The Relevance of Nostra Aetate

in Changed Times

by Cardinal Michael Fitzgerald

Published in Islamochristiana 41 (2015) pp.31-47


On the fortieth anniversary of Nostra Aetate an article was published in Islamochristiana tracing the transformations that had taken place in the intervening years[1]. Attention was given to political, social and cultural changes, but also to changes within the Catholic Church, and to a lesser extent within other Churches and Christian bodies and in the Muslim world. The purpose of this article, on the occasion of the golden jubilee of the Church’s Declaration on its relations with other religions, is to note the changes that have taken place within the last decade and to assess their impact on Christian-Muslim relations.

  1. In the Political Sphere

Many things have happened over the last ten years. Some of them are enumerated here, without any attempt to elaborate on them. First, as regards Europe, there has been the integration into the European Union of East European nations. Turkey, which at times has been pressing its claim to join the Union and at others seems to be disinterested in this move, has not been included in the enlargement. Nevertheless Turkey has increased in importance as a power to be reckoned with in Middle Eastern affairs. There has also been the “rehabilitation” of Iran, following protracted negotiations with the permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany and the European Union over the development of nuclear energy. This has led to Iran being included in the most recent international discussions about Syria.  Perhaps one could notice here too the reappearance of Russia as a leading power in the world, together with the growth in the influence of both China and India.

In the Middle East, the second Gulf War and the invasion of Iraq, started in 2003, had brought about the toppling of Saddam Hussein who was subsequently arrested, put on trial by the interim government, and executed on 30 December 2006. This, however, did not bring peace to the country which ever since has been bedevilled by internecine conflict. The United States, which had taken the lead in the coalition against Saddam Hussein, had seriously damaged its reputation among the populations of the Arab countries. President Obama tried to remedy this through the speech that he gave at Cairo University on 4 June 2009. This called for “A New Beginning” in relations between the US and the Islamic world, but unfortunately the hopes raised on this occasion have not been fulfilled.

The period under consideration has been marked by the “Arab Spring”, resulting in the overthrow of Ben Ali in Tunisia, Mubarak in Egypt and Ghaddafi in Libya[2]. Again, one could say that these popular movements have not brought about the desired transformation of society, since in a number of places they have resulted in ongoing conflicts, as in Libya, Syria and Yemen. Egypt saw the election of Muhammad Morsi, of the Muslim Brothers, as president, but popular opposition to his rule grew to such an extent that the military stepped in to remove him. Eventually the former head of the army, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, was elected president. The democratic process ushered in by the Arab Spring has seemed to work better in Tunisia, as was recognized by the award of the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize to the “Tunisian Quartet” composed of the General Labour Union, the Confederation of Industry, the Human Rights league and the Order of Lawyers.

The Middle East has witnessed the stalemate in the relations between Israel and Palestine, with constant outbreaks of violence, including the Gaza war. It has also seen the actions of al-Qaeda spread to many different countries, and the rise of a new entity called the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), or The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or DAESH in Arabic (al-dawlat al-islâmiyya fî l-irâq wa-l-shâm), or simply the Islamic State, with the proclamation of the Caliphate by the leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Several branches of al-Qaeda seem to have rallied to this Islamic State.

In Africa there has been the action of al-Shabab in Somalia and surrounding countries, and the violence wrought by Boko Haram in Northern Nigeria. The State of Southern Sudan has been created but this new country has not as yet achieved any peace, but has rather suffered from civil war. Civil war, involving Christians and Muslims, has also been waged in the Central African Republic.

In Asia, though the civil war in Sri Lanka has come to an end, and although peace talks have been proceeding in the Philippines to introduce the Bangsamoro Basic Law for the Muslim population of Mindanao, many situations remain unsettled, such as Kashmir and the position of the Rohingyas in Myanmar.

These many conflicts have led Pope Francis to say that we are living in a Third World War, though it is a war of a fragmented nature. It must be remembered that not all violence is perpetrated by people who belong to the Islamic faith, and that all cases of religious discrimination cannot be attributed to Islam, yet the fact that terrorism is often connected with Islam gives that religion a bad name, and thus makes dialogue more difficult.

  1. Social change

Already in the previous article the increased mobility of people had been noted as a striking feature of cultural change[3]. Emigration from countries experiencing poverty or war or both has continued apace. Especially in the last years the number of people attempting to cross the Mediterranean in order to enter Europe has posed serious problems for the authorities of the countries of Europe. Some of these migrants wish to stay in Europe, particularly in Germany and the Scandinavian countries, but also in the United Kingdom; others consider Europe to be just a staging post, their goal being the United States or Canada.  The fact that many of these migrants come illegally, after paying large sums of money to traffickers, and that they are often put on flimsy crafts and abandoned when they near the shores of Europe with much loss of life, only aggravates the problem[4].

The war in Syria and the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has seriously increased the number of people who are fleeing for their lives or seeking greater freedom elsewhere. The destruction caused by war, with the loss of both habitation and livelihood, has given rise to a huge number of refugees, especially in Jordan and Lebanon, countries with relatively small populations which already count among their inhabitants a large number of Palestinian refugees.

