The Vatican, Saudi Arabia and Interreligious Dialogue

The Vatican, Saudi Arabia and Interreligious Dialogue


(Los Angeles - 3/27/08)—Last week, a prominent Muslim-born Italian writer became a Catholic in a widely televised baptism by Pope Benedict XVI.  By itself this is neither newsworthy nor significant, but the Pope’s decision to personally perform the high profile Easter Sunday Baptism of converts to Catholicism sends conflicting signals.

SEE: “Muslim Writer Baptized Catholic By Pope” (AP, 3/22/08)

SEE ALSO: “Scholar Denounces Muslim Baptism” (BBC, 3/26/08)

The event took place just three weeks after the Pope accepted a plea by 138 Muslim scholars from the Common Word Initiative for dialogue, and announced a groundbreaking permanent Catholic-Muslim Forum, which will be launched in November. Against this backdrop, the Pope’s actions raise questions about the Vatican’s commitment toward such a dialogue.


Unlike his predecessor John Paul II who won broad support for his tireless efforts to embrace people of different faiths, Pope Benedict’s record was established when he offended Muslims worldwide by quoting a medieval polemic which offended Muslims and negatively depicted Islam as a violent religion.

As Islam’s holiest text, the Quran, describes life on this earth as a spiritual test which carries meaning in the context of free will. This includes the individual right to true religious freedom to worship or believe as one pleases.  As the Quran states in a seminal verse, “there is no compulsion in matters of faith” (2:256).

At the same time, there are some (including Muslims) who misinterpret Islam as a religion that wants people to be free to convert into it, but not free to abandon it. Once again, this is in direct contradiction to the Quranic teachings, which state, “Unto everyone of you have We appointed a law and way of life. And if God had so willed, He could surely have made you all one single community: but [He willed it otherwise] in order to test you by means of what He vouchsafed unto you. Vie, then, with one another in doing good works!” (5:48). 

Just last week, the Shura Council of Saudi Arabia rejected a resolution that called on the United Nations to enact an international pact that forbids religions from being defamed or insulted.  This resolution was brought forward primarily as a reaction to the large number of attacks on Islam as a religion by non-Muslims.  Rather than embrace the resolution, the Saudi Shura Council rejected it for fear it might result in Muslims having to respect “Buddhism, Qadianism, and Baha’ism as religions”, or “facilitate establishing places of worship for them in Muslim countries.”  Such reasoning is completely incompatible with the real spirit of Islam and the Quran. 


For a state to oppose respect for or to make it illegal to respect an idea or a religion is problematic.  Dissent will then be used to criminalize people who believe something that the government opposes. The ruling of the Saudi Shura Council to oppose respect for religions will have serious consequences on freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Ironically, this action by the Shura Council is in stark constrast to Saudi King Abdullah’s call on Tuesday for increased dialogue among Muslims, Christians and Jews rooted in their belief in the same God.


There are many in this world who view religions as being locked in a perennial rivalry, in which raw numbers are the best way to keep score.  Against this backdrop, there are some who see Muslim-Christian, and in particular Muslim-Catholic, rivalry as a key force shaping the world in this century.

Rejection of this “clash of civilizations” prophecy is incumbent on religious leaders around the world, of all faiths. A clash is not inevitable, nor is it even likely. World religious leaders must defuse and mitigate this misplaced sense of competition, choosing instead to work together to build a just home for all of us who share this planet.

Founded in 1988, the Muslim Public Affairs Council is an American institution which informs and shapes public opinion and policy by serving as a trusted resource to decision makers in government, media and policy institutions. MPAC is also committed to developing leaders with the purpose of enhancing the political and civic participation of Muslim Americans.

SEE ALSO:  Pope Benedict and Islam:  One Step Forward, Two Steps Back


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