogue with Muslims takes many forms, from private, one-on-one meetings between Vatican envoys and Islamic leaders to international conferences. A common criticism of the dialogue has been that Muslim participants are almost invariably moderates, not the radicals who pose a real danger. But Fitzgerald hinted this week that contacts are broader than publicly acknowledged.

"We also have to look for the people we can't dialogue with. Sometimes that can't be done officially," he said. "If it succeeds, all well and good. If it doesn't, we don't want to know anything about it."

Lacunza Balda said although criticism had mounted, alternatives to the late pope's approach had not emerged. "Is there any other way except the road of dialogue?" he asked in an interview. "We're on a journey that can't stop."


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