The Arab Spring Outside In
The Arab Spring Outside In
By Cardinal Michael Fitzgerald, M.Afr.
Published in Islamochristiana 39 (2013) pp.175-181
Delivered at the Pontifical Institute of Arabic and Islamic Studies, Rome, on 17 May 2013
Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
First allow me to thank Don Valentino Cottini for having invited me to deliver this year’s Bradley Lecture. It is a pleasure to return to the Pontifical Institute of Arabic and Islamic Studies where previously I lived and worked for many years. I would also like to express my appreciation for the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation for the continuous support given to the PISAI, and to thank in particular Dr Daniel Schmidt who has always taken a keen interest in the work of the Institute. The topic that Don Valentino has asked me to speak about, the Arab Spring, is, I am sure, of particular interest to the Bradley Foundation which has always been concerned with the promotion and strengthening of democracy, fostering economic, intellectual and cultural activity, and has insisted on the need for enlightened citizens and informed public opinion.
Let me explain the title I have given to this talk “The Arab Spring Outside In”. I am neither a sociologist nor a political scientist. I am not a specialist on North Africa and the Middle East. I do not pretend to know the recent developments in the countries of these regions inside out. I am, it is true, someone who has studied Arabic language and different aspects of Islam. I have been engaged for many years in Christian-Muslim dialogue, as also in wider interreligious relations. And it so happens, I was present in Egypt at the time of the revolution of 25 January 2011, not just as a tourist or a researcher, but as the representative of the Holy See. I cannot claim to have been involved in the Egyptian version of the Arab Spring, but only to have been present as an observer, looking as it were from the outside in. This is all the more true in that the Apostolic Nunciature where I was residing is situated on an island in the Nile, the island of Zamalek, and thus across the bridge from Tahrir Square, the epicentre of the revolution.
In this talk I shall be dealing mainly with Egypt, though I shall also make reference to other countries which have experienced the Arab Spring, particularly to point out the differences. What I wish to do is to indicate the root causes of the revolutionary movement, to plot the developments, and to assess the role of different religious bodies. Since the true results of the Arab Spring are still awaited, it will be difficult to offer any definite conclusion.
The roots of the revolution
There would appear to have been three main grievances which brought young people to demonstrate against the leaders of their countries: the oppression of dictatorial regimes; tight control of information; the increasing gap between the rich and the poor. To these corresponded the desire for a greater possibility of political involvement, for greater freedom of expression and for a better distribution of wealth.
It should be remembered that those who initiated the protest movements were in general young people. They were not adolescents, but young adults, many with university degrees, but who found themselves unemployed in societies where contacts and recommendations counted often more than qualifications. It has been noted that the movements were not strictly ideological; they did not attack Western countries or Israel. Nor were they religiously motivated. They were aimed at gaining greater freedom, justice and dignity.
The immediate occasion of the “Jasmine Revolution” in Tunisia was the self-immolation of the 26-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi, a young man who had taken to selling vegetables, and who had been roughly treated by government agents whom some have termed as “thugs”. In Egypt a protest movement had already started in 2005 before the presidential election at which Mohamed Hosni Mubarak was re-elected for the fifth time. George Ishak, a Coptic Orthodox Christian, founded Kefaya (“Enough”) in protest against the constitutional amendment which removed any limit on the number of terms a president could serve. The 2010 legislative elections caused much dismay, because the rules were changed in such a way that it became practically impossible for anyone to stand as an independent candidate. This effectively eliminated the members of the Ikhwân, the Muslim Brothers, always qualified as the “proscribed but tolerated confraternity”, who in the 2005 parliament had won 88 seats, about a fifth of the Majlis al-shacb, the People’s Assembly. In fact, all the power was in the hands of the National Democratic Party (NDP), the President’s party, the burnt shell of whose headquarters stands as a witness to the popular anger at the time of the revolution. There was also concern about the age and ailing health of President Mubarak. The idea was being floated that he should be succeeded by his younger son, Gamal, deputy secretary-general of the NDP and head of its policies committee. The idea of a “hereditary republic”, although already put into effect in Syria, met with strong opposition in Egypt.
Corruption was another concern. In Tunisia there was much indignation at the accumulation of wealth by the family of President Ben Ali. In Libya, many felt that Colonel Gaddafi was using the resources of the country not for the benefit of its inhabitants but, initially, to support revolutionary movements all over the world and, in the latter part of his rule, to promote his own African ambitions. Egypt under Mubarak, and under his Prime Minister, Ahmed Nazif (2004-2011), who headed a largely technocrat government, boasted of a thriving economy. Yet the general population remained poor, dependent on bread and fuel subsidies, while a small group of elite enriched themselves. A sign of dissatisfaction was the strike that took place at the cotton factory in al-Mahalla, in the Delta, on 6 April 2008, a strike that was severely repressed by the government. This event would perhaps have remained insignificant if it had not been for the support the workers gained from young people. Reports in the official media were contradicted by eye-witness accounts, with the backing of photographs and videotapes, spread through the internet. Ahmed Maher, a young civil engineer and a former activist in the Kefaya movement, founded the “April 6th Youth Movement” which became prominent in the revolution. Maher made contact with Otpor, a Serbian youth movement, which had contributed to the downfall of Slobodan Milosovic, in order to learn from them the methods of non-violent action.
The authorities in Egypt were often heavy-handed with regard to information outlets, and bloggers frequently found themselves investigated or even imprisoned. Particularly striking was the case of Khaled Said, an activist in Alexandria, who was seized in an internet café, accused of drug peddling (an accusation strongly contested by his family and friends), and whose brutal assault by the police resulted in his death. His case was taken up by a young Egyptian internet specialist, Wael Ghonim, marketing manager for Google in the Middle East. He opened a Facebook page, “We are all Khaled Said”, which captured the imagination of a young public, and which became an instrument for promoting ideas of democracy.
As is well known, from December 2010 demonstrations took place in Tunisia, not only in the capital but also in many different cities, protesting against high prices, unemployment and the rampant corruption. Despite the use of force, which resulted in numerous losses of life, the popular movement could not be put down, and on 14 January 2011 President Ben Ali fled the country for Saudi Arabia.
