VATICAN CITY – Two Syrian Catholic bishops living in Lebanon told the Synod of Bishops for the Middle East that the blossoming number of Catholic-Muslim dialogue projects has not and may never lead to real understanding.
But a retired Vatican nuncio who now lives in Lebanon urged synod members to increase dialogue and to find more practical ways to promote Catholic-Muslim cooperation, including by encouraging schools to have student bodies made up of both Catholic and Muslim youngsters.
The three focused on relations with Muslims in Lebanon in their written submissions to the synod; their statements were released by the Vatican Oct. 21.
Their statements differed significantly from most of the other synod members’ speeches on dialogue with Muslims in the Middle East; the majority of synod members – and the two Muslims Pope Benedict XVI invited to address the assembly – focused instead on progress in understanding and cooperation.
In his written submission, Archbishop Raboula Beylouni, who works in the Syrian Catholic curia in Lebanon, wrote that formal Catholic-Muslim dialogues are “difficult and often ineffective,” partially because the Quran tells Muslims they belong to “the only true and complete religion.”
Muslims, he said, come “to dialogue with a sense of superiority and with the certitude of being victorious.”
In addition, the archbishop said, “The Quran allows the Muslim to hide the truth from the Christian and to speak and act contrary to how he thinks and believes.”
Islam does not recognize the equality of men and women and does not recognize the right of religious freedom, he also wrote.
Archbishop Beylouni said he was not advocating a withdrawal from dialogue but said topics must be chosen with care. A good place to start, he said, is by entrusting dialogue to Mary, whom Muslims also hold in high esteem.
Bishop Flavien Melki, also a member of the Syrian curia in Lebanon, said that at a time when “fundamentalism is becoming more entrenched in the region,” the idea that dialogue could lead to Muslims accepting secular democracy “seems to be in the domain of utopia.”
“Must we wait for the disappearance of Christians in the Middle East to raise our voices and speak up with force” to call for “liberty, equality and justice for these religious minorities?” Bishop Melki asked.
The bishop said Middle East Christians need the support of the international community to press for the reform of Islamic regimes in the region.
Archbishop Mounged el-Hachem – retired nuncio to Middle Eastern countries such as the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Yemen, Bahrain and Kuwait – said the Muslim world faces great challenges, including a tense relationship with the United States and Europe because of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, a lack of democracy and freedom, political tensions between Sunni and Shiite Muslims and conflicts in Iraq, the Palestinian territories and Yemen.
Helping ordinary Catholics and ordinary Muslims learn more about each other and work together can pave the way for a brighter future, he said.
The nuncio called for efforts to educate Christians and Muslims about each other’s faith with accurate information provided “from elementary school up through university.”
He said the church should “encourage mixed schools and exchanges between Christian and Muslim schools” and should support summer camps where Christian and Muslim young people live and have fun together.
The archbishop also said Catholics and Muslims must continue to carry out social, charitable and humanitarian activities together.