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September 16, 2005
Vol. 5, No. 3

John L. Allen Jr.


The world's largest inter-religious gathering; Rowan Williams; Plans for papal trip to Turkey; A visit to Taizé; John De Gioia of Georgetown; Simone Veil; Chief rabbis of Israel meet pope; Belgian missionary arrested in Rwanda; A statue blessed


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Each year, the Community of Sant'Egidio organizes the largest regular inter-religious gathering in the world, building on the spirit of Pope John Paul II's 1986 summit of religious leaders in Assisi to pray for peace. This year 360 leaders representing 10 faiths gathered in Lyon, France, Sept. 11-13.

Their final appeal, issued in the name of all participants, amounted to a firm rejection of violence and an embrace of dialogue.

"Peace is the name of God," it reads.

"Dialogue is the path to peace. Dialogue does not lower one's defenses, rather it is a protection. Dialogue transforms strangers into friends, and enables people to work together and fight against poverty and evil."

An impressive line-up of VIPS, including the archbishop of Canterbury, the grand rabbi of France, and the rector of Egypt's prestigious Al-Azhar University, sometimes referred to as "the Vatican of the Muslim world," were among the signatories. From the Catholic side, six cardinals were on hand, including Cardinal Walter Kasper, the Vatican's top official for ecumenism and president of the Commission for Religious Relations with Judaism.

Despite an overwhelming spirit of solidarity, two mega-questions about interfaith relations still seemed unresolved after Lyon.

First, have 40 years of inter-religious dialogue since the document Nostra Aetate of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) really moved, at least in some quarters, beyond the "tea and cookies" stage, superficially polite but still nursing old grudges?

In one session, for example, a Muslim leader catalogued a series of Israeli misdeeds, including Israeli settler Barukh Goldstein's 1994 killing spree in a Hebron mosque. A rabbi responded that the comments reflect "an Arab/Muslim irrational reflex in response to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict."

Without entering into the rights and wrongs, the cycle of charge/countercharge was depressingly familiar.

Similar examples included Orthodox complaints about Catholic proselytism, Christian complaints about religious freedom in the Islamic world, and Jewish complaints about Christian anti-Semitism. While all are legitimate topics of conversation, the emotional subtext sometimes suggested the grinding of axes rather than a search for solutions.

Second, how can religious traditions enter wholeheartedly into dialogue without compromising their claims to possess ultimate truths?

I spoke to one Vatican official at the Lyon meeting, for example, who expressed reservations after listening to the head of the Italian Jewish community, Amos Luzzatto, say that an essential ingredient for dialogue is "doubt."

"There's a sense in which that's true," the Vatican official said. "On the other hand, Christianity is not just a question mark, it's an exclamation point. The church exists not just to ask questions, but to make a proposal based on Christ."

This official said that he worries about where the push for dialogue is headed.

"A church that loses it missionary identity stops being the church," he said.

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Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, told the Sant'Egidio assembly that "the worst thing people of faith can do is to live as if we could never be surprised by God." Lacking humility, he warned, "faith becomes corrupt, an alibi for failing to examine ourselves."

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On a practical level, Williams offered one concrete suggestion for improving inter-faith relations. Clergy from different traditions on a local level, he said, ought to form "covenants" agreeing to come to one another's defense if one religion is the victim of physical or verbal violence. He said that such a covenant already exists in the United Kingdom, and was important in heading off a potentially ugly anti-Muslim backlash after the July 7 London bombings.

I sat down with Williams for an interview Sept. 12.

First, I asked if his idea of a covenant is a project he intends to try to advance beyond the confines of England.

"It's more than a pious hope," he said. "The idea is to respond when there are verbal attacks in the press, for example, or actual attacks on places of worship. For example, Christians might pray outside a synagogue that has been defaced, something very concrete."

Next, I questioned Williams about Islam. While Muslim leaders in venues such as the Sant'Egidio conference always stress that Islam is a religion of peace, their presentation is sometimes so idealized as to strain credibility. El Tayyeb, rector of Al-Azhar, for example, told the meeting that Islamic teaching "clearly defies any thought of gender discrimination," a point that many Muslim women would vigorously dispute.

Does Williams believe there is a moderate, self-critical form of leadership in the Islamic world?