This unexpected result must have encouraged the young people in Egypt. It was announced that a demonstration would be held in Tahrir Square on 25 January, a public holiday, National Police Day. Instructed by internet and text messages, the demonstrators were able to avoid police control and arrived in thousands in this central square. A further demonstration was scheduled for the following Friday. To prevent this from taking place, the government decided to block all internet and mobile phone access throughout the country. This measure in fact produced the opposite of the effect desired, for instead of being content to follow events from afar through the internet, many young people decided to go themselves to Tahrir, giving rise to a really massive demonstration. Demonstrations continued, occasioning serious clashes with the police, or with other forces (as on the infamous Day of the Camel), which nevertheless did not break the resolve of the protestors. The army was called in to secure order, a move which was welcomed by the population. Whereas the members of the police were generally detested, as being brutal and government informers, the army was felt as belonging to the people. Mubarak tried to make concessions, finally appointing a Vice-President, an office which he had never filled during his long rule. This measure was of no avail. On 11 February, almost a month after Ben Ali, Mubarak had Omar Sulayman, the newly-appointed Vice-President, announce his resignation. He refused, however, to flee the country. This result gave rise to a great explosion of joy throughout the whole country, and a feeling of national pride.
The results in other countries have been different. In Yemen, demonstrations against the rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh led to conflict and a bomb attack in which the president was injured. After long negotiations, facilitated by the Gulf Cooperation Council, new presidential elections resulted in the former vice-president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi, being installed as the new ruler of the country. A solution has therefore been found through peaceful means. In Libya the rivalry between Tripoli and Benghazi led to civil war, only resolved through outside intervention which resulted in the killing of Muammar Gaddafi, and the installation of a new government. In Syria, too, the opposition to the government has resulted in civil war, which regretfully continues. It could perhaps be noted here, in passing, that in both Jordan and Morocco constitutional reforms were introduced in order to forestall any revolutionary movement. Of course it may be that attachment to royalty is greater than the feeling of loyalty to a particular president.
The army steps in
Though in Tunisia the army had been involved in maintaining order, and had engaged in combat against elements of the presidential guard, it was not called upon to play a further role. In fact Tunisia, with its strong civil society, its numerous intellectuals of double culture, both Arabic and French, and its long history of trade union activity, was able to cope with the aftermath of the fall of Ben Ali. Though not without difficulty, the renewal of the government has taken place.
In Egypt the situation was different. The young revolutionaries may well have been surprised by their success. What they were leading was more a movement of civil disobedience than a revolution. There was no true leader, no definite programme, only shared ideals. Certainly they had not made any preparations in advance to fill the vacuum left following the resignation of President Mubarak. It is true that some of the young people welcomed Mohammed ElBaradei, the former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, who returned to his country on 27 January 2011, the eve of the “Day of Anger”. Despite his prestige as a winner of the Nobel Prize, ElBaradei was not able to gather enough support to press his case for becoming the new ruler of Egypt.
Into the gap stepped the army which, as has been said already, had in Egypt the support of the people. Field-Marshal M. Hussein Tantawi, commander-in-chief of the army and Mubarak’s Minister of Defence for twenty years or more, took over as the head of the Supreme Command of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and acting President. This was not a military putsch. The army had no ambition to maintain power. It wished to move as quickly as possible to a civil government, while at the same time maintaining its own privileged position in Egyptian society. When discussion was going on about establishing super-constitutional principles, prior to the drafting of the new Constitution, the army proposed that these should include the complete removal of its budget from any government control. In fact, no agreement was reached on any such super-constitutional principles.
The SCAF immediately arranged for some constitutional amendments to be drawn up in order to facilitate the election process. These were then put to a referendum. The amendments provided for parliamentary elections, followed by the choice of a Constituent Assembly, and then the presidential elections. Perhaps SCAF had been ill advised, for many would have preferred to begin with the election of a new Head of State. It must be said, however, in favour of the Army, that it was difficult to envisage the election of a president whose mandate had as yet not been determined. In the event, the Muslim Brothers transformed a purely technical referendum into a religious matter. They characterized a no-vote to the constitutional amendments as a vote against Islam. The non-Islamists hesitated as to whether they should boycott the referendum in order to question its validity, or to vote no. In the end, the amendments were approved, and the election process began.
Democracy in action
In preparation for the elections a bewildering number of new political parties were created to add to those which already existed (Wikepedia lists more than eighty). For instance, Naguib Sawiris, a leading Coptic Orthodox businessman, founded the Party of the Free Egyptians, to carry forward the idea of a liberal democratic republic. ElBaradei founded the Constitution Party, with similar aims. The Muslim Brothers founded the Freedom and Justice Party. The Salafis established a party which they called al-Nour (Light), but they also have other parties. Dissidents from the Muslim Brothers set up a moderately Islamic party, al-Wasat (Centre). There are also parties established by Jihadists and others by Sufis.
The liberal parties, though attracting some of the urban elite, do not appear to have much support in rural areas. The Muslim Brothers, on the other hand, had gained considerable support on account of their social action at the grass roots which they had carried out even though they were officially proscribed. They declared their political party open to all. In fact some Christians did join this party, though they were severely criticized by other Christians. When on a visit to Sohag, in Upper Egypt, I was invited to speak to the members of the party at their new offices in the town. Perhaps unlike other ambassadors, it was not my custom to associate with political leaders, so I hesitated, but the local Catholic bishop encouraged me to accept the invitation, and both he and his Orthodox counterpart were also invited to address the gathering. Since the name chosen for the party was Freedom and Justice, I felt it appropriate to use the occasion to expound the Catholic Church’s understanding of these two concepts.
The first round of the parliamentary elections met with great enthusiasm. The population went out in large numbers to vote, women being particularly prominent. It was felt that for the first time there was true freedom, and indeed generally the voting proceeded smoothly without any serious abuses. One negative feature was the fact that the number of judges available for supervising the elections being limited, and outside help having been refused, the voting took place in different parts of the country at three different periods. This meant that the results, or at least the exit-polls, of the first elections were known before others voted. When it became clear that the Islamists were gaining the majority of seats in the People’s Assembly, the enthusiasm for voting waned, and the turn-out in the second round was much less numerous.
As in Tunisia, where Ennahda (Revival), the party of Islamist tendencies, won the most seats in parliament, so in Egypt the Freedom and Justice Party won 40% of the seats in the Majlis al-shacb, while the Salafis surprisingly gained 20%. This meant that Islamist members had the absolute majority. This had an important consequence for the choice of the Constituent Assembly, a task that had been entrusted to the newly elected parliament. There appeared to be an agreement that in this Constituent Assembly all sectors of society should be represented, but the majority did not abide by this agreement. They made sure that the majority of the Constituent Assembly would also be of Islamist tendency.
