Vol 9 - No. 1





A Surprising Exercise in Dialogue


Pope Benedict XVI's recent first visit to an Arab state has focused attention on the need for dialogue between the world's great religions. The pontiff told his audience in Amman, Jordan, on May 8 of his "deep respect for the Muslim community."

Yet as the world's media followed the Pope on his visit to Jordan and Israel, another exercise in dialogue, potentially even more significant, was occurring across the Red Sea in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

Sponsored by Saudi King Abdullah Ibn Abdul Aziz Al Saud, a dialogue between Muslims and Christians was taking place, a rare event in that very conservative country. Organized by the InterAction Council of former world leaders (co-chaired by Canada's Jean Chretien), the event included leading Christian theologians,

such as Catholic priest and professor of theology Hans Kueng. They debated, probed and sought common ground with Islamic scholars, such as Mustafa Ceric, the Grand Mufti of Bosnia, and Dr. Abdulwahabe Abu Sulaiman, a leading Islamic scholar from Saudi Arabia.

Kueng, now 81, was a colleague of Joseph Ratzinger -- now Pope Benedict -- at the theology faculty of Tubingen University, and has been the guiding force behind the InterAction Council's long involvement in interfaith dialogue. Last year, Kueng contributed several articles to Bridging the Divide, a book on world religions released by the InterAction Council and distributed to guests at the Jeddah meeting.

Fear of the other has typified the relations between Islam and Christianity as far back as the middle ages, but the religious experts in Jeddah had no difficulty in finding much that united the two faiths. The basic point was made that both Islam and Christianity agree on the foundations of a world ethic and that the three religions of the book -- Judaism, Christianity and Islam -- all trace their roots to Abraham. Both Jesus and Muhammad spoke out amid a religious and social crisis and both connected faith in the one God with social justice. Muhammad spoke repeatedly about Jesus and the Koran mentions Jesus often and always sympathetically.

What lent the meeting its significance, however, was not its content so much as its sponsorship. As the custodian of Islam's two Holy Mosques, the House of Saud has enormous prestige in the Muslim world. In response to a Chinese official who called his kingdom a great nation because of its oil, King Abdullah replied, "We are great because of our religion."

From the time of his accession to the throne in 2005, King Abdullah, 86, has reached out. In November, 2007, he travelled to Rome to meet with Pope Benedict (in the Islamic religious world a gesture comparable to Anwar Sadat's famous visit to Jerusalem). In June, 2008, Saudi Arabia convened a gathering of 500 Muslim leaders to affirm the legitimacy of dialogue. In July, 2008, this was followed by a world conference on religious dialogue held in Madrid, Spain, which in turn led to a November, 2008, UN conference on religious tolerance. "We all believe in one God," the King told the Madrid gathering. "We are meeting today to say that religion should be a means to iron out differences, and not to lead to disputes."

In Canada, we may yawn at the interfaith dialogues that are a common (though welcome) feature of religious life. But to have Saudi Arabia champion dialogue is really quite extraordinary. The House of Saud forged an alliance in the 18th century with the ultra-conservative Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, and Wahhabism has been blamed for much of the intolerance present in Islam. Saudi Arabia, for example, continues to ban non-Muslim places of worship.

But in opting for dialogue with other religions, King Abdullah is rejecting the school of Islam that believes that the only way to survive is to keep foreign influences at bay. It is because Saudi Arabia is so conservative that the King's initiative has so much credibility. "The whole Muslim world is now for dialogue," participants were told. This is no small thing.

The Jeddah meeting agreed with Hans Kueng's contention that there can be "No peace among nations without peace among the religions. No peace among the religions without dialogue among the religions. No dialogue among the religions without understanding of the foundations of the religions." Two octogenarians -- a Catholic priest and a Saudi King -- are lighting a way that future generations must follow. - Thomas S. Axworthy is the chair of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Queen's University.

Thomas S. Axworthy is chair of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Queen's University. The article was first published in National Post.

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