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Interview with Patriarch Scola on the open letter by 138 Muslim Leaders

Il Foglio, 18 ottobre 2007

The Patriarch and the muftis



Rome. In this exclusive interview granted to Il Foglio, the Patriarch of Venice, Cardinal Angelo Scola, opens to the spirit of the letter of 138 Islamic sages, "A common Word between us and you", thus putting an end to the discretion observed by the Church up to now. The one exception to that discretion is Cardinal Jean Louis Tauran, President of the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue, who last Saturday told Il Foglio, «it is a non polemical document, signed by sunnis and schiites, full of citations from the Old and New Testament». He added: «I was impressed by the fact, probably without precedent, that the citations concerning Jesus Christ were taken from the Gospels and not from the Koran». «A most encouraging sign, as it demonstrates that good will and dialogue are capable of overcoming prejudices. It is a spiritual reflection on the love of God», remarked Tauran. The ecclesial reserve was noted also by the international press agencies, beginning with Reuters.


«The document is certainly an encouraging sign», Cardinal Scola tells Il Foglio. «Above all what is of note is the number and quality of those who have signed the document. This is not only a media event, because consensus is for Islam a source of theology and law. The redactors of Oasis have told me that even if those who have signed avoided a juridical formulation to the document, it is still true that no text produced by the most extremist salafi groups has ever been able to claim a consensus equal to that witnessed by the 138 signatures at the bottom of the open letter. The approach is realistic, 'if Muslims and Christians are not at peace, the world cannot be at peace', and at its core it simply aims to 'say to Christians that we, as Muslims, are not against them and that Islam is not against themso long as they do not wage war against Muslims on account of their


Religion'. In that sense, the Muslim leaders willingly identify themselves with those 'others' of whom Jesus says: 'who is not against us is with us'».


For the first time a large number of scholars of Islam seem to break with the culture of rejecting the West and non Muslims. «The document, in the prospective of that double love, of God and one's neighbour, underscores a vein of the Muslim tradition which has been partially placed in the shade due to the growth of fundamentalism. The text affirms that man has 'mind or the intelligence, which is made for comprehending the truth; the will which is made for freedom of choice, and sentiment


which is made for loving the good and the beautiful'. On the other hand, one notes between the lines a condemnation of terrorism: 'to those who nevertheless relish conflict and destruction for their own sake or reckon that ultimately they stand to gain through them, we say [...] to sincerely make every effort to make peace and come together in harmony'. The fact that the text is rooted in the Muslim tradition is very important and makes it more credible than other proclamations expressed in a more western language».


In the introduction the 138 record that "together we represent 55 per cent of the world's population", a very tactical and political approach. Also for this reason Cardinal Tauran stated that the letter opens new roads, but it needs to be studied thoroughly in order to make it more objective and not selective, more universal and less political. Instead of criticizing the letter, Scola however prefers to speak «of a possible necessary limitation of perspective. One cannot ask of this document more than it can give. It is only the prelude to a theological dialogue, which, in an atmosphere of greater reciprocal esteem, proposes to investigate the contents of the two pillars (love of the one God and love of neighbour) in the two religious traditions».


A year ago in Cairo the Patriarch organized a meeting of the biannual journal, Oasis, with the title, "Fundamental Rights and Democracy", in collaboration with the University of Al Ahzar, Catholic dignitaries, western academics and members of the World Jewish Congress. «This theological dialogue is in no way possible if there is not a preceding respect», continues Scola. «I had the occasion to discuss publicly at Cairo and in the USA with three signers of the document: Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Ahmad Al-Tayyeb, Muzammil H. Siddiqui, and I was able to ascertain that this reciprocal esteem is real. The hope is that this document might be read and widely diffused in the Muslim world and in the West».


Can one sustain that the letter is a demonstration that Benedict XVI opened a great debate at Regensburg? «Certainly, the intervention of the Pope provoked a dynamic of great interest within Islam. As the same signers recognize, the interconnection between Christians and Muslims in the contemporary world is such to make it impossible not to take a position concerning the coexistence between different faiths». Dialogue with Islam seemed to have stopped to the point of death. «The document indicates an important point of departure for an authentic dialogue. That always requires two conditions: the revelation of self in testimony and the search for a life that is good (vita bona). It seems to me that the signers of the letter are decidedly going in this direction from the moment that they invite Christians to a type of 'spiritual emulation', in a task to do the best: 'Let us vie with each other only in righteousness and good works'».