"We sometimes imagine Islam as a great monolithic unit with identifiable centers of power," he said. "In reality it is incredibly diverse."

"I wouldn't look for an Islamic Vatican to set the tone," Williams said.

With that in mind, Williams said, the answer to my question is "yes."

"I do believe that there exists a moderate mainstream," he said.

"At the moment, I think it's fairly baffled and feeling slightly powerless in the face of this highly technological, globalized violence. But I'm very confident that it's there."

Williams also noted that the Church of England has a formal dialogue with Al-Azhar, and that he had lectured at the university last year.

"The willingness of a large number of influential legal scholars around the world to take up this discussion is manifest," he said.

Bringing things a bit closer to home, I asked Williams about Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue. Some worry that relations between the two bodies may be capsized in wake of the recent Anglican crisis over the consecration of an openly gay bishop in the United States, raising questions about the moral teaching of Anglicanism as well as how authority is exercised.

As it happens, the second phase of the formal vehicle for Anglican-Catholic dialogue, the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission, recently concluded with a document on Mary. I asked if there will be a third phase, and Williams said he believes so.

"There will need to be conversations about the possibilities with Cardinal Kasper," he said.

Williams said one possible subject for further exploration is authority at the level of both the universal and local churches, which he said "in different ways create problems for both communions."

Williams said that Anglicans are committed to continuing the dialogue.

"When the signal is given, we are ready to move," he said.

I asked what sort of signal he had in mind.

"An indication from the pope," he said. "If the pope invites us to move, we are ready."

One moment in which such an understanding might be reached could come in fall 2006, when preliminary plans call for Williams to visit Benedict XVI in Rome. Ecumenical observers say that the current pause in the dialogue is not only a matter of awaiting a papal signal, but also of the Anglicans' need to focus on resolving their internal disputes, the outcome of which may have an impact on the agenda for future Anglican-Catholic conversation.

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Turkey has issued an official invitation to Pope Benedict XVI to visit in 2006. This means that a papal visit to Istanbul, which the Vatican and Orthodox officials in Turkey had hoped could be made as early this November, probably won't materialize until November 2006.

Whenever the trip happens, the heart of it will be a meeting with Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, the pope is likely to encounter other Orthodox leaders as well. Chief among them will be His Beatitude Mesrob II, the Armenian Patriarch of Istanbul and All Turkey.

While Bartholomew is the first among equals in the Orthodox world, Mesrob's church is the largest Christian denomination in Turkey. There are some 2,000 Greek Orthodox Christians, but almost 100,000 Armenian Orthodox, including 68,000 Turkish Armenians and 30,000 migrant laborers.

I sat down with 0Mesrob in Lyon to talk about the significance of the upcoming visit, and he didn't mince words.

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"The Holy Father is the number one bishop in the world, whether everyone wants to accept that or not," Mesrob said. "It's a fact. His coming to Anatolia, which was the cradle of the New Testament church, therefore has obvious significance."

Mesrob, who studied in Rome at the Dominican-run Angelicum University, said he hopes the visit will mark an ecumenical breakthrough, but he's also concerned about its resonance in Muslim circles.

From the point of view of Christians in Turkey, Mesrob said two points seem especially important. First, he hopes Benedict will not link Islam to terrorism, potentially inflaming tensions between the Islamic majority and the small Christian minority; second, he would like Benedict to clarify his position on Turkey's entrance to the European Union -- and by "clarify" he in effect means "reverse," i.e., supporting the country's candidacy.

"We tend unfortunately to link Islam with terrorism because of recent events, but great genocides have been done by non-Muslims too," he said. "Terrorism has to be rejected in very open terms, but to associate it with Islam is not fair."

Mesrob said it would be more productive for Benedict to raise issues of global justice.

"Sometimes people become violent because of frustration," he said. "You can't eat luxury food while others are starving, or they will come and take the food from you violently."

"In the near future, I'm worried we may have African terrorists," Mesrob said. "The current situation simply is not just. The resources of the planet have to be more fairly distributed."

Mesrob said Turks will "absolutely" be waiting for Benedict to say something about their country's desire to enter the European Union.