The presidential election
In Tunisia the Constituent Assembly elected as interim president Moncef Marzouki, a human rights activist and a non-Islamist. In Egypt it had been decided that the election of the president would be through universal suffrage, and that this would take place even though the Constituent Assembly had not finished its work. A large number of people presented their candidature, but the Electoral Commission whittled these down to about a dozen. Prominent on the liberal side was Amr Moussa, the former Secretary General of the Arab League. The Muslim Brothers had initially stated that they were content to have the leading role in the People’s Assembly and that they would not present a candidate for the presidency. They changed their minds however, but the first candidate they presented, Khayr al-Shater, was eliminated because six years had not elapsed since his release from imprisonment. The Ikhwân then presented Mohamed Morsi, chairman of the new Freedom and Justice Party. Another surprise candidate, Omar Soleyman, was eliminated officially for a technical reason, for not having obtained signed support from a sufficient number of governorates, though most probably because, being a prominent figure of the former regime, his candidature provoked serious opposition. Other strong candidates were Hamdeen Sabahi, a Nassirist, and Ahmed Shafiq, an air-force officer, former Minister of Civil Aviation and the last Prime Minister appointed by Mubarak days before this resignation. Despite being amongst the fulûl, the remnants of the Mubarak regime, Shafiq was allowed to run.
No candidate received an overall majority in the first round. Morsi and Shafiq qualified for the run-off, with Hamdeen Sabahi arriving in a surprising third place, ahead of Amr Moussa. In the second round, after a number of irregularities had been examined by the Electoral Commission, Morsi was declared the elected President, though this result was contested by Shafiq. The majority was small, 51.7% to 48.3%, and when it is taken into consideration that only 51% of the electorate cast their vote, it can be said that Morsi hardly represents the majority of Egyptians. Nevertheless he has been hailed as the first freely elected President of Egypt. Many expressed the hope that he would be the President of all, and not just of one party or section of the population, a hope which seems to have faded somewhat.
The work of the Constituent Assembly
In the meantime the work of the Constituent Assembly continued. It would seem that with regard to the task of producing a new Constitution there was a difference in attitude between Ennahda in Tunisia, and the Freedom and Justice Party in Egypt. Whereas Ennahda did not insist on a reference to sharîca in the Constitution, the Muslim Brothers, together with their Salafi allies, were intent on giving more importance to sharîca. Not only did they wish to maintain article 2 of the former Constitution which stipulated that the principles of the sharîca should be the main source of all legislation, but they proposed to insert another article determining how sharîca should be applied.
The legitimacy of the Constituent Assembly was contested and in fact the first Assembly, elected in March 2012, was declared unconstitutional. In the summer a new assembly was chosen by the parliamentarians and it continued its work, although it also was challenged and the matter was submitted to the Constitutional Court. This court, however, continuously delayed its verdict, thus allowing the Assembly to pursue its deliberations. This unsatisfactory situation, and also the haste with which the drafting of the Constitution was being carried out, led to the withdrawal of a substantial number of members of the Constituent Assembly who were then replaced by substitutes. Finally, when the drafting of the Constitution was complete, the Constitutional Court declared the Constituent Assembly to be valid.
The draft Constitution was approved by the Constituent Assembly on 30 November 2012. It was then submitted to a referendum, in accordance with the original constitutional amendments that determined the whole electoral process. Many groups decided to boycott the referendum, some because the proposed Constitution was too Islamic, others because it was not sufficiently Islamic. In the end, 32.9% of the electorate voted, of whom 63.8% gave their approval to the Constitution. It is perhaps to be noted that in certain countries, such as Italy, an electoral participation lower than 50% would have annulled the referendum, and would have forced a return to square one.
The role of Religious Authorities
In some of the countries concerned by the Arab Spring, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, it could be said that the presence of Christians is minimal and certainly politically insignificant. With regard to Syria, where Christians form a substantial minority of the population, they have suffered from the civil war, and are suffering from it, as much as any other citizens. Within the opposition movement there are Christians who have been trying to persuade their fellow Christians, both outside and within Syria, that in the new State, which would be brought into being by the Revolution, their situation would be fully satisfactory. I am not sure that they have been successful. In general, Syrian Church authorities have confined themselves to appealing for an end to the violence.
Let me now consider Egypt.
- The Coptic Orthodox Church
At the beginning of the Revolution of 25 January, Pope Shenouda III advised Copts not to take part in the demonstrations. Perhaps he, like many others, felt that the opposition would not achieve anything, and he may have feared that Christians would only suffer from being opposed to the government and the presidency of Mubarak. Whatever the case may be, on this occasion young Copts did not follow the advice of their revered religious leader. They wished to show their love for their country by joining their fellow citizens in demanding greater freedom and dignity.
As has been pointed out already, the revolution at its beginning did not have any religious reference, though it later took on a more Islamic colour. I often wondered, on seeing the masses gathered in Tahrir Square performing the Friday prayer, how the Christians present felt. It is true that on some occasions Christian prayers were celebrated in Tahrir, usually under Protestant leadership. Some Coptic priests showed their solidarity with the demonstrators, but the official opposition of the Coptic Orthodox Church to the revolutionary movement did not change.
After the death of Pope Shenouda, on 17 March 2012, the administrator of the Church, Anba Pachomios, adopted a low profile. When the new Pope, Tawadros II, was elected, in November 2012, he immediately stated that the Church should not be engaged in politics, and he exhorted the Coptic faithful to follow their own consciences in political matters. In point of fact, recent attacks against Christians, even within the precincts of the Cathedral of St Mark in Cairo, have forced Pope Tawadros II to speak out, voicing his complaint that Christians are not sufficiently protected.
Soon after his election, President Morsi had invited religious leaders, both Muslim and Christian, to meet with him, and this had been taken as a welcome sign that the President was concerned with the well-being of all Egyptians, whatever their religion. These meetings proved however to be unsatisfactory. The Christian leaders felt that they did not have sufficient opportunity to voice their own concerns, and also they did not see any measures being taken to guarantee equal treatment for Christian citizens. They therefore declined to accept further invitations to meetings.
Egypt boasts the prestigious institution of al-Azhar, founded by the Fatimids in 969, and thus Shicite in origin, but which subsequently became almost the symbol of Sunni Islam in the world. Although the Egyptian government includes a Ministry for Endowments (al-Awqâf), and has a Chief Mufti, al-Azhar remains important. Its head, Sheikh al-Azhar, or al-imâm al-akbar, is appointed by the President and holds a rank equivalent to that of Prime Minister. In 2010, on the death of M. Sayyid Tantawi, who had welcomed Pope John Paul II to al-Azhar on 24 February 2000, Dr Ahmed al-Tayyeb, the rector of al-Azhar University, was appointed Imam. At the time of his appointment, Dr al-Tayyeb was a member of the central committee of the NDP, a position which he relinquished immediately. Known as an opponent of the Muslim Brothers, he has tried to position al-Azhar in a moderate role. Under his inspiration al-Azhar has produced several important documents.
