September 22, 2006

Dialogue partners see hope for future of Catholic-Muslim relations

By Sean Gallagher       

The Sept. 12 lecture delivered by Pope Benedict XVI at the University of Regensburg in Germany—and the sharp Muslim reaction to it in many parts of the world—should not have a negative impact upon Catholic-Muslim relations in central and southern Indiana, according to participants in interreligious dialogues.

Pope Benedict said on Sept. 17 that he was “deeply sorry” that Muslims were offended by his reference to a historical criticism of Islam from a 14th century Byzantine emperor, which he said does not reflect his own opinion. “I am deeply sorry for the reactions in some countries to a few passages of my address at the University of Regensburg, which were considered offensive to the sensibility of Muslims,” the pope said.

Benedictine Sister Mary Margaret Funk, a member of Our Lady of Grace Monastery in Beech Grove, has participated in many interreligious dialogues over the years sponsored both by the Holy See and the U.S. bishops. She thinks that an effective way to overcome the kind of interreligious tensions evidenced in the current controversy about the pope’s lecture is through education. This would include learning about the Church’s acknowledgement that Muslims worship the same God that Christians and Jews do.

“We have to be educated ourselves as to what is Islam,” said Sister Mary Margaret, who authored a book on Islam titled Islam Is. “They want to be seen as [having] a pure religion, with its own integrity and their own beliefs.”

One Muslim whom Sister Mary Margaret has entered into dialogue with is Dr. Sayyid M. Sayeed, the founder and past general secretary of the Plainfield-based Islamic Society of North America. He currently serves in Washington, D.C., as the organization’s national director.

Sayeed, who described Catholic-Muslim relations in Indiana as “very cordial [and] warm,” said that dialogues between the two communities have been fruitful. “For both communities, it has helped us to build bridges and to have certain common causes and to have joint conferences … at every level—national, local, parish and dioceses,” he said.

Msgr. Joseph F. Schaedel, archdiocesan vicar general, has participated in Catholic-Muslim interchanges, although in a more limited way than Sister Mary Margaret and Sayeed. Referring to an analysis of relations between Christians, Jews and Muslims made by Australian Cardinal George Pell of Sydney, Msgr. Schaedel said it is important to protect and continue to strengthen these bridges for the future harmony of societies around the world.

Jews, Catholics and Muslims all worship the same God,” Msgr. Schaedel said. “Now we may have different views of that God. But there’s only one God, and we all seek to worship the same God. And we need to build from that.

If we don’t build from that, then we’re going to get into all kinds of ideological and even political agendas and strife, and divisions are going to result. I don’t think anybody wants that.” For Sister Mary Margaret, building bridges between Catholics and Muslims here in Indiana was especially important after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

And it was through meetings with her Muslim dialogue partners after the attacks that they went from official dialogue participants to becoming friends. “We just put down our texts and talked to each other as persons,” Sister Mary Margaret said. “From there, we became friends.”

More than just benefiting herself, Sister Mary Margaret said that Catholic-Muslim interchange at the parish level in the archdiocese increased greatly after Sept. 11. Sayeed said that, despite the current controversy, there is no reason why Catholic-Muslim relations should not remain strong in Indiana in the months and years to come.

This unfortunate incident should have no effect on that because this does not mean the reversal of the policy that the Vatican has adopted 40 years ago where they declared [at the Second Vatican Council] they hold the religion of Islam in high esteem,” he said. Sayeed also expressed his belief that relations between Catholics and Muslims in Indiana and across the country will only continue to be deepened in the months and years to come.

"It will be further strengthened because, day by day, more and more interaction clears away misunderstandings and stereotypes that might have accumulated over hundreds of years,” he said. Msgr. Schaedel said that this interaction can happen in a fruitful way at the most basic level—person to person.

“If you have any Muslim neighbors in your neighborhood, seize the opportunity to talk with them,” he said. “Maybe this statement on the part of the pope and the reaction to it is, as we say at the Easter Vigil, a ‘happy fault’ because it now gives us something to talk about.”

(For more information about Islam, go online to read Sister Mary Margaret’s Catholic Update pamphlet on the religion at /CU/ac0405.asp.) †


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