Among these refugees and migrants are numerous Christians fleeing from persecution, but there are also many Muslims. As with the question of the accession of Turkey to the European Union, so the advent of Muslim immigrants has aroused the fear among some of a “Muslim invasion” of Europe, the perspective being raised of Europe becoming a majority Muslim continent within a generation or two. This “danger” has provided fuel for right-wing political parties or movements who campaign vigorously against any accommodation to Muslims. Those who favour treating all migrants and refugees fairly, with due regard for human rights, and those in particular who engage in dialogue with Muslim communities, are considered naïve. It is true that the advent of so many migrants has put a strain on the structures of the European Union which has been struggling to determine a unified policy which would be fair for all its member countries. The Churches have had to speak out against racism and discrimination, but also at times to protest against harsh government measures which are sometimes proposed in order to appease these right-wing tendencies. The situation of migrants seeking a better life because of harsh political or economic conditions in their home countries was a question addressed by the Second Synod of Bishops for Africa[5].

This mobility of people is not unidirectional. There are Muslims moving to countries in which they form a minority, but there are also Christians going to work or study in majority Muslim countries. Already in 2006 the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and People on the Move considered these different situations during its Plenary Assembly[6]. In North Africa, the small Christian communities have been reinvigorated by the presence of numerous Christian students from Sub-Saharan Africa. In the Gulf region migrant workers, particularly from India and the Philippines, pack the parish churches. It must be said that the rulers in most of the Emirates and in Oman have provided land for the constructions of churches[7]. It is only in Saudi Arabia that no places of worship and no gatherings for worship are allowed other than for Muslims.

Another feature of this decade has been increased attention to the importance of climate change and its implications for the universe in which we live. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) had been set up by the United Nations already in 1988. It assesses research on global warming, producing regular reports based on the findings of scientists and backed by governments participating in the programme. In 2007 the IPPC was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, sharing it with Al Gore, the founder of the Alliance for Climate Protection. Within the Catholic Church and beyond, attention has been called to this vital question by the Encyclical letter of Pope Francis, Laudato Si’ (May 2015). It is interesting to note that the Christian-Muslim Liaison Committee, which is composed of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and the International Islamic Forum for Dialogue, had taken up the question of religion and the environment in its meeting in Brussels, 8-9 June 2006[8]. An interreligious conference on climate change was held in Savar, Bangladesh on 8 October 2011, bringing together more than 150 imams and pastors.


The emancipation of women in the Islamic world is not a recent phenomenon – one thinks of Qasim Amin in Egypt at the turn of the 20th Century, of the effects of the Kemalist revolution in Turkey, the larger place given to women in the Persia of Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, of the reforms introduced in Tunisia by Habib Bourguiba, including the banning of polygamy. More recently Morocco has taken the lead in training women preachers (murshidât) and religious experts (câlimât). In February 2009, with the support of the Iranian embassy to the Holy See and of Italian Catholic Action, a group of women theologians and women active in civil society in Iran met with representatives of the Italian Women Theologians’ Coordinating Group. This meeting was considered a fruitful beginning, promising further collaboration in the future[9]. In fact the growth of feminism both among Christians and Muslims has led this journal to dedicate a whole issue to this question[10]. Islamic feminists have organized themselves: the Third International Congress on Islamic Feminism was held in Barcelona 24-27 October 2008 and the Fourth International Congress in Madrid 21-24 October 2010. At this latter meeting the importance of women’s contributions to the understanding of Islam was underlined[11]. Perhaps in this connection a mention could be made of the figure of Mary as being a unifying factor for Christians and Muslims. This has been recognized by the State of Lebanon which in 2009 declared 25 March, the feast of the Annunciation, to be a national holiday.

  1. Cultural transformation

Developments in the realm of communications have continued apace in the last decade. The familiarity of young people with more recent technology facilitated the organization of demonstrations during the Arab Spring. Instructions could be given by internet and by text messages which largely escaped police control. The influence of the internet would also appear to be strong in the recruitment of mujâhidîn by the Islamic State, and it is also known that one can find available there instructions for making homemade bombs which can be use in suicide attacks. These developments have been leading governments to introduce draconian security measures, often bringing about fierce opposition from people who uphold individual liberty. A similar tension is evident in the debate about the freedom of expression, which some would appear to consider an absolute right subject to no restraints, whereas others recognize the need to take into account sensibilities of a cultural or, in particular, of a religious nature.   

Though the use of information technology has become widespread and almost universal, its influence is felt most perhaps among the youth. The easy access to the internet means that frontiers between countries and cultures hardy exist any longer, or at least can be crossed virtually without difficulty. Moreover the information conveyed escapes control. It is significant therefore that the Eighth Doha Conference on Interfaith Dialogue, held in Doha, Qatar, 20-21 October 2009, took as its theme “Raising the New Generation with a Foundation of Values and Tradition. A Religious Perspective”[12].