The first document, issued on 19 June 2011, gave support for a modern, democratic state which would guarantee the equal rights of citizens and where there would be a separation of powers. The document stated that “democracy based on free and direct voting” is “the modern formula to achieve the Islamic precepts (sic) of “Shura” (consultation). It upheld freedom of opinion and condemned religious discrimination, sectarianism and racism. A second document, published on 30 October 2011, discussed the Arab revolutions. The third statement, or charter, issued on 8 January 2012, gave further development to the ideas summarily expressed already in the first document on fundamental liberties. It affirmed freedom of belief, freedom of opinion and expression, freedom for scientific research, and artistic and literary creativity. Finally “The al-Azhar Document on Renouncing Violence” was signed on 31 January 2013. This ends with a resounding appeal to all citizens in Egypt “to opt for reconciliation, to renounce violence, to activate faithful dialogue, to let just judiciary resolve all legal issues, to respect people’s choices, and to uphold the rule of law.”
Dr al-Tayyeb also set up or facilitated the Bayt al-A’ila (The House of the Family), periodic meetings of religious leaders, both from within Islam and from the various Christian Churches. The purpose of these meetings is to examine the causes of the frequent outbreaks of sectarian violence, and to find ways in which to prevent them.
- The Catholic Church
The Christian presence in Egypt is massively Coptic Orthodox, so much so that the Government and the press speak not about Christians and Muslims, but Copts and Muslims. Compared to the probably conservative estimate of something over 8 million Copts, the other Churches – whether Greek Orthodox, Syrian and Armenian Orthodox, Anglican and Protestant, or Catholic – are small in numbers. Catholics, belonging to seven different rites, would altogether number somewhere around 200,000. It is true that the Catholic Church, through its network of schools and its medical and social services open to all, has a much wider influence, but it wields little political weight.
Protestants were evident during the early phases of the revolution, particularly since one of their churches, situated near Tahrir Square, acted as a “camp hospital” or medical centre. There were also Catholics taking part in the demonstrations, in particular members of the Justice and Peace commission, but their presence was not high profile. Here I wish to say a word about the main reaction of the Catholic authorities which was on a different front.
Recognizing that Catholics had tended generally to stay out of politics, the bishops decided to respond to the new situation created by the revolution by providing adult education, aimed particularly at young adults. Special lectures and conferences were arranged. The speakers invited were not only Catholics, but also other Christians as well as Muslims. The importance of fulfilling one’s electoral duties was emphasized, efforts being made to enhance political awareness. Candidates for both the parliamentary and presidential elections were invited to speak about their vision for the future of Egypt, and about their programme if they had one. Constitutional matters were explained, so that people would understand the importance of the promised referendum on the new Constitution.
Here it should be pointed out that the Catholic Bishops did not seem too preoccupied by article 2 of the Constitution, which stipulates that the principles of sharîca should be the source of legislation. They felt that Christians would not suffer from this, as long as provision was made for non-Muslim citizens. The thrust was not to encourage advocacy for the rights of Christians alone; but rather to focus attention on the rights of citizens in general. This educational programme appears to have been a wise policy, although the effect it had is hard to evaluate.
The Bishops must certainly have been encouraged in their endeavour by an event that had preceded the Arab Spring. In October of 2010 the Catholic Bishops, not only of Egypt but of the whole region, had gathered around Pope Benedict XVI in the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Middle East. Their deliberations were gathered together in the Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in Medio Oriente which Pope Benedict promulgated during a special visit to the Lebanon in September 2011. In my opinion, this document provides valid guidelines for Christians living in a region which is still searching for its way.
As I said at the beginning, it is difficult to draw any definite conclusions, because what has been described here is an ongoing process. Let me end therefore by expressing a heartfelt hope, namely that the democratic spirit brought into play by the Arab Spring may prevail, in order to create a society marked by freedom and justice, a society in which all citizens can enjoy prosperity and peace, for their own good, but also for the good of the whole world.
The relevance of the Synod for the Middle East.
The theme of this Synod was “The Church in the Middle East. Communion and Witness”. In order to live fully this vision of a Church of communion, emphasis was put first of all on spiritual renewal within the Catholic Church, based on the deepening of the life of faith of each member of the Church (3). Yet this spirit of communion was to be broadened, first to embrace the Churches not in communion with the Bishop of Rome, but also in openness to both Jews and Muslims (3). The Exhortation dedicates several paragraphs to dialogue with Jews and Muslims (19-28), though in fact few indications are given as to how one should go about this dialogue. Nevertheless strong encouragement is given: “May Jews, Christians and Muslims rediscover one of God’s desires, that of the unity and harmony of the human family. May Jews, Christians and Muslims find in other believers brothers and sisters to be respected and loved, and in this way, beginning in their own lands, give the beautiful witness of serenity and concord between the children of Abraham” (19).
Prior to this appeal, an important clarification had been given: “Communion …. is certainly not confusion. Authentic witness calls for acknowledgment and respect for others, a willingness to dialogue in truth, patience as an expression of love, the simplicity and humility proper to those who realize that they are sinners in the sight of God and their neighbour, a capacity for forgiveness, reconciliation and purification of memory, at both the personal and communal levels” (12). It is pointed out that this witness is to be lived in a context which is “restrictive, unstable and lately violence-prone” (11). Despite this unfavourable context, the result of past and present conflicts, a call is made not lose sight of “the contribution made by Jews, Christians and Muslims in the formation of a rich culture proper to the Middle East” (24).
It is noted that “the Catholics of the Middle East, the majority of whom are native citizens of their countries, have the duty and right to participate fully in national life, working to build up their country. They should enjoy full citizenship and not be treated as second-class citizens or believers” (25). Every effort should be made therefore to move beyond mere tolerance to true religious freedom (27). People belonging to different religions are exhorted to work together for the common good (28).
