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Posted April 15, 2005 at 7:15 a.m. CDT

Catholic-Muslim relations focus of sermon
Lebanese cardinal wants dialogue, collaboration

By Stacy Meichtry

Roman Catholicism’s relationship with Islam loomed large Thursday during a Memorial Mass that saw Lebanese Cardinal Nasrallah Pierre Sfeir cast John Paul II’s pontificate as a boon to interfaith and ecumenical dialogue and express a desire for continued openness between Catholics and Muslims. 

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In a ceremony laced with prayers in Arabic, chanted over chimes and mandolin notes, Sfeir recounted a number of visits made by the pontiff to trouble spots in the Arab world, including Israel in 2000 and Syria in 2001. Sfeir then described John Paul’s symbolic visit to Lebanon in 1997 as a model for church relations with Islam.

“The Catholic Church wants to be open also to dialogue and to collaboration with Muslims from other Arab countries,” he said.

Sfeir is known as a strong proponent of Christian-Muslim coexistence in a country where Christian political power has been in decline since the end of Lebanon’s decades-long civil war in 1990. Sfeir played a key role in convincing hard-line Christians to back the 1989 Taif Accord that ended the war and prompted political reforms that eventually undermined Christian control over the government. Sfeir has also voiced support for bringing Hezbollah, an Islamic rebel group, into Lebanon’s political fold.

At 84, Sfeir will not be voting in the next conclave. But in an interview with Italian state radio last week, Sfeir expressed hope that the Middle East would not be ignored in the voting.

“You know the cardinals can’t talk about the conclave,” Sfeir said. “But we hope the Holy Spirit sends us a new pope who understands the world and the importance of the Middle East.”

Sfeir concelebrated the Mass with cardinals representing Eastern rite churches in communion with the Catholic Church, including Syrian Cardinal Ignace Moussa Daoud and Ukrainian Cardinal Lubomyr Husar, both of whom will vote in the upcoming conclave. 

Hardliners within the church have characterized John Paul’s papacy as being soft on Islamic governments that put restrictions on the religious freedoms of non-Muslims. A lack of reciprocity in relations with Islam has been especially apparent in the case of Saudi Arabia, which financed the construction of Italy’s only mosque near Rome while maintaining a ban on the construction of Christian churches on Saudi soil.

Sfeir referred to John Paul as the “pope of peace,” praising his opposition to the American-led war in Iraq. He also asserted that John Paul’s efforts to strengthen dialogue with Muslims did not diminish the Church’s standing in the Arab world.

“Opening to non-Christian religions never prevented the pope from raising his voice when human rights were ignored,” Sfeir said. “Nor did he accept establishing diplomatic relations with countries that denied the Christian religion the right to exist.”

The homily also touched on Ut Unum Sint, John Paul’s 1995 encyclical on ecumenical dialogue that many believe brought Catholicism closer to accepting other Christian denominations.

John Paul “confronted the problems of ecumenism, leaving an eloquent testimony of his ecumenical anxiety,” Sfeir said. “He never stopped promoting dialogue between Christians from different denominations.”

Some would say John Paul’s push for dialogue in the mid-1990’s has been overshadowed by the more recent writings of his top theologian, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

As the Vatican’s doctrinal czar, Ratzinger first took the wind out of ecumenical relations with a 2000 document titled Note on the Expression “Sister Churches” that classified the Catholic Church as the “mother” of other Christian denominations as opposed to a “sister,” the more common description in ecumenical circles.

The follow up to this letter came shortly thereafter with Ratzinger’s controversial Dominus Iesus, which suggested that the salvific powers of non-Catholic communities was ultimately rooted in the Catholic Church. In a blow to inter-religious dialogue, the document also insisted that Jesus Christ is the world’s unique and only savior.

Stacy Meichtry is a freelance journalist based in Rome. He is reporting and writing for NCR during this period of papal transition.

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