(Note: This interesting article seems to have come from the Vatican Sources. The URL is given below)
Vatican City, 3 April (AKI) - One of the trademarks of Pope John Paul II's pontificate was reaching out to other religions and cultures, at times even apologising for the wrongs done by the Catholic church in centuries past. During his reign, Islam has become the fastest-growing religion in the world, and for geopolitical reasons, it has taken centre-stage. John Paul II spearheaded a move by the Catholic Church towards respect conciliation and, most of all, dialogue with the Islamic faith, confident in the ethical values Catholics and Muslims share.
Two of the most often-repeated clichés about Pope John Paul II were those of his being the most travelled Pope in history, and of his openness to other religions and cultures. Yet taking these statements at face value is to overlook certain obvious facts (such as the length of his pontificate and the ease of modern travel), as well as the contributions to inter-religious understanding made by his predecessors, especially Pope Paul VI.
On the subject of Islam, the relevant entry in the 1912 edition of the Catholic Encyclopaedia, with its dire warnings against the "moral laxity and depraved sensualism of the Mohammedans" whose moral standards are "far inferior to those of Judaism and even more inferior to those of the New Testament", clearly draws inspiration from a view of the Islamic world that was widespread in Europe during the nineteenth century. Yet when the same article claims that Islam is really just "a confused combination of native Arabian heathenism, Judaism and Christianity," it seems to be reiterating beliefs little changed since the time of the Crusades when Islam was seen as a particularly pernicious Christian heresy and its founder a schismatic.
Although the Crusades still loom large in the anti-Western rhetoric of Muslim militants and even (along with the Inquisition) in the anti-Catholic rhetoric of certain liberals in the West itself, the language of the Church has moved on. It was the Second Vatican Council, the great 20th century watershed in Catholic history which set the Church on a new course in the modern world, that also marked an advance in the Church's dealings with Islam. During the Council, in 1965, Pope Paul VI proclaimed the Declaration "Nostra Aetate. On the Relation of the Church to non-Christian Religions."
The Church now regarded Muslims "with esteem", the Declaration said, highlighting how they "adore the one God" and revere the figures of Jesus and Mary. In a turnaround from earlier views, the Declaration also pointed out how Muslims "value the moral life", and made a call "to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual understanding" and to work together for "social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom".
Even before Nostra Aetate, in 1964 Paul VI had become the first Pope to leave Italy in 150 years, when he made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, during which he addressed King Hussein and the "beloved people of Jordan", also greeting them in Arabic. In 1974 the same pontiff created the Commission for Religious Relations with Muslims, as a body distinct from but part of the Pontifical Council for non-Christians which he had also set up.
The stage was, then, amply set for the theme of reconciliation between different faiths which has been such a marked trait of the pontificate of John Paul II. Like his predecessor, he visited Muslim countries and countries with significant Muslim communities, among them Pakistan, Bangladesh and Lebanon; like his predecessor, he stressed the similarities between the two faiths. "We adore God and profess total submission to him. Thus, in a true sense, we can call one another brothers and sisters in faith in the one God," he told Nigerian Muslims in 1982.
But John Paul II went further. A special agreement signed in 1998 brought into being the Joint Committee between the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue and the Permanent Committee of al-Ahzar for Dialogue with Monotheistic Religions. Built on already-extant contacts between the Vatican and al-Azhar University in Cairo, the highest institution of Sunni Islam, the joint committee meets at least once a year, alternately in Cairo and in Rome.
John Paul was also the first Pope to visit Egypt when, on his Jubilee year pilgrimage in 2000, he visited the residence of Mohammed Sayyed Tantawi, Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar. A year later he became the first Pope to enter a mosque when he prayed in the great Omayyad Mosque in Damascus.
The annual papal message for World Peace Day, established by Paul VI in 1968, is now regularly translated into Arabic as are many other Church documents. Furthermore, John Paul II has continued the tradition - also begun by Paul VI - of addressing an annual message to Muslims throughout the world for the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, part of a programme of outreach to other religions that has also included two great inter-religious gatherings, in 1986 and in 2002, in the Italian town of Assisi.
John Paul II was clearly alive to the fact that abstract expressions of harmony between faiths have practical consequences in terms of peaceful coexistence particularly, in the case of Islam, with regard to the situation in the Middle East. Already in 1979 he was emphasising the need to foster dialogue between Christians, Jews, and Muslims in order to create a trust that could eventually lead to peace. His constant expressions in favour of peace in the region, and particularly his decisive stance against the Gulf War in 1991 and the invasion of Iraq in 2003, gained him much sympathy and support in the Muslim world.
More controversially, John Paul II added the theme of penance to that of reconciliation. Pope John Paul extended expressions of Catholic regret for past misdeeds to other faiths. A Church document released in 2000 referred to the "hostility or diffidence of numerous Christians toward Jews" as a "sad historical fact". However, although in 2004 the Pope specifically expressed remorse for the fourth Crusade - during which rather than fighting Islam in the Holy Land, the Crusaders devastated the then Christian city of Constantinople - Muslims and other groups who may feel they have suffered at Catholic hands over the centuries had to be content with a more generic expression of regret for "the use of force in the service of truth", an often-used reference taken to include the Crusades, the Inquisition, the forced conversion of indigenous peoples, etc.
Pope John Paul II never seemed to feel threatened by Islam. Indeed the Pope's frequent references to metaphysical parallels between the two faiths, were backed by a confidence in the ethical values Catholics and Muslims share. In fact, the Pope could rest confident in Islam's decisive stance on such questions as abortion and euthanasia, and its belief in family values not markedly different from his own; not markedly different, that is, when compared with those of an increasingly secularised western society which he and many other Catholics criticised frequently in terms not far-distant from the "moral laxity and depraved sensualism" once imputed to Muslims.
John Paul II's innate religious tolerance, his moral conservatism, and the legacy he inherited from the Church after the Second Vatican Council, meant that could remain open to Islam even while such questions as mass immigration and religious fundamentalism were putting such strain on society around him; a stance that also led him to reject the "clash of civilisations" dogma that informed so much international geo-political activity in the last years of his pontificate.
Yet tolerance must inevitably have its limits, and if John Paul II's repeated emphasis on the importance of upholding the Christian roots of Europe is to be maintained, it clearly cannot contemplate too much Islamisation. As immigration continues to increase, as birth rates in Europe continue to fall, and with Turkish entry to the EU a real and not far-distant possibility, the next incumbent of the papal throne may find his predecessor's tolerance hard to keep up.
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