Yet, on account of the conflicts already mentioned, the difficult situation of Christians is not minimized: “Christians, who frequently find themselves in a delicate position, feel keenly, at times with weariness and little hope, the negative consequences of these conflicts and uncertainties. They experience frequent humiliation. They know from experience that they are often the victims when trouble breaks out. After taking an active part for centuries in the growth of their respective nations and helping to forge their identity and prosperity, many Christians are now seeking more favourable horizons and places of peace where their families will be able to live a dignified and secure life, and spaces of freedom where they can express their faith openly without fear of various constraints. This is a heart-rending decision” (31).
The danger of religious fundamentalism is underlined. “This phenomenon afflicts all religious communities, and denies their long-standing tradition of coexistence. It wants to gain power, at times violently, over individual consciences, and over religion itself, for political reasons. I appeal – Benedict XVI made this his own personal plea – I appeal urgently to all Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious leaders in the region to seek, by their example and by their teaching, to do everything in their power to eliminate this menace which indiscriminately and fatally affects believers of all religions” (30).
It must be admitted that the victory of Islamist parties in the elections that have followed the Arab Spring is unsettling for Christians and, one might add, for many Muslims too. While the Catholic Church makes provision for those of its members who have migrated, its official policy is to encourage Christians to remain in their homelands. The Exhortation states quite clearly: “A Middle East without Christians, or with only a few Christians, would no longer be the Middle East, since Christians, together with other believers, are part of the distinctive identity of the region. All are responsible before God for one another. Thus it is important that politicians and religious leaders appreciate this and avoid those policies or partisan strategies which would result in a monochromatic Middle East that would be completely unreflective of its rich human and historic reality” (31).
Published as « The Arab Spring outside in », Islamochristiana 39(2013) pp.161-173.
The topic of the annual Bradley Lecture for 2013, reproduced here, was the Arab Spring. It indicates some of the root causes for the revolutions that took place within the Arab World; it traces the results of this revolutionary movement, with particular reference to Egypt; and it assesses the role of different religious bodies in the country, namely the Coptic Orthodox Church, the Coptic Catholic Church, and al-Azhar.
Le sujet de la conférence annuelle, the Bradley Lecture, à l’Institut Pontifical d’Etudes Arabes et Islamiques pour 2013, dont le texte est publié ici, était le Printemps arabe. Cette conférence indique certaines des racines des révolutions qui ont eu lieu dans le Monde arabe ; elle trace le développement et les résultats de ce mouvement révolutionnaire, en se référant en particulier à l’Egypte ; et elle fait état du rôle di diverses institutions religieuses, à savoir l’Eglise Copte Orthodoxe, l’Eglise Copte Catholique, et al-Azhar.
 This paper has been reproduced as it was given, without any attempt to take into account the more recent developments in the Arab world.
 See the mission statement at www.bradleyfdn.org
 For a general overview, see the article by Giovanni Sale, S.J. “A due anni della Primavera Araba” in La Civiltà Cattolica, 3902 (19 gennaio 2013) pp.125-157; see also Thiab Ayyoush, “Arab Revolutions: Causes and Motives. A Sociological Analysis, in Al-Liqa’ Journal vol. 39 (December 2012) pp. 17-57.
 Cf Claudio Monge, “Uno sguardo su Medio Oriente ed Europa dall’osservatorio turco” in Missione Oggi agosto-settembre 2012, p.28.
 Cf. Giovanni Sale, S.J., “A due anni della Primavera Araba”, p.129. On Jordan see Luciano Larivera, S.J., “La ‘Primavera Giordana’ guidata dal Re” in La Civiltà Cattolica, 3904 (16 febbraio 2013) pp.404-412.
 On the whole question of the drafting of the Constitution, see Arab West Report, 2013, week 16, art. 20.
 Cf. Rafiq Khoury, “The Effects of the Arab Revolutions on Islamic-Christian Relations” in al-Liqa’ Journal vol.39(December 2012) pp.58-73, especially pp.62-63.
 On these documents, and particular on the third listed below, see GianlucaP. Parolin, “Al-Azhar (?) on Fundamental Freedoms” in Islamochristiana 38(2012) pp.117-127.
 Cf. http://www.onislam.net/english/shariah/shariah-and-humanity/shariah-and-life/461150-al-azhar.
 Rafiq Khoury similarly refuses to give an answer to the question of the effects of Arab revolution on Christian-Muslim relations. He observes that many Muslims are afraid of the future and that there are conflicting forces within the Muslim world. “Secular and nationalistic parties are also afraid because they do not see how the existing conflict can lead to the state of citizenship, democracy and human rights”. Christians too have many fears, increased by what is happening in Iraq. See Rafiq Khoury, “The Effects of Arab Revolutions”, pp.70-72.
 The numbers in parentheses refer to the paragraphs of the Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in Medio Oriente. The English translation of this document can be found on the Vatican website.
- Lord’s Prayer as an expression of real but imperfect unity
Often when Christians gather to pray, despite their differences, they find unity in reciting the Lord’s Prayer. This prayer unites them in the praise of the Father, as they ask that His name be hallowed, as they pray that His will may be done, and as they engage in a common mission praying that the Kingdom of God may come.
It can be observed that the fruit of this prayer is not confined to Christians. Holiness can be found also in those who do not profess faith in Jesus Christ; it is not only Christians who seek God’s will and desire to fulfill it; the values of the Kingdom can be found outside the visible boundaries of the Church.
The fact that it is possible to share words and desires with people who do not profess the same faith makes us realize that unity can coexist despite differences in belief. Consequently we are dealing with an imperfect unity. This was perhaps the reason why at my school, when I was a young boy attending a non-Catholic school, the Catholics usually did not join in the prayers, not even to recite the Our Father. This is still the case in some Christian circles.
1.2 The scandal of division
The fact that Christians are divided is indeed a scandal. It is something that is naturally remarked upon by people of other religions. Instead of exclaiming: “See how they love one another!” they are more likely to say: “See how they dispute amongst themselves.” When the Qur’an speaks about Christians, it almost always alludes to their divisions. One example will suffice. In Surat Maryam, after the story of the Annunciation and the birth of Jesus the text concludes:
Such was Jesus, son of Mary. [This is] a statement of the Truth about which they are in doubt…. But factions have differed among themselves (Q 19:34. 37).
It is certainly necessary therefore to do all that is possible to fulfill the will of Jesus expressed in his prayer:
May they be one, Father, as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me (Jn 17:21).
