Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani and Pope Francis in Najaf (Iraq), March 6, 2021. STRINGER / AFP
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has added heightened sensitivity to the Vatican-initiated dialogue with the Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow, with some accusing Pope Francis of privileging that dialogue at the expense of a more resolute position in favor of Ukraine. Such controversies have eclipsed the significant progress dialogue with Islam has made since the beginning of this pontificate in 2013.
Taking into account the deep diversity of Islam, the current Pope has multiplied the channels of exchange with various Muslim institutions, as well as with the bodies of interreligious dialogue, often created at the initiative of States wishing to improve their international image. The Holy See has therefore refused to engage in a dialogue with any single institution, which would make little sense in the absence of an Islamic equivalent of a universally recognized pope.
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The democratization of the Islamic-Christian dialogue
The dialogue with the Muslim world has long been conducted in the Vatican by narrow circles of specialists. The Pontifical Institute for Arabic Studies and Islamology (Pisai) has been based in Rome since 1964, after the institute founded by the White Fathers in Tunisia four decades earlier was relocated to Italy. While her original vocation was to train missionaries in a Muslim environment, she now dedicates herself to interreligious dialogue with the publication of the high academic quality journal Islamochristiana. In addition, within the Roman Curia, a dicastery, the papal equivalent of a ministry, the PCID, is designated for interreligious dialogue, with a dedicated office for Islam. The person responsible is a Jordanian bishop, educated in a Catholic seminary in the West Bank, then a graduate of Pisai, where he now teaches Islamic law. On behalf of the Vatican, he maintains close ties with about twenty institutions, from Morocco to Indonesia, through Jordan, Iran and the Gulf.
This diversity in exchange was encouraged by Pope Francis, who gave unprecedented impetus to dialogue with Islam. In February 2019, years of preparation made possible the “Document on Human Fraternity, for World Peace and Living Together” signed by Pope Francis on the occasion of his trip to Abu Dhabi with the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, a historic reference to Sunni Islam.
The two signatories back to back invoke “atheist and agnostic extremism” on the one hand and “religious fundamentalism, extremism and blind fundamentalism” on the other to categorically condemn “despicable terrorism”. They are firmly committed to “full citizenship” and take a “discriminatory” view of the term “minorities, which harbor the seeds of a sense of isolation and inferiority”. This is a historic break for the Vatican, which has long mobilized in the name of defending “minorities” on behalf of Eastern Christians.
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