  1. The development of religious structures

4.1 The papacy

The main development within the Catholic Church in this decade has been the change in the papacy. The death of John Paul II brought to an end a long pontificate (1978-2005) which had seen a significant growth in interreligious relations. His successor, Benedict XVI, when meeting with the delegations from other Christian Churches and Ecclesial Communities and of other Religious Traditions, the day following the inauguration of his pontificate, asserted:

I am particularly grateful for the presence in our midst of members of the Muslim community, and I express my appreciation for the growth of dialogue between Muslims and Christians, both at the local and international level. I assure you that the Church wants to continue building bridges of friendship with the followers of all religions, in order to seek the true good of every person and of society as a whole[13].

Later the same year, in Cologne, addressing representatives of Muslim communities in Germany, Pope Benedict declared:

Interreligious and intercultural dialogue between Christians and Muslims cannot be reduced to an optional extra. It is in fact a vital necessity on which in a large measure our future depends[14].

The link between interreligious and intercultural dialogue in this speech is perhaps indicative of Pope Benedict’s approach. The following year Cardinal Paul Poupard, who was already President of the Pontifical Council for Culture, was appointed at the same time President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. The two councils continued to operate separately and were never merged, though this may have been the intention behind this appointment. If so this idea was dropped following the turmoil in the Islamic world provoked by the remarks on Islam in the introduction to Pope Benedict’s speech on faith and reason delivered at Regensburg University on 12 September 2006[15]. On 25 June 2007 Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran was appointed the new President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.

Benedict XVI surprised the Church and the world by announcing his resignation as Bishop of Rome and Supreme Pontiff of the Catholic Church, effective from 28 February 2013. Jorge Maria Bergoglio, elected to succeed him and taking the name Francis, has engaged in a reform of the Roman Curia, with the advice of a council of Cardinals which he has set up. This reform has so far resulted in the setting up of the Secretariat for Communications bringing together all the organs of the Holy See concerning press, radio and television. Plans include two other clusters, one for the laity and family life, the other for justice, peace and migration, but no official constitutional texts have been published as yet. Some Vatican observers have been expecting the creation of a body to coordinate the dialogue activities of the Church, but it is not certain whether this will take place.

Probably more important than these structural changes is the new spirit that Pope Francis has instilled into the Church through his teaching and his example. In this regard one cannot forget that the first journey of the pope outside of Rome was to the island of Lampedusa to express his sorrow and anger at the loss of lives of migrants crossing the Mediterranean, so many of whom have been Muslims. One remembers too his stopping to pray at the separation wall in Bethlehem, and his prayer at the Western Wall of the Temple in Jerusalem accompanied by his Argentinian friends, Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Imam Omar Abboud.  It is notable too that Francis decided to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the promulgation of Nostra Aetate by giving a special interreligious dimension to the General Audience that took place on that day, 28 October 2015. In his first visit to Africa in November 2015, Pope Francis met with religious leaders in Nairobi. In his discourse on that occasion he explicitly mentioned the fiftieth anniversary of the closing of Vatican II “at which the Catholic Church committed herself to ecumenical and interreligious dialogue in the service of understanding and friendship”[16]. Later, in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, he visited the Central Mosque of Koudoukou. Here he told the Muslims who welcomed him: “My Pastoral Visit to the Central African Republic would not be complete if it did not include this encounter with the Muslim community.”[17] It can be seen how the spirit of Nostra Aetate influences the activities of the Pope.

In his first Encyclical, Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis stated: “Interreligious dialogue is a necessary condition for peace in the world, and so it is a duty for Christians as well as other religious communities” (EG 250). He went on to say that “Our relationship with the followers of Islam has taken on great importance” (EG 252) and then emphasised the need for formation in order to sustain this dialogue. His message is particularly relevant to our days: “We Christians should embrace with affection and respect Muslim immigrants to our countries in the same way that we hope and ask to be received and respected in countries of Islamic tradition” (EG 253).

  • The dicastery for dialogue

The Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (PCID) has continued its work under Cardinal Tauran who brings to his leadership his former experience as a diplomat in the Lebanon and as the Secretary for Relations with States (equivalent to Foreign Minister of the Holy See). Furthermore, since 2012 the Secretary of the Council is Fr Miguel Ayuso Guixot who has direct experience of relations with Muslims since he had worked in both Egypt and Sudan, and who, at the time of his appointment to the PCID, was the Director of the Pontifical Institute of Arabic and Islamic Studies. He himself has said that, in recent years, “dialogue with Muslims … advanced in a more structured manner”[18]. The Nostra Aetate Scholarships have continued to be offered, bringing some Muslim students, both young men and women, to Rome to deepen their knowledge of Christianity. Some of these scholars are now actively engaged in dialogue in different parts of the world.

  • Commissions

The commissions mentioned in the previous article (see footnote 1) have continued their work. Special mention should perhaps be made of the Secrétariat pour les Relations avec l’Islam, an office created by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of France in 1973[19]. This office has continued its work of fostering a spirit of openness and collaboration with Muslims in France, and in particular with Muslim leaders, during an exceptionally difficult period (the Charlie Hebdo massacres, the more recent terrorist attacks in Paris, growing anti-Muslim feeling fed by right-wing politics). On the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of its creation, a study-day was held in Paris during which Tareq Oubrou, imam of the central mosque in Bordeaux, was the first speaker, while Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, President of the PCID, spoke at the beginning of the afternoon. Two panel discussions were held with both Christians and Muslims on the panels. The involvement of Muslims in this celebration is evidence of progress, from talking about Muslims to talking with them[20]. This office has now been renamed the Service National des Relations avec les Musulmans (SNRM).