1.3 The need for common witness
The above quotations underline the need for common witness and the need for Christians together, in so far as it is possible, to develop relations with people of other religions. The Directory for the Application of the Principles and Norms of Ecumenism, brought out by the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity in 1993, states:
In today’s world contacts between Christians and people of other religions are increasing. These contacts are radically different from those between Churches and ecclesial communities. The latter have as their aim the reconstitution of the unity that Jesus Christ wished for among all his disciples; they are righty called ecumenical. In point of fact, interreligious contacts are influenced by ecumenical contacts. The opposite is also true: through interreligious relations Christians are led to deepen their unity. Such contacts constitute an important part of ecumenical cooperation (210).
Interreligious relations can therefore rightly be said to be a stimulus for the development of an ecumenical attitude. Interreligious dialogue is a locus of ecumenical dialogue.
- A Comparison between Ecumenism and Interreligious Dialogue
The above quotation, while it notes the connection between ecumenism and interreligious dialogue, underlines the differences between them. Whereas the spirit that animates these two activities and the methods used are similar, they do not have the same aim. These two points deserve further examination, but they will be taken in the reverse order.
2.2 A different aim
The aim of ecumenism is the restoration of the unity willed by Christ for all his disciples. It is obvious that what is intended here is a unity in diversity, without any attempt to abolish the particular rites and practices of individual Churches and ecclesial communities. There should be, nevertheless, sufficient unity of faith for the members of the different communities to recognize one another, not only with respect but as being in communion. It is this communion in faith which is the foundation for communion in practice.
In interreligious relations this community of faith is necessarily lacking. This does not mean that there is nothing in common between Christianity and other religions, in particular with religions such as Judaism and Islam which hold belief in one God who is the Creator and the Judge of all. Yet these religions do not recognize Jesus as the Son of God, the one Lord and Saviour. If they did, they would cease to be what they are and would become expressions of Christianity. So the aim of interreligious dialogue cannot be to seek the unity of all religions (this is the aim of ‘universalistic’ movements which end up creating another religion; an example would be the Baha’i movement). The aim of interreligious dialogue is in some ways more modest, namely to foster harmony and peace among the followers of different religions. Yet it goes further than this:
Interreligious dialogue is not aimed solely at mutual understanding and friendly relations. It reaches a deeper level, that of the spirit, where exchange and sharing include mutual witness to what each one believes and a common discovery of respective religious convictions. Through this dialogue, Christians and others are invited to deepen their religious commitment and to respond, with ever-greater sincerity, to the personal call of God and the free gift that He makes to each (Dialogue and Proclamation 40).
It is for this reason that interreligious dialogue can rightly be called a dialogue of salvation. The fact that, in the Christian understanding of salvation, the personal call of God and the free gift of Himself, “always pass through the mediation of Jesus Christ and the work of his Spirit” (ibid.), does not invalidate this deep aim of interreligious dialogue.
2.3 Similarity in spirit and methods
If the aims of ecumenism and interreligious dialogue are radically different, do these two activities then have nothing in common? It can be stated categorically that they show much similarity in the spirit that animates them and they often use similar means.
With regard to the animating spirit, without going into great detail, it would be possible to point to respect, love and humility as essential elements of this spirit.
Respect comes from the conviction that God does not work only in the hearts of individuals
but also in the rites and traditions of the communities to which these individuals belong. We must admit that this respect has not always been shown. When the Declaration Nostra Aetate of Vatican II stated: “The Church has also a high regard for the Muslims” (NA 3), this provoked amazement among many Catholics. Religious traditions deserve our respect because they bear witness to the efforts to seek answers to “the unsolved riddles of human existence” (NA 1) which have puzzled the minds and hearts of human beings since the dawn of time. They are also worthy of respect because of the human and spiritual values which they hold. In ecumenical terms we could think of the liturgical and spiritual traditions of the Oriental Churches, the great attention to the Word of God in different Protestant communities, the lively prayer of Pentecostals. With regard to other religions we could remind ourselves that Paul VI, in his encyclical Evangelii Nuntiandi, noted that these religions possess “a splendid patrimony of religious writings” and that they “have taught generations of men how to pray” (EN 53).
This respect leads to practical consequences. It implies that care be taken when speaking about other people. Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism insists that every effort should be made “to avoid expressions, judgments and actions which do not represent the condition of our separated brethren with truth and fairness and so make mutual relations with them more difficult” (UR 4). This can certainly be applied to our relations with people of other religions and, hopefully, to their relations with us.
Respect, however, does not mean indifference or a spirit of laissez-faire. When love is allied to respect, other Christians and people of other religions are treated as brothers and sisters, as members of the one human family which is called to go forward together. John Paul II, in his encyclical letter Ut Unum Sint, proposed some ways of applying this spirit of “universal fraternity”. He mentioned communities that at one time had been rivals but now help each other mutually, for instance with regard to places of worship, in enabling access to higher studies, in approaching civil authorities on behalf of those who are suffering persecution, in restoring the good name of those who have incurred defamation (cf. UUS 42). All this can be applied, mutatis mutandis, to interreligious relations. The document Dialogue and Proclamation specifies that a fraternal spirit leads to altruistic behaviour: “There is need to stand up for human rights, proclaim the demands of justice, and denounce injustice not only when their own members are victimized, but independently of the religious allegiance of the victims. There is need also to join together in trying to solve the great problems facing society and the world, as well as in education for justice and peace” (DP 44).
This appeal is addressed in the first place to Christians, to local Churches, but it is hoped that it will also be heard by other religious communities.
Finally, humility, which is an indispensable requirement for good ecumenical and interreligious relations. However convinced we may be that our religious tradition teaches us the truth – and as Christians we profess that Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth and the Life – we are aware that we ourselves have not fully grasped this truth. As long as we remain in this world, we are but pilgrims. We are conscious of our limits as human beings, that we are by no means perfect. This holds good for us as individuals but also for our communities that are in constant need of renewal and reform. Above all we are conscious that it is God who governs our universe, and that our role is to follow the suggestions of the Holy Spirit. The certain conviction that the Spirit is guiding us is a source of courage and leads to perseverance. When we meet with obstacles, with misunderstandings, we can derive comfort from the fact that we are subject to God. We realize that “All, both Christians and the followers of other religious traditions, are invited by God to enter into the mystery of his patience, as human beings seek his light and truth”, since “only God knows the times and stages of the fulfillment of this long human quest” (DP 84).
With regards to the methods use in ecumenism, The Ecumenical Directory contains a chapter entitled Communion of life and spiritual activity among the baptized and a further chapter on Ecumenical collaboration, dialogue and common witness. The documents on interreligious dialogue distinguish four types of dialogue: dialogue of life, dialogue of action, dialogue of discourse and dialogue of religious experience. In some ways these two ways of distinguishing different activities coincide, although great differences remain.
