Greater proximity means more problems – but also opportunities, key Church expert says.
By Paul Gray
Closer contact between Christians and Muslims – and an exclusive and violent attitude on the part of some Muslims – are creating new challenges in Christian-Muslim relations, a senior Vatican diplomatic official has told The Record.
Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, who was appointed by Pope Benedict as the Vatican’s ambassador to Egypt and Delegate to the League of Arab States in 2006, will give lectures at Murdoch University next month.
He will be the inaugural Murdoch international theologian, an initiative to bring leading religious thinkers to Perth within the university’s Theology Program.
In an email interview with The Record, the English Archbishop said that religious differences between Christians and Muslims remain the same today as they have always been. “While Christians and Muslims are united in their belief in one God, they are divided in their understanding of this God,” he said.
“The biggest difference is that Christians believe in a God who has become Incarnate, that is, has entered into the world in the person of Jesus Christ. Muslims reject the Incarnation as being incompatible with the exalted nature of God. This changes the whole perspective of religion,” Archbishop Fitzgerald said.
But apart from the religious differences, there are separate challenges in Christian-Muslim relations today. These are caused, first, by the greater proximity between the two religions almost everywhere in the world. “Christians and Muslims are necessarily coming into contact. They have to find ways of living in harmony, and also of working together on behalf of the rest of humankind.”
A further problem has emerged with the growth of an exclusive attitude on the part of some Muslims. In some cases this exclusive attitude is “turning to violence”.
The Archbishop says through modern communications, radical extremist Muslim groups are in contact with one another. This makes the tendency more dangerous, both for Christians and Muslims, and makes the problem harder to combat.
In response to questions from The Record, Archbishop Fitzgerald gave his views on a number of important questions touching on the relationship between Christians and Muslims today.
Explaining the Church’s teaching on the reasons for religious divisions in the world, he cited a Second Vatican Council document, Nostra Aetate, which says that all humankind is engaged in a common search for answers to fundamental questions of existence.
These questions include ‘What is the meaning and purpose of life?’, ‘What is upright and what is sinful behaviour?’, ‘What is the cause and purpose of suffering?’ and ‘What happens at death?’
The Church teaches that all humans are united in their searching of such questions, and that this search is ultimately a search for God. While people are divided in their answers to these existential questions, “it is in this reality that divine revelation takes place, culminating in Jesus Christ,” Archbishop Fitzgerald said. Inherent human weakness and also sinfulness help to perpetuate the religious divisions, but “it is important to recognise the positive aspects of the different religions and not only concentrate on the divisions,” the Archbishop said.
Asked if it is a duty of all Christians to engage in inter-faith dialogue, Archbishop Fitzgerald cited Pope John Paul II’s encyclical letter Redemptoris Missio.
The late Pope said all members of the faithful and all Christian communities are called to practise dialogue, although not always to the same degree and in the same way.
Archbishop Fitzgerald said inter-religious dialogue and ecumenism are “really only specific ways of loving one’s neighbour, trying to build up a society where there is peace, harmony and cooperation.”
Questioned about the Vatican’s number one priority in relation to the Arab and Muslim world at the moment, Archbishop Fitzgerald said the Holy See’s concern is always for the wellbeing of Christian communities.
“So it could be said that its priority is to see that religious liberty is truly respected,” he said.
A just solution to conflict between Israel and Palestine must be considered a priority also, he said.
Archbishop Fitzgerald will deliver the LJ Kiernan Memorial Lectures on July 8, 9, and 10 on Christian-Muslim relations in a changing world, Religious pluralism: a theological consideration, and Witnessing to Christ, ecumenism and religious dialogue.
For further information, contact Murdoch University on 08 9360 6176.