The regional conferences of the Catholic hierarchies in West Africa, CERAO and AECAWA have now merged to form the Regional Episcopal Conference of West Africa (RECOWA). Relations with Muslims is an important aspect of the work of this commission.

The Islam in Europe Committee, set up by the Council of Episcopal Conferences of Europe (CCEE) and the Conference of European Churches (KEK) in 1987, was instrumental in organizing a Christian-Muslim meeting in Brussels 20-23 October 2008 on “Being a Citizen in Europe and a person of Faith”. This was followed by the first meeting of bishops and delegates from the Bishops’ Conferences responsible for relations with Muslims in Europe. They gathered for an exchange of experiences in Bordeaux 27-28 April 2009[21]. It is sad to have to record the demise of this Islam in Europe Committee, perhaps for financial reasons. On the other hand, the Middle East Council of Churches, which had been dormant for a number of years, would seem to have taken on new life. It is expected that it will revive its meetings with Muslims.

  • The contribution of Synods

Two assemblies of the synod of bishops that have taken place during the pontificate of Benedict XVI are of importance to the subject of this article. First there was the second special assembly for Africa, 4-25 October 2009. The overall theme was “The Church in Africa at the service of Reconciliation, Justice and Peace”. Among the propositions emerging from this synod there is one specifically on relations with Muslims. This proposition gives encouragement to fostering the dialogue of life, and social partnership (dialogue of action), as also to working for reconciliation. In the Apostolic Exhortation, Africae Munus, which followed this synod, Benedict XVI issued a call to persist in esteem for Muslims, but also for a recognition of the need to work for respect for religious freedom, since, as it is said, “religious freedom is the road to peace”[22]. It is perhaps partly through the influence of this synod that a number of people feel that encounter and dialogue with people of other religions should be linked with questions of justice and peace.

The second synod to which attention is to be paid is the special assembly of bishops for the Middle East. The Bishops of the Catholic Church in Asia had been called together in a synod in preparation for the year 2000. This synod, which met from 18 April – 14 May 1998, was for the whole of Asia, including Western Asia, better known as the Middle East. In fact the bishops from the Middle East felt somewhat out of place in this meeting, reckoning that their region had specific aspects which merited special attention. Their lobbying for a special synod for the Middle East was successful, and this synod took place 10-24 October 2010. Here of course the question of relations with Muslims loomed large[23]. The subsequent Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in Medio Oriente underlined the contribution of Jews, Christians and Muslims to the culture of Middle Eastern countries with its specificity and all its richness. It also insisted on the right of Christians to play a full part in the national life of their countries, and their wish “to share with Muslims their experiences and to make their specific contribution” to society (EMO 25)[24].

  • Centres for Dialogue with Muslims

The various centres mentioned in the 2006 article continue their work[25]. One centre, which unfortunately had been overlooked in that article, is the Institut Dominicain d’Etudes Orientales (IDEO) in Cairo. Within the last decade, under the dynamic leadership of Fr Jean-Jacques Pérennès OP, who has now become the Director of the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem, the team of IDEO has been renewed and new initiatives have been taken. One such initiative is ‘The study of 200”, an examination of the Arabic heritage through the works of 200 authors, a programme promoted by the European Commission. Within this context IDEO has announced a colloquium to be held in January 2016 on commentaries in Islam: “Islamic Sciences: between Repetition and Innovation. What is Commentary in Islam?”

IDEO is also part of another initiative, this time taken by the Federation of Catholic Universities in Europe (FUCE). PLURIEL, Plateforme universitaire de recherche sur l’Islam en Europe et au Liban, is a programme of research on different aspects of Islam, grouping Catholic universities or institutions in Austria, France, Germany, Italy and Spain, but also in Egypt and the Lebanon. In the last-mentioned country the partner is the Université Saint Joseph, and in particular its Institut d’Etudes Islamo-Chrétiennes. PLURIEL has announced that its first colloquium will be held in September 2016 on “L’islam au Pluriel: Pensée, foi et société” (Islam as a Plural Reality: Thought, Faith and Society).

