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World News

Too many Christian-Muslim dialogues, Vatican says

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - There are now so many efforts to improve relations between Christians and Muslims that they risk overlapping and creating confusion, the Vatican’s top official for interfaith contacts says.

Cardinal Jean Louis Tauran, who heads the Vatican's council on inter-religious dialogue, gestures during a meeting at the Gregorian University in Rome November 6, 2008. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi

Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, head of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, said a conference between Catholics and Muslims last week was a fresh bid for mutual understanding that could become a “favoured channel” for the Vatican.

But there is now so much interest in Christian-Muslim dialogue that it is getting hard to see where it is going, said Tauran, who was preparing to fly to New York for United Nations talks linked to another drive led by Saudi King Abdullah.

“In my opinion, there are too many Christian-Muslim initiatives. Everybody’s doing it,” he told Reuters in an interview. “One doesn’t know where this will go. That proves there is a great interest, but it sows a bit of confusion.

“There’s a risk of overlapping... It may be the price to pay for all this interest that interreligious dialogue incites.”

Dialogue between Christians and Muslims is nothing new, but the Sept. 11 attacks and sharpened tensions between western and Muslim states have given it a new urgency and sparked concern about a growing gap between the world’s two largest religions.

A Common Word, an informal group of religious leaders and scholars across the Muslim world, gave interfaith dialogue a new impetus last year by inviting Christians to examine how both faiths have shared core principles of loving God and neighbour.

On Nov 4-6, a Common Word delegation held an unprecedented meeting at the Vatican called the Catholic-Muslim Forum, a bilateral exchange due to be held every two years.

NO COORDINATION POSSIBLE

Tauran noted the Vatican had several established dialogues with Muslims, including with the leading Sunni university Al-Azhar in Cairo, with Shi’ites in Iran and with the World Islamic Call Society in Libya.

The next two largest Christian families after Catholics, the Orthodox and the Anglicans, also had their own dialogues, he noted. A broad spectrum of churches recently met near Geneva to try to get an overview of how each is interacting with Islam.

Asked if Christian churches could coordinate their efforts, Tauran shook his head and said, “It’s like in Islam. There is no single voice. For the moment, it’s not possible.”

The French-born cardinal praised the Common Word group for trying to represent a broad consensus in the fractious Muslim world. When they met Pope Benedict on Thursday, for example, they had both a Sunni and a Shi’ite address him.

“There is a desire to represent the Islamic world,” he said. “It is broader than others. It could even become a favoured channel” of contact with the Vatican.

Tauran said he was most struck by the openness and mutual respect that prevailed despite clearly stated differences.

Sensitive issues such as conversion and minority religious rights in Muslim countries were not discussed in detail, he said, but could be tackled at later meetings. “What’s important is that this continues,” he said.

King Abdullah’s campaign has taken a different direction, with a broad interfaith conference in Madrid last July and a United Nations meeting on “the culture of peace” in New York on Wednesday and Thursday.

“You have to differentiate between these meetings,” Tauran said. Madrid assembled faith leaders to talk about religion while the United Nations can only focus on member states’ respect for their commitment to protect freedom of religion.

But he praised Abdullah for promoting his dialogue, which included Jews, Hindus and Buddhists. “The king of Saudi Arabia is very courageous because there is a lot of opposition from the religious leaders in his country,” he said.

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