"Isn't it hypocritical to say that a Muslim country at the edge of Europe, which is much more moderate than many other Islamic nations, as secular as it can be within its own tradition, can't enter simply because it's Muslim?"

Mesrob gave three reasons why he supports Turkey's entry:

  • "As a citizen on the street, I believe that if Turkey is in the EU, its whole system of law will have to be upgraded by the standards of European forms of democracy;"
  • "As a Christian, I believe that Turkey's entry will help build a multi-cultural society in which Christians have equal opportunities;"
  • "As an Armenian, I believe Europe will not allow Turkey to enter without fixing its problems with Greece, Cyprus and Armenia."
Mesrob said the Christian leaders in Turkey, including Patriarch Bartholomew, are "totally united" in their support of the country's EU aspirations.

Finally, I asked Mesrob if he would like Benedict to bring up the situation of Turkish Christians with the government during his visit. Seminaries in Turkey have been closed since the 1970s, and despite repeated requests from Christians to reopen them, the government has not responded. (Observers say it could be politically difficult for the Turkish authorities to give permission to the Christian churches without also allowing radical Islamic groups to open their own schools).

Interestingly, Mesrob isn't looking for Benedict to address this point.

"That would be interfering in the internal affairs of Turkey," he said. "It should be dealt with on a different basis, not during an apostolic visit."

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On Aug. 16, the 90-year-old founder of the legendary ecumenical community of Taizé, a Swiss Protestant named Brother Roger Shutz, was knifed to death by a 36-year-old Romanian woman during evening prayer. I wanted to take stock of how the community is doing in the wake of the tragedy, so my wife Shannon and I visited Taizé, about an hour north of Lyon, on Sept. 10.

Shutz arrived in Taizé in 1940, with the aim of promoting Christian unity by building a community in which Christians from all backgrounds work and pray together. Of the roughly 100 monks from 26 countries living at Taizé today, there are Catholics, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Methodists, Presbyterians, and brothers from other denominations. It is also a major pilgrimage destination, hosting 100,000 visitors each year, the vast majority young.

Several people at Taizé told me that despite the shocking character of the attack, his advanced age to some extent softened the blow.

"I think the community was in some ways already prepared for a new stage in its history," said Brother Emile, a French Canadian and Catholic who has been part of the community since 1975.

Some 10,000 to 12,000 people converged on Taizé for the funeral Mass, celebrated by Cardinal Walter Kasper, the Vatican's top official for Christian unity. The liturgy followed the Catholic rite, assisted by four monks from Taizé.

Brother Emile said there is no danger that without its charismatic founder, Taizé will wither.

"Brother Alois [the new prior of Taizé] told us that the time of foundation has come to an end," Emile said. "But the intuitions left to us by Brother Roger, the seeds he has sown, will continue."

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While there is much to admire about Taizé, it's not without critics. Some ecumenists in Rome, for example, keep their distance because they think Taizé almost pretends that divisions among Christians don't exist, never quite violating rules on matters such as inter-communion, but downplaying the distinctions among the various Christian bodies.

This tension was clear, for example, in reactions to the news that then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger administered Communion to Shutz at the April 2 funeral Mass of Pope John Paul II. Some applauded what they saw as ecumenical generosity, while others complained about a compromise in the church's identity. Some even speculated that perhaps Shutz had secretly "converted" to Catholicism.

Brother Emile said he was saddened to see Shutz "misunderstood" even in the last weeks of his life.

"People underestimated how far he had gone," Brother Emile said. "He was living something that does not yet exist."

Emile complained that a Vatican press statement about the incident has been misinterpreted to suggest that it was basically an accident, a case of Shutz being in the wrong place at the right time. In fact, Emile said, the statement refers to Shutz as a "special case."

To call Shutz's embrace of Catholicism a "conversion," Emile said, would be a kind of category mistake.

"What he had achieved was inner reconciliation with Catholicism without any breaking of communion with his origins," Emile said.

Emile insisted that Taizé does not weaken the commitment of Catholics to their own tradition.

"How can you be less Catholic if you're open to others?" he asked. "Being Catholic is not about being against anyone. It's about valuing the treasures of our faith."

I pushed the $64,000 question -- is it Taizé's position that one can be both Catholic and Protestant at the same time?

