Gaza incident shows more interreligious efforts needed, says panel

ROME – One year after U.S. President Barack Obama delivered a groundbreaking speech to the Muslim world, Vatican diplomats said that while there has been much progress in dialogue, much is left to do on the ground.

The deadly raid by Israeli forces on a flotilla of ships bringing aid to the Gaza Strip was the most recent example of how distant the dream of peace between nations is, the panel said.

A panel exploring the impact of Obama’s speech, delivered exactly one year ago in Cairo, was sponsored June 4 by the U.S. Embassy to the Vatican.

The three panelists were the U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, Miguel H. Diaz; the Egyptian ambassador to the Vatican, Lamia Mekhemar; and the director of the Pontifical Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, Father Ayuso Guixot Miguel Angel.

“The United States laments the loss of human lives” during the Israeli ship assault May 31, said Diaz.

“This situation in Gaza and other parts of the world demonstrates the need for dialogue” and reminds people that “we have to expend much effort for dialogue and common action in order to resolve conflicts” around the world, he said in Italian.

Obama’s speech was an important invitation to world leaders to think of new ways to confront the world’s problems, especially concerning conflict and intercultural dialogue between the West and the Muslim world, said the U.S. ambassador.

Words have the power to inspire and change reality, he said, and it takes courage and cooperation for people to turn words into action.

At Cairo, Obama highlighted seven major challenges facing humanity: violent extremism, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, nuclear weapons, democracy, religious freedom, women’s rights and economic development, said Diaz.

“One year after the Cairo speech we have had some progress on these points, but much remains to be done,” he said. The speech remains a call to continue efforts to work for change and the common good, he added.

While Obama opened the way toward favoring the force of intelligence over the force of violence, people on the ground need to use every diplomatic tool at their disposal, he said. To do that “we must reinvest economic resources and earmark human resources differently” in a way that promotes dialogue, he said.

Everyone, not just political leaders, has a responsibility to make a contribution and create new opportunities for constructive dialogue and peace, he said.

Mekhemar said the Cairo speech was a necessary and needed recognition of the Muslim world, in which Obama made it possible for the two sides to let go of their fears and prejudices and meet each other halfway.

The May 31 Israeli assault violated international norms, humanitarian laws and the most basic sense of humanity, she said.

“The vision of a different future was brusquely and highhandedly swept away” by the incident, she said.

However, the Israeli raid and the media’s spotlight on bad news will not drown out the tiny flame of hope that lies within those working for a better future, she said.

To lose hope and give in to despair and distraction “means playing the game of all extremists – on both sides – and to hand over to them” the future of the planet, she said.

People must pay more attention to the good that has been done and the positive examples of faithful Muslims who are constructively engaged in Western societies, she said.

People must fight against xenophobia, stereotypes and misunderstandings and find common points of interest, she said, and children must be taught there can be harmony in diversity.

Father Angel, who spent 20 years in Egypt’s Nile Valley, said of all the U.S. presidents, Obama’s remarks on Islam had the most credibility because of his background and exposure to Muslim culture growing up.

His ability to balance realism and utopian ideals can help people realistically forge “a radical change in America’s approach toward other countries in general and toward Islam in particular” by basing relations on shared interests and mutual respect, he said.

While change will not happen overnight “one year later, we can confirm that we are already on a new path of a new journey that has already begun and is very promising,” said Father Angel.

Catholic Review

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.