By Alan Holdren
Dialogue will continue on God’s time, said a Vatican official as talks with an top Egyptian authority of Islam suffered a blow this week.
A two-day meeting between the Vatican and an Egyptian institute of Sunni Islam set for Feb. 23-24 was suspended. Egyptian officials have said unofficially that the future of dialogue hinges on an apology from the Pope.
The Vatican and the highest authority of Sunni Islam, Cairo’s Al-Azhar Institute, planned to continue ongoing talks on theology during the sessions. The two sides normally meet twice per year, but this week’s dates came and went without a sound.
The bombing of the Coptic Christian Church in Alexandria, Egypt after a New Year’s Mass nearly two months ago was the first in a series of events that led to the suspension.
In the days that followed, Pope Benedict XVI condemned the attack and called for greater religious liberty in Egypt and protection for all citizens. His words appear to have been perceived by the government through media reports as possible calls for a western action in the country.
To clarify the meaning of the statements, the nation recalled its Holy See ambassador to Cairo.
Then, on Jan. 20, the Al-Azhar institute issued a press release in which they announced the suspension of theological dialogue with the Vatican. They said the Vatican had interfered in the nation’s affairs.
The president of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran told L’Osservatore Romano on Jan. 29 that the Vatican delegation expected all future appointments to be kept.
“If we want progress in dialogue,” he added, “we must first of all find the time to sit down and talk person-to-person and not through the newspapers.”
Days before the meetings were set to take place, on Feb. 20, he told the French agency I.Media, “we don’t have any news from our friends.”
The government announced that their ambassador would return to Rome at mid-week, but there was still no official word from Al-Azhar.
Feb. 23 – 24 came and went with no statement about the talks. Incidentally, an official from Al-Azhar and the institute’s former spokesman were in Rome to participate in a forum sponsored by the Catholic Church’s Sant’Egidio Community.
Away from the microphones at the event, the two made separate statements to media on their thoughts on how dialogue can continue.
In a report from Italy’s ASCA news agency, the special representative of the Grand Imam of Azhar, Hasan Shafie, said that for the dialogue to be reopened the Pope must apologize for his words on Islam and Muslims in his now famous address at Regensburg, Germany in 2006.
The speech provoked furor among some Muslim leaders after some phrases were taken out of context and reproduced in misleading mass media reports.
The Pope quoted a 14th-century Christian emperor who approached a Persian thinker to get a better understanding of Islam. The emperor asked, “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”
The Pope used the quote to illustrate that a greater understanding is needed between faiths through dialogue, explained the Vatican’s spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi after Muslim leaders expressed outrage at the quote.
Fr. Lombardi explained that the Pope respects Islam and wants to “cultivate an attitude of respect and dialogue toward the other religions and cultures, obviously also toward Islam.”
After the miscommunication with the Egyptian government in January, Fr. Lombardi again stepped in to say that “an attentive reading” of the Pope’s words on religious freedom would help to dispel this latest the round of “misunderstandings.”
According to ASCA, on Feb. 23, Shafie called this response “another insult” because it assumed they did not understand it well the first time around.
Muhammad Rifaa Al-Tahtawi, Al-Azhar’s spokesman until just recently, was also at the Sant’Egidio meeting. He said Muslims need to see a “show of respect” from the Vatican.
According to the National Catholic Register, al-Tahtawi said the Vatican’s response to Regensburg was “not acceptable.”
Asked why they have not been able to forgive the Pope, despite his efforts rectify the situation, Al-Tahtawi said, “It’s not a question of forgiveness.
“He has given an apology for the Holocaust, but there has been no apology for the Crusades. (We) need this. Why? Because the Pope is not only considered chief of Catholics, he is a man of universal authority.”
He also asked the Pope to condemn the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue official Msgr. Khaled Akasheh, member of the committee for dialogue with Al-Azhar told CNA over the phone on Feb. 25 that these were personal statements and the council is treating them as such.
He said that they “work on the official things.”
“Everyone on a personal level can assert whatever they wish, but this does not commit their institution or ours,” he explained.
The two Egyptians speak for themselves and not Al-Azhar, he reiterated. For now, Msgr. Akasheh said that dialogue will continue “Whenever God wishes.”
Asked when that might be, he said, “we don’t know yet. We have to wait.”
Father Ciro Benedettini, vice director of the Holy See’s Press Office confirmed the temporary suspension of meetings with Al-Azhar. “The Holy See is committed to the dialogue and will pursue all its efforts to overcome the problems,” he told CNA.