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Religion and Society

Oasis in Amman

Maria Laura Conte



: L'Osservatore Romano


, June 27th, 2008


As a community the Oasis International Studies and Research Centre's true identity lies in its international network of relationships. Founded in Venice 2003 by Patriarch Card Angelo Scola, it is present around the world. As a result of the recent meeting of its annual Scientific Committee in Amman (Jordan) on 23-24 June, it has consolidated and re-motivated itself in terms of its cultural commitment, which is to search for and promote mutual understanding between Christians and Muslims.


Oasis' cultural action is inspired by a certain approach which is to allow Western and Eastern Christians, especially those living in predominantly Muslim countries, to tell their stories, bearing witness to one another, as well as talking to representatives of what Oasis likes to call 'grassroots' Islam, a term that goes beyond the somewhat ambiguous notion of moderate Islam. Over the years its modus operandi has proven especially effective in stimulating true exchange and real understanding of the life and strengths of Christian communities as well as the hardships they endure, as shown in our latest meeting in Jordan.


In Amman about 80 people from more than 20 countries sat around the same table in the House of the Sisters of the Rosary to discuss the topic of Religious freedom, something good for every society.


The proceedings were spread over two days. The first day—which opened with Mgr Gabriel Richi Alberti, the director of the Oasis Centre, talking about freedom of worship—began with the Patriarch's report, which was centred on a deeper understanding of the relationship between truth and freedom, pushing its analysis to include an "important aspect" of religious freedom, namely the freedom to convert.


"To talk about religious freedom as the top expression of freedom of conscience and the freedom to convert appears to be a historically more effective path if we want to look at the theoretical link between truth and freedom. Indeed reflecting on freedom's intrinsic orientation towards truth as well as on the truth of freedom today finds in such hot topics a crucial ground for testing," Cardinal Scola said.


"From the point of view of Western societies, religious freedom, freedom of conscience and the freedom to convert coexist with a paradox. They are certainly recognised in Western legal systems and are inherent in the prevailing Western worldview; however, two factors best indicate vulnerability of such a situation. On the one hand, consciousness is conceived somewhat ambiguously in terms we might consider "creative" since the latter cannot itself actively determine what is good and what is evil. On the other hand, these freedoms are essentially thought as a mere individual prerogative." There is thus a risk that these two aspects of religious freedom (and conscience) might be sapped of their real content when they are actually understood. The situation in predominantly Muslim countries is instead entirely different. For the Patriarch "both the veritative and grassroots aspects of the religious experience of these peoples are encoded in their DNA. They are very much attached to their own traditions but it is undeniable that they are not up to par when it comes to religious freedom. All we need to remember are the restrictions imposed on non-Muslims' right to worship, on the issue of citizenship for the latter, especially where there immigrant communities; even more so when it comes to the more important issue of conversion. In certain predominantly Muslim countries diversity is somewhat tolerated if non-Muslims are born within religions other than Islam. However, it is an entirely different ball game when Muslims want to convert to another religion for it is perceived as a threat to their collective identity."


The step we must take both in the West and the East is to pay attention to how the relationship between religious freedom and collective identity impacts upon social life. "Seen from this point of view," the Cardinal said, "it is clear that Christians have no intention of putting at risk the bases that allow them to live alongside Muslims in predominantly Muslim societies; conversely, they still want the same respect for their own traditions."


The difficulties found everywhere in correctly thinking through the notion of religious freedom, freedom of conscience and the freedom to convert show that "the necessary consent truth requires is always a heartbreaking experience because freedom must always decide anew in each one of its actions." According to the Patriarch this happens by bearing witness where the latter is understood as an attitude that is practical and speculative, one that no one can evade, much less so if one is Christian.


"Thus defined bearing witness is for us the basis on which Oasis can culturally interpret Islam's many forms. Bearing witness calls upon us to pass onto our Muslim interlocutors what we believe to be the true cultural interpretation of the Christian faith. And this is possible only if we are truly involved with one another," said Oasis' founder.


