VATICAN CITY – Former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami said religious leaders have an obligation to God to begin healing the wounds in Catholic-Muslim relations, including those caused by Pope Benedict XVI’s September remarks about Islam.
“Meeting the pope cannot heal all these wounds, but at least we are making an effort to begin,” said Khatami, speaking May 4 at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University immediately before meeting Pope Benedict at the Vatican.
Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, said the pope and Khatami spent 30 minutes speaking privately in the papal audience. Khatami also met separately with Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Vatican secretary of state.
The conversations highlighted “the importance of a serene dialogue between cultures aimed at overcoming the serious tensions that mark our time and at promoting a fruitful collaboration in the service of peace and the development of all peoples,” said a Vatican statement.
The meetings also underlined “the conditions and the problems of the Christian communities in the Middle East and in Iran,” the statement said.
Regarding the Middle East, the statement said, Vatican officials and Khatami reaffirmed “the need for strong initiatives by the international community” to promote “a serious negotiation that takes into account the rights and interests of all with respect for international law and with the awareness of the need to rebuild mutual trust.”
Khatami, a Muslim cleric and Iranian politician, told his audience at the university that Christianity and Islam emphasize “love and justice, compassion and justice.”
In a world where there is “hatred instead of love, discrimination instead of justice,” religious leaders “can lay the foundations for healing the wounds” of violence and injustice.
Interreligious dialogue, he said, should bring Muslims and Christians closer together, allow them to share their sufferings and find ways to increase solidarity with each other.
In his speech on dialogue for peace, Khatami spoke of “how much blood had been spilled on the earth in the course of history before everyone accepted without difficulty the excellence and superiority of dialogue over war.”
Yet, he said, even if the idea is widely accepted, putting it into practice still seems far off.
Khatami said that if the point of interreligious dialogue were to reach a negotiated agreement on divine truths obviously no real believer would be willing to engage in dialogue.
“But the most important issues we must discuss in the dialogue between Islam and Christianity,” he said, are the conditions necessary for creating and guaranteeing justice and peace.
At the top of the list, Khatami said, is “the elimination of terrorism and of large conventional wars, those wars that today seek to minimize and hide terrible cruelty and barbarity with the excuse of having to give permanent attention to another form of cruelty and barbarity, that is, to terrorism.”
“We cannot and should not use God’s name, which is the name of perfection, generosity, beauty and truth, to instigate war, hatred and to speak ignorantly of crusades,” he said.
As political tensions grow inside Iran, mainly because of the country’s ailing economy but also because of international criticism of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s fiery rhetoric and his nuclear program, Khatami is seen as one of the leading proponents of a new government.
While not referring explicitly to the Iranian situation, Khatami said good governance must include defending the rights and security of all citizens.
One can say a nation is at peace when there is social order and stability based on freedom and justice, he said. A situation of “relative stability and funereal silence” cannot be described as peace if the dignity of citizens is not respected.
The same thing can be said of relations between nations, Khatami said.
“When relations between governments are not the result of the force of weapons, but flow from the force of justice and freedom, then you can speak of peace,” he said.
But, Khatami said, too often a peace imposed by force simply opens a period of time in which “rivals are boosting their forces, catching their breaths” in order to fight again.
The establishment of true peace “has need of souls that seek peace,” he said.
“The sovereignty of God over human hearts will lead to the total annihilation of war and hatred,” he said.
Only when God rules human hearts can love for God and for others ensure that fear, hatred and aggression give way to altruism, friendship and compassion, he said.
“The magic potion alchemists have sought is nothing other than God’s compassion,” Khatami said. “It is in his name, filled with goodness, that we will defeat war and our lives will acquire meaning, grace and joy.”
“Convents, synagogues, churches and mosques are the house of peace and the followers of every religion, particularly believers in the Abrahamic religions, thanks to God’s name and safe in his house, can overcome the wickedness and cruel darkness of war,” he said.