It could be thought that communion of life and the dialogue of life are one and the same thing, but the key-word in the title of the chapter in the Directory is “baptized”. Sharing baptism puts Christians in a particular situation. Common prayer becomes possible, whereas among the followers of different religions it remain problematic. For Christians orders of service can be prepared where the participants will recite or sing the same words. Common orders of service for interreligious meetings raise a host of problems. Normally it is better to have people of each religion present reciting a prayer in succession while the others listen respectfully. Again, among Christians, when certain conditions obtain, it is possible to share in sacramental worship, and in particular the Eucharist. For people of other religions to share in Christian worship or for Christians to join in the worship of a non-Christian religion would be condemned as being a form of communicatio in sacris. The most one can do is to assist respectfully at the worship. This should not be despised, however, as it comes into the category of the dialogue of religious experience. It can indeed lead to greater consciousness of the spiritual riches of the respective religious traditions.
Ecumenical cooperation can come in many forms. The Directory mentions biblical work in common, the preparation of liturgical texts, theological studies and formation undertaken together, humanitarian aid and the care for the environment, acting together in the field of health-work and also with regard to social communications. The first items on this list are dependent on a sharing of belief, and it would therefore be difficult to apply them to interreligious cooperation, but when one turns to the service of the world around us, it can be seen that such interreligious cooperation becomes possible.
In a multi-religious society, where religious education must necessarily include transmission of knowledge of the different traditions, it is desirable that these traditions work together, for instance in the preparation and execution of the necessary educational programmes. In the same way, religious traditions can unite in upholding common values or in common actions on behalf of the poor and needy. The possibilities of cooperation are indeed immense. What is needed is obviously the desire to engage in common actions and to do so requires a high degree of mutual trust.
Dialogue can itself help to create the climate necessary for such cooperation. The Ecumenical Directory provides some indications regarding ecumenical dialogue which are also relevant to interreligious dialogue. Dialogue requires listening and responding, seeking to understand and to make oneself understood. So it means being ready to ask questions, but also to receive questions. It means expressing myself and also paying attention to what others say about me. Each person sharing in the conversation should be ready to clarify further his or her own position, to modify personal viewpoints and way of living and acting, out of a genuine love of the truth. Reciprocity and a common commitment are essential elements of dialogue, as is also the awareness of the essential equality of the partners in dialogue (cf. Ecumenical Directory, 172).
There are certainly fundamental differences between ecumenical and interreligious dialogue, given the difference in their aims, as mentioned above. While in ecumenical dialogue the aim is to arrive at a common profession of faith, in interreligious dialogue the aim is simply to clarify ideas in order to achieve greater understanding, thus eliminating prejudices and simplistic reductions of the truth.
- Possibilities for an ecumenical approach to interreligious dialogue
Having compared, in some measure at least, ecumenism and interreligious dialogue, it can now be shown how interreligious dialogue can be a way to ecumenical dialogue. This will be illustrated theoretically, following the four types of dialogue already mentioned, and then by providing some examples.
3.1 The dialogue of life
The ‘dialogue of life’ is understood as being “where people strive to live in an open and neighbourly spirit, sharing their joys and sorrows, their human problems and preoccupations” (DP 42). This takes place at the human level when people engage in relations primarily as human beings. Yet religious motives can strengthen the desire to reach out to people who belong to different religious traditions.
It is worth while underlining the word ‘strive’ used in the description given above. The dialogue of life is not always easy. Differences, whether cultural or religious, can create a tendency to live in a ghetto, separating oneself from others or at least confining relations to a superficial level. Initiatives are needed in order to create a climate in which every person feels at ease, such as celebrations of the feasts of the different communities, a welcome celebration for newcomers to the area or a farewell ceremony for those who are leaving. There are almost unlimited variations along this line.
At this level the differences among Christians would not seem to weigh at all. If, for example, Christians are living in an area where there are Muslims, or Buddhists, or both, they will meet them simply as Christians rather than as Anglicans, Catholics or Methodists. This is true at least for the opening of communications. If there is a desire to create more formal relations in a village or an area of town, it might be good to hold a prior concertation among the various Christian groups.
3.2. Dialogue of action
Dialogue of life often leads to common action but of a spontaneous nature, such as going to the help of a sick person or, in a village setting, repairing damage caused by a storm. When initiatives are taken to achieve something of a more permanent nature, then we move to the level of the dialogue of action. Common action in fact requires a considerable amount of dialogue since it is necessary to come to an agreement on what needs to be done, and how it should be done, and who will be responsible for the action.
The Ecumenical Directory speaks of many different types of cooperation which can easily be adapted to interreligious cooperation. There is first of all sharing in programmes established by a particular religious tradition. There can also be an effort to coordinate independent initiatives. Finally initiatives can be taken together by common accord (cf. The Ecumenical Directory 163).
An example could be the care of orphans left as a result of AIDS. Catholics may be doing this, but employing nurses who happen to be Muslims, with the help of a rich business-man who belongs to another Christian denomination. Would the Catholics run the orphanage while leaving others to provide instruction about AIDS? Or would there be an attempt to include everyone in the organizing committee since the orphans in fact belong to all the different religious communities?
Since the majority of religious organizations have their own structures and sources of finance it is easier to work independently. A deliberate effort is needed to bring together people belonging to different religious traditions. This requires, one might say, an ecumenical instinct. What is certain is that if the Christians are united when they approach others to work with them, they will probably have less difficulty in arousing a positive response.
3.3 The dialogue of discourse
The different kinds of cooperation just enunciated are relevant also for more formal and academic type of dialogue. In this case also it is true that it is easier for a single ecclesial entity, or academic institution, to organize a conference, inviting people of other Christian denominations to participate on the Christian side. Often the organizing body may be ecumenical in nature, a national or regional council of churches, for example, because such councils frequently give more attention to interreligious relations. Fortunately, in many places the Catholic Church is a full member of these councils and so can be engaged in the preparation of the conference right from the very beginning.
Such ecumenical cooperation in forming the Christian partners for a formal interreligious dialogue is easier when the arguments to be discussed are social in nature. When matters of faith are to be discussed, a certain embarrassment can be caused if the Christians do not agree amongst themselves. Yet such differences can also arise when ethical questions are treated. Nevertheless, since the aim of interreligious dialogue is not to come to come to full agreement in matters of faith, the fact that the partners on one side of the dialogue do not all agree may be of less importance. In fact, openness about differences on one side may encourage a similar openness on the other side and prevent a monolithic approach to questions.