The Pontifical Institute of Arabic and Islamic Studies (PISAI) in Rome is also a partner in PLURIEL. The PISAI has now repatriated its preparatory year of Arabic which for some years had been entrusted to Dar Comboni in Cairo. In January 2015 it celebrated fifty years of its presence in Rome with a colloquium at the Pontificia Università Urbaniana. On this occasion the participants were received in audience by Pope Francis who expressed the hope that the PISAI “may never betray its primary purpose of listening and dialogue, founded on distinct identities, on the passionate, patient and vigorous research for truth and beauty, sown by the Creator in the heart of every man and woman and truly visible in every authentic religious expression.”[26]

Many other institutions would deserve mention. Here I wish refer to two only. First, the Silsilah Dialogue Movement. This is a movement founded in 1984 by Fr Sebastiano D’Ambra, of the Pontificio Istituto delle Missioni Estere, in Zamboanga, Mindanao, Southern Philippines. This is a part of the world that has known much unrest because of the ongoing struggle of the Muslim population for independence are at least a degree of autonomy. The Silsilah Movement has given  priority to mutual understanding between Christians and Muslims through education and common activities. It has created a Harmony Village where Christians and Muslims live together. In 2011 a celebration marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of its summer course on Christian-Muslim dialogue. In 2013 Silsilah was award the Goi Peace Award, a prestigious Japanese award, for “Building a Culture of Dialogue for Peace”[27]. The second organization that merits a mention is the Adyan Foundation for Inter-religious Studies and Spiritual Solidarity, founded in 2007 in the Lebanon by Christians and Muslims, both men and women. The inclusion of solidarity in its title is an indication that this foundation wishes to go beyond purely academic research in order to foster harmony and peace. Its activities, both offline and online, include conferences, study trips, academic programmes and workshops. It takes a particular interest in education. It is promoting the acceptance of women as representatives of religion and duly recognized by religious authorities[28].

  • Partners in Dialogue

Within the Islamic world note can be taken of the change in denomination of the OIC, which from the Organization of the Islamic Conference (founded in 1969) has become in 2011 the Organization for Islamic Cooperation. Although the OIC groups together 57 member States and purports to be “the collective voice of the Muslim world”, having as its aim “to safeguard and protect the interests of the Muslim world in the spirit of promoting international peace and harmony,” it does not appear to be very effective in responding to the present crisis in the Islamic world. In point of fact, the PCID has never been engaged in dialogue with the OIC. When the Muslim-Catholic Liaison Committee was set up in 1995 the OIC was not included since it was considered to be a political rather than a religious body.

Two of the regular partners of the PCID seem to have dropped out. One is the World Islamic Call Society which had its headquarters in Tripoli, Libya. It is not known what has become of this organization following the turmoil that this country has been going through. The other organization is the Al Albait Foundation, founded by Prince Hassan of Jordan, with which the PCID had been organizing regular dialogue meetings. When King Abdullah succeeded to the throne of Jordan following the death of his father, King Hussein, he appointed his cousin, Prince Ghazi, as head of the Al Albait Institute in the place of his uncle, Prince Hassan. The PCID made contact with Prince Ghazi to enquire whether the dialogue would continue, but the answer was negative, the reason being that the institute wished to turn its attention to fostering unity among Muslims. It is this foundation which coordinated the response to Pope Benedict XVI after his speech in Regensburg and launched the Common Word programme (see below)[29].

Regular meetings between the PCID and al-Azhar, which had started in 1998, were affected, but not completely interrupted, by the speech of Pope Benedict XVI in Regensburg.  Suspension of these meetings was brought about, however, as a result of another discourse by Pope Benedict. In addressing the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See on the occasion of the New Year greetings in 2011 he mentioned the bomb attacks on churches in Baghdad and Alexandria, Egypt, going on to say: “This succession of attacks is yet another sign of the urgent need for the governments of the region to adopt, in spite of difficulties and dangers, effective measures for the protection of religious minorities”[30]. It is possible that the region mentioned was understood as referring to European countries, whereas the intention of the pope was to appeal to the responsibility of the governments of the Middle East for the protection of all their citizens. In any case these words were considered to be an undue interference in the internal affairs of Egypt. The ambassador of Egypt to the Holy See was called back for consultations, and relations between the Holy See and al-Azhar were suspended. This has not affected dialogue initiatives within Egypt. Dr Ahmad al-Tayyeb, Sheikh al-Azhar, has initiated two programmes: the Bayt al-‘A’ila (meetings of religious leaders of all denominations to find a common answer to sectarian violence) and seminars for imams and priests. A recent meeting of the Apostolic Nuncio in Egypt with Sheikh al-Azhar gives some hope that relations with the Holy See may soon be restored.

The most prominent initiative in the Islamic world in recent years has been the foundation of the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID) in Vienna, on 26 November 2012. The setting up of this new organization had been preceded by the visit of the king of Saudi Arabia to Pope Benedict XVI on 6 November 2007.[31] The concern for dialogue was followed up by a Muslim consultation held in Mecca under the auspices of the World Muslim League (WML), 4-6 June 2008, which produced the Mecca Appeal for Interfaith Dialogue. A month later, 16-18 July 2008, a World Conference on Dialogue was held in Madrid, organized by the WML. It is interesting to note that this conference envisaged dialogue not only between Muslims and Christians, but also with Jews, and with “Oriental Creeds” (Hinduism, Buddhism, Shintoism, Confucianism)[32]. The outcome was the setting up of the KAICIID, with Austria, Saudi Arabia, and Spain as the sponsoring countries and the Holy See as an Observer Founder member[33]. Though this new organization has aroused some opposition in Austria because of Saudi Arabia’s poor record as regards human rights, it has nevertheless continued to function.

