VATICAN CITY — With great anticipation, 28 Muslim scholars and 28 Vatican officials, bishops and Catholic scholars sat down yesterday morning for the first session of the Catholic-Muslim Forum.
The Vatican published a short statement explaining that the first day of the meeting would focus on Catholic and Muslim understandings of the double commandment to love God and love one’s neighbors; the second day would look at the religions’ approaches to human rights; and the third day — tomorrow — would feature a morning meeting with Pope Benedict XVI and a public session in the afternoon to present the forum’s final statement.
The Vatican also published a list of the participants.
But, other than that, there was nothing for reporters, many of whom traveled to Rome specifically to cover the meeting.
All of the participants agreed not to speak on the record until the meeting was over.
Even so, journalists spent the morning on the street in front of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue hoping to catch someone. In the early afternoon the milling about moved to the lobby of the delegates’ hotel. No one was willing to be named, but at least we got an idea of what was happening behind the forum’s closed doors.
Yesterday’s discussion began with presentations by Archbishop Luis Ladaria Ferrer, secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a leading Muslim philosopher and professor at George Washington University in Washington.
The Muslims I spoke to said Archbishop Ladaria was “very Catholic, very theological and very systematic” in explaining that God is love, that love is the relationship that exists among the members of the Trinity, that people come to know and love God through Jesus Christ. And that they are called to love others has God has loved them.
Nasr, they said, spoke without a prepared text and looked particularly as the concept of “rahma” (mercy in Arabic) as one of the names of God, one of the main qualities of Mohammed and one of the main obligations of Muslims found in the Quran, Islamic tradition and mysticism.
At a certain point, one participant said, a Muslim speaker tried to open a discussion about how “spiritual or religious arrogance,” claiming an exclusive possession of truth, “is an obstacle to love.” But the discussion took another track.
Although religious freedom, particularly the situation of Christians in predominantly Muslim countries, was expected to come up today, several Catholics raised the issue at yesterday’s evening session. They called for “reciprocity,” asking the Muslim scholars to push Muslim governments to grant Christians the same kind of freedoms Muslims enjoy in the West.
One participant said he told the group that both Christians and Muslims could come up with lists of countries or situations where the full freedom of their people is not respected. For instance, he said, Muslims could argue that the French ban on wearing headscarves or religious symbols to school limits religious freedom. But he said the forum members must find ways to address the question as religious leaders, not politicians.
Strangely enough, this morning’s session on human rights did not focus on specific situations where one side or the other feels the rights of its faithful are being limited. Instead, one member said, “We looked at how human rights flow from our faiths.”
Abdal Hakim Murad Winter, director of Britain’s Muslim Academic Trust, and Francesco Botturi, a professor at Milan’s Catholic University of the Sacred Heart, made the main presentations.
Winter’s talk apparently focused on how Catholics and Muslims could work together to counter the “religious apathy” of Europe and much of the Western world. More and more, he said, religion — any religion — is seen as the enemy reason and a source of conflict that the world would be better without.
There will be much more to come tomorrow.