The Patriarch was followed by Nikolaus Lobkowicz, director of the Institute for Central and Eastern European Studies (ZIMOS) in Eichstätt (Germany), Khaled Al-Jaber, associate professor at Petra University in Amman, and Hanna Michael, a member among other things of the Jordanian Human Rights League.


If in analysing how religious freedom has been understood throughout the history of the Church, Lobkowicz highlighted the turning point represented by Dignitatis Humanae with regards to the recognition given to the rights of the individual vis-à-vis the community, Al-Jaber addressed instead the relationship between freedom and truth in the context of Christian-Muslim dialogue, underlining the fact that "if this dialogue is to play an effective role, it must turn the clash some believe inevitable into a real discussion that can put an end to humanity's long history of suffering and begin instead a long age of goodness that can benefit a human civilisation in which each religion has its place and every culture is subjectively and objectively valued."


By bringing, as one participant put it, real life's "sand and blood" into it, the debate that followed gave participants an opportunity to look more closely into the real everyday experiences of Christian communities who live among Muslim majorities and whose freedom in many places, albeit somewhat differently, is fragile and threatened. It also gave them a chance to look at Christians in the West who are increasingly coming into contact with large Muslim immigrant communities who seek recognition for their own rights. From this discussion, with more than 60 participants freely intervening, some with prepared texts, it became clear that every society must look into the matter and find its own way towards the essential link that exists between freedom and truth, a question that is literally setting ablaze warring countries like Iraq but which is also challenging even those who, living in countries at peace, are nonetheless faced with the large scale presence of foreigners.


Our Lady of Peace Centre is one of the most important welfare organisations of the Latin Patriarchate in Jordan operating in the field of assistance to disabled people in cooperation with Islamic institutions. When its chairman Majdi Dayyat bore witness to his experience he again drew the attention of every one present to Oasis' own two-pronged work, which is to go deeper in reflecting upon actual experiences as well as telling and listening to them.


One of the most important moments was the meeting with Hasan Abû Ni'mah, director of the Royal Institute for Inter-faith Studies on the second day. During his address he laid out his thoughts about the role, viewpoints and bases of discussion that can bolster living together and strengthen the sharing of values.


He said that at a time like ours, "especially in the Arab world, appeals for dialogue must necessarily protect themselves against warmongering mindsets, fundamentalism and the lack of respect for mankind. This cannot be if we do not know how to confront bellicose worldviews and support instead those that are dialogue-oriented, open to mutual understanding in which people from different religions can live their religious differences together."


And to be sure, for Hasan Abû Ni'mah religion can play an essential and crucial role in making dialogue work since "every religion in its essence is a fundamental institution (manzûma) and a reference point for ethics and the values and principles that underlie our behaviour and life. On this earth religion encourages us to do what is good for the sake of man and humanity."


His address had several members of Oasis ask him direct questions on some of today's hottest topics like mixed marriage, youth education, various forms of discrimination against Christians in some Middle Eastern countries, minority rights, the laws that protect them . . . . It was an open and frank exchange that showed how real difficulties are in such a dialogue and how wide the gap between Christians and Muslims is in relation to it. It did nevertheless point to possible ways for a true meeting of the minds.


This is the type of activity the Oasis Centre, one of the international expressions of the Studium Generale Marcianum of Venice, intends to pursue thanks to its established presence in every continent and to its own means, tried and boosted by the two-day conference in Jordan, like its Website, its biannual quadrilingual printed journal, its trilingual monthly newsletter, its book series, research projects and events.


These various tools contribute to the cultural elaboration of topics that question us all, more or less consciously, and which can be seen as part of the process of "hybridisation of civilisations and cultures", an expression used by the Patriarch during Oasis' first scientific committee five years ago, one that has shown its worth and fruitfulness in defining the novel historical process currently underway in which peoples are mingling on a vast scale.



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