Dialogue has continued, through the Muslim-Catholic Liaison Committee with the Muslim World League, the World Muslim Congress, and ISESCO. It has also continued with the Islamic Culture and Relations Organization of Iran. Fr Ayuso reports that “from 2013 collaborative ventures have been started with the Ministry of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) of the Government of Turkey and with the Shi’ite, Sunni, Christian, Yazida and Sabea Endowments of the Ministry for Religious Affairs of the Republic of Iraq”.[34]

Perhaps a mention could be made here of the Lay Centre at Foyer Unitas in Rome. This is a centre for lay students who are pursuing their studies in different Pontifical Universities. Most of the students who stay at the centre are Catholics, but it welcomes students from other Churches and Christian communities and also from other religions. Some of the Nostra Aetate scholars (see above), particularly young women, have experienced the hospitality of the Lay Centre and have found it an enriching environment. In recent years the Lay Centre has been providing short programmes for students from the Muslim College in Cambridge, UK.

Ongoing dialogue

Public opinion, influenced by media reports on continuing conflict and violence involving Christians and Muslims, would question whether dialogue between the followers of these two religions is at all possible. The best answer to this doubt is to point to the dialogue that has continued during the last decade. Here mention will be made of some meetings that have taken place without any attempt to be exhaustive[35].

The Muslim-Catholic Liaison Committee has met to discuss the following topics: Religion and Environment” (Brussels 8-9 June 2006), “Christians and Muslims as witnesses of the God of Justice, of Peace and of Compassion in a world suffering from violence” (Rome 11-13 June 2008), administrative matters (London, 10-11 July 2009), “Believers confronting materialism and secularism” (Rome 18-19 June 2013).

The PCID has met with the Royal Institute for Inter-Faith Studies, Jordan, to exchange on “Religion and civil society” (Amman, 18-20 May 2009) and on “Human and religious values shared by Christians and Muslims for a common education” (Rome, 18-19 May 2011).

With the Permanent Committee of Al-Azhar for Dialogue with Monotheistic Religions the PCID had been holding meetings which would take place on or around 24 February, in order to commemorate the visit of Pope John Paul II to Al-Azhar on that date in the Year 2000. In 2007, in Rome, the topic was “Manipulation of religion:   a common concern for Christians and Muslims”; in 2009, in Rome, “The promotion of a pedagogy for peace, with particular reference to the role of religions”; in 2010, in Cairo, “The phenomenon of confessional violence”. As has been noted above, there is a hope that these meetings will resume.

The 7th colloquium with the Islamic Cultural and Relations Organization of Iran was held in Tehran 9-11 November 2010 where the topic was “Religion and Society: Christian and Muslim Perspectives”. The 8th colloquium, held in Rome 19-21 November 2012, addressed the question of “Catholic and Muslim Cooperation in Promoting Justice.” The 9th colloquium took place once more in Teheran 24-26 November 2014, and was concerned with “Christians and Muslims in Constructive Dialogue for the Good of Society”.

The Catholic-Muslim Forum, set up in response to the Common Word initiative, had its first meeting in Rome, 4-6 November 2008, where the double theme “Love of God. Love of Neighbour” was tackled. This was followed by a second seminar, held in Jordan at the Site of the Baptism of Jesus, 21-23 November 2011, on “Reason, Faith and the Human Person. Christian and Muslim Perspectives”[36]. The third seminar was held in Rome 11-13 December 2014 on the theme “Working Together to Serve Others”.

There are also many ongoing activities to be taken into account, such as the annual meeting of the Journées d’Arras, the regular work of the Groupe de Recherches Islamo-Chrétien (GRIC), the more recently formed Theologische Forum Christentum-Islam which convenes in Stuttgart, the regional meetings in the USA, the regular Christian-Muslim colloquia in Istanbul, the Doha Conferences on Interfaith Dialogue, the  Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions which, at its third meeting in Astana 1-2 July 2009, discussed ‘The role of Religious Leaders in Building a Peace based on Tolerance, Mutual Respect and Cooperation’’. In France there are the meetings of the Groupe d’Amitié Islamo-Chrétien (GAIC), as also meetings bringing together priests and imams in Lyons. Then there is the annual pilgrimage to Vieux-Marché, to the shrine of the Seven Saints (the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus), which Louis Massignon promoted. In 2012 the Christians and Muslims gathered there commemorated the 50th anniversary of Massignon’s death.

From among more isolated events, mention could be made of a meeting sponsored by the UNESCO Chair for Human Rights, Peace and Democracy, in Tehran in April 2006, which examined “Islam and Christianity on Birth, Marriage and Death: Old Teachings and New Questions”. The PCID organized an Interreligious Youth Meeting in Assisi 4-8 November 2006 to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Assisi Day of Prayer for peace, with the purpose of passing on to the next generation ‘the spirit of Assisi”. There was a meeting of Christian and Muslim leaders in Dar-Es-Salaam 3-4 February 2007 on peace in the Horn of Africa; a meeting in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in April 2008 issuing “A Common Call” to Christians and Muslims.

