What are we to pass over?

Fr Piotr Gasior talks to Fr Prof. Dr. Krzysztof Koscielniak, a specialist on Islam and lecturer at the Pontifical Academy of Theology in Krakow.

FR PIOTR GASIOR: - The din in the media concerning the small fragment of Benedict XVI's speech, delivered at the University of Regensburg, has died away. The Pope quoted a few sentences from the historical dialogue about Islam, dated to the end of the 14th century. What in your opinion made the followers of Muhammad indignant about, as the Polish media reported?

PROF. KRZYSZTOF KOSCIELNIAK: - Some followers of Islam felt hurt by the papal speech in Regensburg. However, their outrage over the words of Benedict XVI's was aroused artificially to a considerable extent. The majority of the millions of the protesting Muslims did not make any effort to understand the essence of the papal text, learning about the Pope's speech from others, i.e. from reports in the media. And these reports were full of critical, simplified commentaries. They seldom quote the whole text of the papal speech; instead they settled for the fragment.
Therefore, the smear campaign looked like a peculiar manipulation and it was easy to launch because it is obvious that few people make efforts to understand a political discourse. I do not believe that millions of Muslims, from Morocco to Indonesia, followed the visit of Benedict VI to Germany, listening to his speeches. Very few Muslims commentators brought themselves to discover the philosophical-theological message of the papal speech. Benedict XVI asked an extremely difficult question, which is fundamental to every religion, 'Is the conviction that acting unreasonably contradicts God's nature merely a Greek idea, or is it always and intrinsically true?'

- You have stayed in many Arab countries. Recently you have been to Syria. How did they comment on this event?

- Syria is a unique country, with long tradition of peaceful co-existence between Muslims and Christians. Moreover, the Syrian government is very tolerant and open to followers of other religions. The papal speech was little commented on, without special aggression and manifestation.

- Thus, who and why cares for publicizing the so-called civilisational war between the West and the whole Islamic world?

- It seems that in accordance with the proverb 'extremes meet', the opponents of the Pope's speech include people from completely opposing environments. On the one hand, the critics of Benedict XVI's words embrace extreme liberals and politically correct 'experts on dialogue' from Western Europe. They accuse the Pope of an attitude of closeness, non-dialogue and conservatism. Since neither the official Pope's documents nor his attitude reflect their thesis about the 'hard-liner', self-contained Pope they concluded that his speech in Regensburg would be a splendid occasion to confirm their prejudices. On the other hand, in the Muslim world the anti-Pope front has been formed by those environments that are influenced by Islamic fundamentalism, influence of one sort or another. In turn, these authors seek every occasion to confirm their thesis about modern Crusaders. They want to draw into conflict not only the Western civilisation but also religions: Christianity with Islam.

- And what do you think about the pretentious, and not really understandable, habit of the so-called commentators on religious events who try to juxtapose Benedict XVI's concern for dialogue with followers of Islam with the greater - as they think - ecumenical sensitivity of John Paul II?

- One cannot oppose these two Popes. If Cardinal Ratzinger had not realised John Paul II's ideas he would not have been the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith throughout almost the whole pontificate of our Countryman. John Paul II decidedly opposed violence against Christians by certain Muslim circles. And even more: he was the biggest critic of Muslim violence. In his book entitled 'See You in Paradise' Arturo Mari presented the Polish Pope's reactions during his visit to Sudan where the Muslims had murdered over two million Christians. A. Mari writes, 'I was most deeply impressed by his [the Pope's] words spoken in Khartoum.' Mari, who had to be in a room next to the President's chamber, heard the Pope's strong words condemning murders of Christians. We cannot relate the whole story but allow me to quote one fragment, 'The Pope has never sought any round phrases that would allow him to avoid difficult problems. The President, being surprised and perplexed, said, 'Let us pass over what has been said and let us pretend that it did not happen'. He should not have spoken these words! Hearing this the Pope turned to the missionary, 'Translate exactly... I have come here neither for rest nor on holiday. I have come in the name of God. I have come to defend all the dead, all these families... But the President repeated, 'Good, but let us pass over all these things'. And then the Pope could not bear any longer, 'What are we to pass over?! Are we to pass over these innocent victims?! He spoke for one hour and the atmosphere was really nervous. He spoke in a strong, outraged voice. It was no joke. One could get a fright.'
Pope Benedict XVI, like John Paul II, did not assume an 'anti-Muslim' attitude at all. He only notices, like his Predecessor, injustice and violence, which certain Muslim environments cause. But this is not criticism of Islam as such.

- Is there any Muslim spokesman on dialogue?

