Mission, British Columbia, Nov. 26-(RNS) The rise of religious fundamentalism around the world, including among Muslims, has made interfaith dialogue more difficult and more important than ever, says one of the highest officials in the Roman Catholic Church.

Cardinal Francis Arinze, who is on most observers' short-lists to become the next pope, told an audience earlier this month that the Vatican is going out of its way to open channels of communication with Muslims following the "barbarous" Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington.

With the United States leading the military assault on Afghanistan to root out terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden, a Muslim extremist, Arinze said he does not naively believe that it's easy to enter into dialogue with Muslims or anyone else who takes a hard-line fundamentalist position.

"We are realistic. We are well-informed," said Arinze, 69, when an audience member at Westminster Abbey, 50 miles east of Vancouver, asked him whether it was possible to have a dialogue with Muslims who hate or persecute Christians. "It makes religious dialogue much more difficult, but also much more important. Fundamentalists make problems for their own religion," the African-born cardinal said. "I recall talking to one Muslim leader, I won't say from what country, and asked him what he could do to make fundamentalists more moderate. And he said: 'The fundamentalists have my name on their list of one of those to be wiped out.' That means he was in trouble."

Arinze is currently president of the Vatican's pontifical council for interreligious dialogue, which makes him the Catholic Church's leading representative on how to relate to Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, atheists and others.

The relationship with Muslims is especially fraught with tension now that the strongly Christian West has entered a conflict against terrorists and their supporters in the vigorously Muslim East. Muslims, with 1 billion followers, make up the world's largest non-Christian religion.

Arinze has refused to grant interviews to the media in the past few years in part because he does not like reporters relentlessly focusing on the possibility he could be elected pope. However, Father Augustine Kalberer, of the Seminary of Christ the King at Westminster Abbey, said Arinze also wants to be careful about what he says since Sept. 11, given "the sensitivity of the Muslim issue."

Many people consider Arinze a strong candidate to lead the Catholic Church because he would accelerate the pace of interreligious dialogue established by Pope John Paul II. Arinze helped arrange John Paul's visit early this year to a mosque in Damascus, Syria. It was the first time ever that a pope had visited a mosque.

Since Sept. 11, Arinze has also organized numerous high-level meetings between Catholics, Jews and major Islamic organizations, including the World Muslim League, the World Muslim Congress and the Organization of Muslim Conferences. "All these gatherings," he said, "condemned terrorism and encouraged dialogue." Both Christians and Muslims, he maintained, must be strong advocates of religious tolerance and freedom.

And Arinze is a firm believer that Christians must do a better job than in the past of living in a pluralistic culture, of respecting people of all religions and cultures. There are many kinds of religious dialogue, and some of the best ones have nothing to do with abstract theological debate, Arinze said Nov. 18 at the end of his stay at Westminster Abbey. "When engaging in dialogue, people should not discuss dogma on the first day," he said to laughs from the appreciative crowd.

Ordinary people engage in religious dialogue every time they talk to a neighbor of a different faith or play a soccer game with them, Arinze said. Begin with the practical, he said. "When the heart leads, the head follows." There is almost no better way to engage Muslims and people of other faiths, he said, than joining together with them on a project, such as a health clinic or cooperative venture, that improves society.

While Arinze strongly rejects what he calls the "relativistic" belief that "all religions are equal," he doesn't think Catholics should impose their religion on other cultures. The Roman Catholic Church teaches, he said, that Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation. But, like the Vatican, he also believes the transforming power of Christ can work through other religions. He is convinced Muslims can be spiritually saved.

And Arinze wouldn't disagree with many of the world's Muslims today, who fearfully believe Western secular values are being imposed on them through globalization and the mass media. "The church is not in favor of the imposition of the culture of one people on other peoples, in past decades by colonialism and today by powerful mass media, which, by TV alone, quietly but effectively spread a whole philosophy of life that homogenizes culture," Arinze said. "The church is challenging such negative cultural elements as superstition, rugged individualism, materialism, hedonism, permissiveness and utilitarianism," he said.

With a small chuckle, he concluded: "There is a tendency around the world today to copy TV culture. And that is not always a virtue."

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