Nor should one forget the contribution of the Anglican Communion: its regular dialogue with Al-Azhar that has been going on since 2002; the Building Bridges programme, the Anglican response to the Common Word initiative,[37] is more theological than most of the meetings in which the Holy See is involved.

These examples of ongoing dialogue belong mainly to the category of the “Dialogue of Discourse”. It must always be remembered that formal discussion meetings are not the only form of dialogue. Examples could also be given of the “Dialogue of Life”, the “Dialogue of Action” and the “Dialogue of Religious Experience”[38]. Despite the adverse climate, it can be seen that Christian-Muslim relations are still vibrant.


What conclusions can be drawn after this survey?[39] We can say first that Christian-Muslim dialogue exists, and therefore it is possible. Obviously the situation is uneven. There are places where there is very little or no interest at all in such dialogue, yet there are other places where relations with Muslim neighbours have become a normal concern for Christian communities.  Meetings of religious leaders take place more frequently, and leaders are ready to make common statements and to act together when occasion arises. Yet parallel to this growing cooperation, mutual suspicion has also grown, and this renders progress in dialogue more difficult.

A further difficulty lies in a lack of knowledge. When one considers populations as a whole, and not just the elite, one is struck by the reciprocal ignorance that obtains. There is indeed much ignorance in the West about Islam and much ignorance about Christianity in countries with a Muslim majority. There is therefore a constant need to educate people, conveying the true image of Islam, as many Muslims advocate, but also revealing the true nature of Christianity.

Motivations for dialogue are often more social than religious, community cohesion being considered more important than growth in religious understanding. This, in fact, opens the way for more political interference in religious relations. Governments are interested in promoting a dialogue of civilisations, or an alliance of civilisations, as a counter-measure to the threat of a clash of civilisations.

In a world of conflict we may ask what Christian-Muslim dialogue can do. It may be well to state first what it cannot do. It should not be expected to bring an immediate solution to a conflict situation, since it is more in the nature of preventive medicine. Its aim is to build up good relations between Christians and Muslims, and indeed with all citizens, helping them to live in peace and harmony. This is no easy task. It entails increasing mutual knowledge, overcoming prejudices, creating trust. It means strengthening bonds of friendship and collaboration to such an extent that detrimental influences coming from outside can be resisted. The ensuing harmony among people of different religious allegiances often goes unobserved. It is the conflict that makes the news, not the absence of conflict. And yet this absence of conflict is really the good news.

A general reflection on interreligious dialogue is relevant here. Religions provide motivation. That is why it is important for people of different religions to tackle problems together. Yet a word of caution is needed. What is being proposed is not an alliance of religions against the rest. The spirit of dialogue has to be fostered within each individual religious tradition, among the religious traditions, and between religious people and those of a secular bent. The relationship between religion and politics is a delicate one. Perhaps the best term to use would be that of a critical dialogue. Religious leaders are not called upon to formulate concrete political measures, but rather to underline basic moral principles. They need to be able to support government measures where these are seen to contribute to the common good, but also to criticize them when human dignity is not being fully respected. Politicians seem to be realizing more and more the power of religion. They wish to harness this force, sometimes for their own ends. Care needs to be taken that religion and religious sentiment are not manipulated. For this, of course, a critical distance needs to obtain between religious leaders and political powers, and this is perhaps not always the case. This is an area where religious traditions can challenge and help one another.

Interreligious dialogue should lead to a common search for understanding, to a shared sympathy for those who are suffering and in need, to a thirst for justice for all, to forgiveness for wrong done, together with a readiness to acknowledge one’s own wrong-doings, whether individual or collective. True religion, relayed by interreligious dialogue, does not support conflict and war, but provides the right atmosphere in which conflicts can be resolved and peace attained. This is the spirit which Nostra Aetate wished to foster and it is surely still the true way forward for Christian-Muslim dialogue.

[1] Cf. Michael L. FITZGERALD, “The Relevance of Nostra Aetate in Changed Times” in Islamochristiana 32 (2006) pp. 63-87.

[2] Cf. Michael L. FITZGERALD, “The Arab Spring outside in” in Islamochristiana 39(2013) pp. 161-173.

[3] Cf. Michael L. FITZGERALD, “The Relevance of Nostra Aetate in Changed Times” in Islamochristiana 32 (2006) pp.67sq.

[4] See the report of a dialogue on this theme between the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and the World Islamic Call Society, in Tripoli, Libya, 6-8 April 2006, in Pro Dialogo 122(2006) pp.207-209.

[5] See for example the intervention of Bishop Giovanni Martinelli O.F.M. of Tripoli, Libya, in Islamochristiana 35(2009) p.300.

[6] See the short report on this meeting in Islamochristiana 32(2006) pp.249-250; for the words of Pope Benedict XVI addressed to this gathering see pp.269-270.

[7] On 17 March 2008 the first Catholic church in Qatar was officially opened by Cardinal Ivan Dias, at that time Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples in a ceremony at which the deputy Prime Minister was present. The report on this event notes that the government has authorized the construction of five other Christian churches; cf. Islamochristiana 34(2008), p.232.