3.4 The dialogue of religious experience
The dialogue of religious experience normally requires persons “rooted in their own religious traditions”. They come together to “share their spiritual riches, for instance with regard to prayer and contemplation, faith and ways of searching for God or the Absolute” (PD 42).
It is perhaps in this type of dialogue that ecumenical cooperation will be most difficult. Of course, if the sharing takes the form of an academic exchange on respective spiritual traditions, there is no reason why different Christian traditions should not be presented. If, however, the type of sharing includes the presence at an act of worship, this will normally be an act of worship of a particular community. The members of other Christian communities can nevertheless be invited to attend respectfully, together with their partners of other religions. For example, it may be profitable for a Buddhist to attend on one occasion a Catholic service and on another an Anglican or Methodist act of worship, just as Christians could be interested in attending worship according to the Theravada tradition on one occasion, a Zen meditation or a Tibetan service on another occasion. What is important is that the participants have the possibility afterwards of sharing their reactions.
- Some examples of ecumenical cooperation
Following on this theoretical presentation, here are a few examples of ecumenical cooperation drawn from experience within the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (PCID).
4.1 Cooperation between the PCDI and the World Council of Churches (WCC)
Since the end of the 1970s, when the Secretary and Under-Secretary of the PCID were invited by the WCC’s Sub-Unit for Dialogue with Living Faiths and Ideologies to take part in a meeting in Chiang Mai, Thailand, there have been many contacts between these two offices.
In 1979 the leaders of the Sub-Unit were invited to assist at the first Plenary Assembly convoked by the PCID. The reciprocal invitations have continued and a working meeting of the staffs has become an annual event.
A further step was to engage in joint projects. The first was a study on interreligious marriages. Questionnaires were elaborated and sent out; the documents produced by different Christian bodies were studied; and a joint document was written (cf. Pro Dialogo 96 (1997) pp. 324-339). The document remained general in character, partly because it dealt with all types of interreligious marriages and partly because it could not cover the legislative positions of every distinct Christian tradition. Nevertheless it offers a useful presentation of the problems raised by such marriages and underlines their possible contribution to inter-religious relations.
The second project concerned interreligious prayer. This was staged in three steps. First an enquiry into the practice of interreligious prayer in different Churches; secondly a consultation of experts in this field; and finally a consultation of a theological nature. The results of the two consultations and some of the papers presented were published concurrently in the WCC’s Current Dialogue and the PCID’s Pro Dialogo 98 (1998). As in the previous study on interreligious marriage, Christians will not find in this publication the position of their particular denomination, but rather useful material to guide them if they wish to engage in prayer with people of other religions.
A third common project concentrated on Africa, in a desire to underline the riches of the spiritual traditions of Africa as a contribution to the world spiritual heritage.
Another joint project, conducted together with the World Evangelical Alliance, produced a document on the ethical requirements of respectful evangelization.
4.2 The Islam in Europe Committee
An ecumenical initiative, the Islam in Europe Committee was set up by the Conference of Churches in Europe (KEK), in which the principal Churches in Europe are represented (except the Catholic Church) and the Council of Episcopal Conferences of Europe (CCEE). PCID’s head of the Islam desk is invited to the meetings of this Committee as an observer.
The aim of the committee is to provide help to the various Churches that are all facing the challenge of the increasing Muslim presence in Europe. It had the advantage, even before the enlargement of the European Union, of including the Churches of Eastern Europe.
The following are some of the topics examined by the committee: the study of Islam during the formation period for future priests and ministers; marriages between Christians and Muslims; reciprocity in interreligious relations (a document which aroused some controversy). The committee is similar to other ecumenical organizations in that it enjoys no authority other than the quality of its work. It proposes reflections for the consideration of the individual Churches who then act upon them as they think fit.
The committee has been actively engaged in direct dialogue with Muslims. At the time of the attack on the World Trade Centre in New York on 11 September 2001 they were holding a meeting in Sarajevo. These meetings give Muslims the opportunity of encountering the great variety of Christian traditions.
4.3 Journées d’Arras
There is another ecumenical group in Europe concerned with Christian-Muslim relations. This is an informal meeting of interested persons that takes place annually. The first such meeting was held in Arras, in Northern France, and it has kept the name ever since, although each year the meeting, usually held in the week after Pentecost, is held in a different country. Each time a particular theme is examined, but the essential part of the meeting consists of an exchange of information on the state of Christian-Muslim relations in the different countries represented.
In Africa different Protestant Churches in the 1970s set up a structure to assist Christian communities in their relations with Muslims. Initially called the Islam in Africa Project, it eventually took the title Project for Christian-Muslim Relations in Africa (PROCMURA). Its headquarters are in Nairobi. It remains a Protestant organization but collaboration with Catholics is actively sought. Such collaboration does indeed take place, but it could be intensified.
4.5 The Forum Bishops/ ‘Ulama
To give an example from a different Continent, Asia, the region of Mindanao, in the Southern Philippines, has seen a long conflict between certain Islamic groups and the army. In order to encourage negotiations, rather than fighting, religious leaders decided to come together. At first it was the Catholic bishops who met with Muslim leaders, but then the meetings were opened up to bishops of other Churches. The desire is that such meetings should take place also at a lower level, namely that of parish priests, ministers and local imams.
- Interreligious relations as a way to Christian Unity
Some people, struck by the scandal of divisions among Christians, would say that priority must be given to ecumenism. Once there is unity among Christians, then relations could be developed with people of other religions.
Without lessening the importance of ecumenism, this position would appear to be wrong for two reasons. The first is that the building up of good interreligious relations cannot wait because the world is becoming more and more intercultural and interreligious. There is practically no part of the world where people of different religions are not living side by side. It is important that they get to know one another, understand one another better and respect one another. For example, Saudi Arabia, the heartland of Islam, has many millions of foreign workers, many of whom are Christians. It is important that their situation be brought to the attention of Christian and Muslim leaders so that their rights, including the right to religious freedom, be respected.
A second reason is that relations with people of other religions help Christians to understand better and appreciate more their own faith. They come to see how extraordinary is the primary element of that faith, namely that God has so loved the world that he has sent within it his only Son to be the Brother, Lord and Saviour of all human beings. The contact with other faith-systems, and with people who are influenced by these systems, helps Christians to discern what is essential to the Christian faith and what is of lesser importance. It is through going back to the roots of their faith that Christians will find the path to unity in diversity. This is surely the will of Christ.