- This is an apt question. So far the fundamental problem of the Christian-Muslim dialogue has been to define who is (or who can be) an appropriate spokesman on Islam. Since Islam has no hierarchical organisation like the Catholic Church does. Because of the lack of one centre, is responsible for this religion, it seems that one should appeal to numerous Muslim environments. And this causes much inconvenience. For example, the arrangements with the Muslims in Syria have nothing to do with the attitude of the Islamic circles in Saudi Arabia.
Some doubt whether the divided Islam, and a great number of groups promoting violence identify with it, is able to enter into dialogue. I put my hope in the dialogue that is held between various groups of the followers of Islam, but the dialogue should be conducted in an authentic atmosphere, i.e. without avoiding difficult issues. Conducting dialogue with Islam, contemporary Christianity calls for the necessity to reject violence and grant equal rights to Christians living in the world of Islam. For example, death sentence for converts, ban on marriage between a Muslim woman and a Christian man as well as numerous limitations that discriminate Christians must be lifted by Muslims if we are to speak about dialogue and reciprocity. Otherwise, we only deal with monologue.

- But the representatives of Muslim communities in Europe declare to conduct dialogue. Perhaps we do not understand their mentality enough?

- Of course, many Muslims in European countries are willing to conduct dialogue. Let us take the example of Groupe de Recherches Islamo-Chr├ętien, which has embraced both Christians and Muslims for years. They have discussed various topics. The situation in Europe is very comfortable in this respect. People of the West like speaking about dialogue, getting to know other religions and cultures. But as for the Muslims the situation is decidedly worse. Cardinal Walter Kasper has clearly said that Muslims, living in those places where they are a minority, want to enter into dialogue, but in those places where Muslims are a majority dialogue recedes into the background or does not exist at all.
I think that we somehow understand Muslims' mentality. After all, they have enormous space for development in Europe. Nobody forbids them to build mosques, create associations, make publications, etc. Islam is even taught in state schools in those countries whose laws do not forbid this practice.
Naturally, there is space concerning behaviour of certain Muslims that cannot be accepted. And one cannot say that we do not understand Muslims because we do not agree to certain practices of some followers of Islam. We can hardly understand, i.e. acknowledge as a normal situation, a father who kills his daughter for having a love affair with a non-Muslim. Europe cannot accept a double law - different for Muslims and different for natives. It is disturbing to know that the terrorists who attacked on 11 September 2001 were Muslims who were brought up in England.

- So what will our future look like? Have we understood the lesson of the reactions against the papal lecture?

- I am not a prophet to know future events. However, one should anticipate events and make plans in order to develop and deepen contacts with Muslims. But now we have better understanding that we should talk about contemporary and urgent topics in a direct way. This was signalled by Magdi Allan, Muslim from Egypt, an expert on political relationships and religions. Commenting on the Pope's lecture in Regensburg he said, 'It is alarming and terrifying to see Muslims who form an international, united front to attack the Pope and demand public apology from him. From Bin Laden to the Muslim Brotherhood, from Pakistan to Turkey, from Al-Dzazira to Al-Arabia, a covenant was renewed, covenant that was created on the occasion of the Danish caricatures. This is indisputable evidence: the root of evil is blind ideology of hatred, spread among some parts of Muslim circles, hatred that violates faith and dulls minds. Why do Muslims, especially those Muslims we regard as moderate, not oppose those who truly profane Islam, i.e. Islamic terrorists, with the same strength?'
Benedict XVI gave us yet another lesson. On the occasion of the attack on the Pope we can also see how little effective dialogue with Islam has been so far. The fragile foundations of the dialogue, which forgets about the truth and reciprocity, have been uncovered. The whole situation gives us, Christians, new impulses to continue efforts to meet Muslims: laboriously, slowly, in the atmosphere of deep respect but without avoiding the most difficult issues and closing our eyes to violence and injustice. It is worth focusing less on secondary facts, for example that the Pope entered a mosque or being delighted with some excessively polite meeting. Sometimes it is worth focusing on concrete elements of life, reducing spectacular and staged gestures, which mean almost nothing. It seems that it is not the West but the world of Islam itself that needs the Muslim declarations about Islam as religion of peace. It seems that only concrete actions aiming at granting true equality to Christians and actions against theological justification of violence taken by Muslims themselves within Islam, can remove the doubts of many Christians, doubts concerning the sincerity of declarations that Islam represents religion of peace and is able to conduct a true dialogue - I repeat - following the principle of reciprocity and justice.

Meeting with Muslims

'The future of the world depends on the dialogue with Islam', said Benedict XVI during a meeting with the representatives of the Muslim world in Castel Gandolfo on 25 September 2006. The Pope spoke of his deep respect for followers of Islam and his will to continue dialogue with them. In the framework of a diplomatic offensive after the crisis that occurred after Benedict XVI's lecture in Regensburg, the Pope received diplomatic envoys from 22 Muslim countries, accredited to the Apostolic See, a representative to the Arab League and representatives of Italy's Muslim communities. In his address Benedict XVI did not refer directly to his lecture in Regensburg or its consequences. He only stated that the reasons he had invited Muslims to his summer residence were well known circumstances. He repeated after John Paul II that freedom of religion, which favours peace and understanding between peoples played an essential role in dialogue.

"Niedziela" 43/2006

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: redakcja@niedziela.pl