[8] Cf. Pro Dialogo 122(2006) pp. 216-218.

[9] See the report by Renata Bedendo in Islamochristiana 35(2009) pp.271-272.

[10] Cf. Islamochristiana 37(2011) under the title “Women on the Move – Both Muslim and Christian”.

[11] See the reports on these congresses by Renata Bedendo in Islamochristiana 34(2008) pp.206-207 and 36(2010) pp. 276-277.

[12] Cf. Pro Dialogo 134-135 (2010) pp.214-216.

[13] Cf. Francesco GIOIA, Il dialogo interreligioso nell’inegnamento ufficiale della Chiesa Cattolica (1963-2013), Libreria Editrice Vaticana 2013, no.1411; English translation at

[14] Cf. Francesco GIOIA, Il dialogo interreligioso, no.1423; English translation at

[15] See the dossier on this event and its consequences in Islamochristiana 32(2006) pp.273-297.

[16] Cf.

[17] Cf. _repubblica-centrafricana-musulmani.html.

[18] Miguel Angel AYUSO GUIXOT, “50 Years in the Service of Interreligious Dialogue” in Pro Dialogo 145 (2014) p.30.

[19] On the origins of this service, see Michel LELONG, “Le Secrétariat de l’Eglise de France pour les Relations avec l’Islam” in Islamochristiana 4(1978) pp.166-174; see also « Le S.R.I. a vingt ans » in Islamochristiana 19(1993) pp.239-241.

[20] Cf. « La célébration du quarantième anniversaire de la création du Service des Relations avec l’Islam (SRI) à Paris,  le 28 septembre 2013 » in Islamochristiana 39(2013) pp223-224.

[21] On these two meetings see Islamochristiana 35(2009) pp.244-245.

[22] Cf. accessed 5.12.2015. On this synod see the dossier published in Islamochristiana 39(2009) pp.297-321.

[23] See the dossier published in Islamochristiana 36(2010) pp.333-366.

[24] English translation at

[25] Cf. Michael L. FITZGERALD, “The Relevance of Nostra Aetate in Changed Times” in Islamochristiana 32 (2006) pp.79-80.

[26] Cf. Islamochristiana 40(2014) p.4; this issue contains the full text of Pope Francis in both Italian and English, as well as an article by Fr Maurice Borrmans on the origins of PISAI in Tunisia and the reasons for the transfer to Rome.

[27] Cf. Islamochristiana 39(2013) pp.285-286; on the background to this movement see the two articles by Sebastiano D’AMBRA “Christian-Muslim Relations in the Philippines” in Islamohristiana 20(1994) pp.179-206, and “Signs of a ‘New Spring’ in Christian-Muslim Relations in the Philippines” in Islamochristiana 37(2011) pp.145-159.

[28] Cf. Yvonne Yazbeck HADDAD and Rahel FISCHBACH, “Interfaith Dialogue in Lebanon: Between a Power Balancing Act and Theological Encounter” in Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations 26/4 (2015) pp.423-442, especially pp. 434-436.

[29] For a dossier on the “Open Letter of 138 Muslim religious leaders” see Islamochristiana 33(2007) pp.241-288; on different Christian responses, Anglican, Mainline Protestant, Evangelical, Orthodox and Catholic, to this initiative see Yvonne Yazbeck HADDAD and Jane I. SMITH, “The Quest for a Common Word: Initial Christian Responses to a Muslim Initiative” in Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations 20/4 (October 2009) pp.369-388; see also Maurice BORRMANS, “The Roman Catholic Church and the Letter of the 138 Muslim Religious Leaders” in Current Dialogue 54 (July 2013) pp.54-58.

[30] Cf. Francesco GIOIA, Il dialogo interreligioso, no.1569; English translation at

[31] Cf. Islamochristiana 34(2008) pp.187-188.

[32] For a short report on this conference, and for the contributions of King Abdullah and Fr Ayuso Guixot, Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, the concluding remarks of Cardinal Tauran, President of the same Council, and the final declaration, see Islamochristiana 34(2008) pp.275-283.

[33] For a Vatican press statement clarifying the position of the Holy See, cf. Pro Dialogo 140-141 (2012) pp.248-249.

[34] Cf. Miguel Angel AYUSO GUIXOT, “50 Years in the Service of Interreligious Dialogue” in Pro Dialogo 145 (2014) p.30.

[35] Detailed references will not be given; reports on these meetings can be found, especially in the two journals Pro Dialogo and Islamochristiana.

[36] Cf. Islamochristiana 34(2008) pp.261-272, 37(2011) pp.264-285.

[37] Cf. Clare AMOS, “For the Common Good: the Church of England, Christian-Muslim Relations and A Common Word” in Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations 20/2 (April 2009) pp.183-196.

[38] Cf. Michael L. FITZGERALD, “The Possibility of Dialogue with Islam Today” in Origins vol.44 no.42 (March 26, 2015) pp.681-690, especially pp. 686-688.

[39] I summarize here the considerations offered at the end of the above-mentioned article, pp.688-690.