Jewish, Catholic Leaders Plan Muslim Dialogue

By Jennifer Siegel

Published February 24, 2006, issue of February 24, 2006.
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Seeking to build on the success of their own longstanding dialogue, Jewish and Catholic leaders have held several discussions in recent weeks about launching more intensive interfaith talks with Muslims.

“Before it was considered like something nice to do,” said Father Patrick Dubois, the French bishops’ liaison to the Jewish community in France. “Now it’s considered a social and religious emergency.”

Officials at the World Jewish Congress are calling for Jews and Catholics to establish joint, high-level discussions with moderate Muslim leaders. The chairman of the WJC’s policy council, Rabbi Israel Singer, is scheduled to meet in Rome this weekend with the Vatican’s top official for interreligious affairs, and the agenda is expected to include tri-lateral religious cooperation on local initiatives, as well as the potential for holding an international gathering of religious leaders this summer. In recent weeks, Singer has raised the issue of Muslim-Jewish-Catholic dialogue several times, including in meetings late last month with Vatican officials and with newly elected German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Singer also pressed his idea in a speech last week at the University of Heidelberg.

The Vatican has also indicated that relations with the Muslim world are atop its own agenda, with the appointment of the church’s leading expert on Muslim relations, Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, as its representative in Egypt and delegate to the Organization of the League of Arab States. The choice surprised some Catholic insiders because such posts typically go to officials from the papal diplomatic corps, whereas Fitzgerald currently heads the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue.

“This is certainly a signal to the Muslims that good relations are being taken very seriously indeed,” said Eugene Fisher, associate director of the secretariat for ecumenical and interreligious affairs at the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Joint outreach efforts to Muslims on behalf of both the Jewish and Catholic leaders have accelerated sharply since the September 11 terrorist attacks. High-profile efforts have included Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero’s call for an “alliance of civilizations,” which has won support in the United Nations. More localized conversations have proliferated in a number of countries, including in the United States, where the Anti-Defamation League and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops are planning to meet with Turkish-Muslim leaders in the spring.

The World Jewish Congress, a confederation of national Jewish organizations from around the globe, has steadily built relations with the Catholic world since the 1960s by fostering relationships among local leaders, sponsoring theological dialogues and holding high-level negotiations to address grievances. WJC officials said they plan to continue with the multi-pronged approach as they step up their efforts to reach out to Muslims.

According to Serge Cwajgenbaum, secretary general of the European Jewish Congress, talks are underway to welcome Muslims into a continent-wide biannual meeting currently known as Judeo-Catholic Encounters. The meeting combines a convention for hundreds of local religious leaders and laity, with meetings for top religious figures from across the continent.

In recent years, Singer has particularly focused his efforts on working with the Catholic Church on fighting AIDS in Africa and poverty in Latin America. On February 24, he plans to announce a new initiative in Latin America, and invite participation from Muslims as well.

But the establishment of high-level trilateral talks in addition to these more informal efforts are still very much in the preliminary stages.

In an e-mail to the Forward, Fitzgerald, the Vatican’s new envoy to Egypt, said that it was too early to say how the dialogue might be structured or what themes it might address. He added that any three-way talks would be in addition to the separate structures the Vatican has already set up for outreach to Jews and Muslims, and would not replace them. The Vatican’s official partnership in dialogue, the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations, of which the WJC is a member, has not been involved in the discussions.

The Vatican’s formal channels for dialogue with both Jews and Muslims were developed in the wake of “Nostra Aetate,” the Church’s 1965 statement that declared “sincere reverence” for other world religions.

Different offices in the Vatican handle the respective dialogues with the two religions: The Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews falls under the rubric of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christianity Unity, which also handles relations with Protestants. The Commission for Religious Relations with the Muslims, on the other hand, is under the auspices of Fitzgerald’s Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.

With Fitzgerald’s move to Egypt, it unclear whether the division between the two separate councils will be maintained.

Historically, the distinction has reflected the special bond Catholics feel they have with Jews. “The relationship with Judaism is quite different from the relationship with any other religion, including Islam, since Judaism is the matrix of Christianity,” Fitzgerald wrote in an e-mail to the Forward. “Jews and Christians share in part the same revelation.”

According to Philip Cunningham, executive director of the Center for Christian-Jewish Learning at Boston College, this theological bond — coupled with the Church’s willingness to be self-critical in the wake of the Holocaust — paved the way for a level of dialogue between Catholics and Jews that will be difficult to duplicate with Muslim leaders, particularly in the context of a trilateral dialogue that may make them feel vulnerable to being ganged up on.

“Forty years [of Catholic-Jewish relations] has shown that maybe dialogue is more possible than was thought initially,” Cunningham said. “But one of the things that’s clear is that for there to be dialogue beyond the superficial level, there has to be the ability to be self-critical of one’s community.”

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