"This has to be worked out," Emile said. "The aim is to value one's own tradition and let go of what is artificially against another's tradition."

Is that a "yes"?

"This can't be understood in traditional categories," Emile said. "Divisions are always very clear, but not the unity underneath them. This should not be judged in a cheap way," he said.

Emile quoted a line from Paul Ricouer, a French philosopher who devoted the latter part of his life to Taizé. He was once asked what remained of his Protestantism, and he responded: "Everything that is positive, and nothing that is negative."

"You can't understand Taizé if you have a legalistic concept of the church," Emile said. "It's totally incomprehensible, that you can live this reconciliation. For Brother Roger, Christ is not divided. Our divisions are an accident of human history. He believed that when people give their lives for the gospel, something of the undivided church can emerge."

I met at least one person for whom it seems to be working. Claudia Epler, 20, a German Protestant who has made two pilgrimages to Taizé, told me the experience showed her that "a community of love is possible."

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The next Sant'Egidio inter-religious summit will be held at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., April 26-27, 2006. The event will be co-sponsored by Georgetown, the Catholic University of America, and the Archdiocese of Washington, and marks the first time Sant'Egidio has held the event outside Europe.

I sat down with John De Gioia, president of Georgetown, to talk about the April event.

"After becoming president five years ago, I made it part of my responsibility to connect with powerful organizations and individuals who are helping us interpret this moment in time for Roman Catholic institutions," De Goia said.

De Goia, an unabashed admirer of Sant'Egidio's work on dialogue, social justice, conflict resolution and HIV/AIDS relief, said he almost sees the "principal purpose" of the April event as introducing Sant'Egidio to American Catholics.

Georgetown University has sent students to live with Sant'Egidio in Rome for the past several summers, and last October the university awarded an honorary degree to Andrea Riccardi, the founder of Sant'Egidio and a well regarded church historian.

De Goia said he considers Sant'Egidio a "partner" in Georgetown's mission.

"As a Jesuit institution, we're trying to respond to what both Fr. Pedro Arrupe, the former general, and Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach have asked of us, to respond to the challenge of justice in the world," De Goia said.

De Goia said the university does not have this kind of relationship with any of the other "new movements" in the church, though he is interested in developing ties with L'Arche, a group founded by French Canadian Jean Vanier that works with developmentally disabled people.

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One of the featured speakers during the Sunday evening opening session, held in front of an overflow crowd in Lyon's Maurice Ravel auditorium, was French Holocaust survivor Simone Veil.

In addition to being a noted writer and lecturer, Veil, who is Jewish, was also Minister of Health from 1974 to 1979, and the primary sponsor of a 1975 law that legalized abortion in France. She is one of the most prominent "pro-choice" voices in the country.

In the United States, that background might have made it difficult for a Catholic organization to invite her to speak at an event where six cardinals were present. Organizers told me, however, that the issue never came up here.

In part, this may reflect differing American and European Catholic sensibilities. American Catholic leaders often see giving pro-choice politicians a platform as a sort of tacit tolerance for their position, while Europeans sometimes see it as a way of keeping lines of communication open.

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The two chief rabbis of Israel met Pope Benedict XVI on Thursday, urging him to issue an appeal to stop the destruction of synagogues in the Gaza Strip left behind by Israeli settlers.

The rabbis also asked Benedict to set aside Oct. 28 of each year, the anniversary of Nostra Aetate, as a day in which priests and bishops all over the world would teach Catholics about the church's condemnation of anti-Semitism.

The rabbis extended an invitation to Benedict XVI to visit Israel.

Rabbi Yona Metzger, the Chief Rabbi representing the Ashkenazi community, and Shlomo Moshe Amar, Chief Rabbi of the Sephardic community, met with the pope in a 45-minute audience at Castel Gandolfo.

The rabbis then met with a group of reporters at Rome's Ciampino airport prior to returning to Israel.

"We asked the pope to talk about [the destruction of synagogues], to deplore it, to use his influence," Metzger said. "If there is also a way the church could use its diplomatic channels, we would appreciate it."

Some have speculated that the synagogues were left behind intentionally to provoke a violent Palestinian response, in order to score a public relations coup, but Metzger and Amar rejected those suggestions.

"Terrorism is a cancer," Metzger said. "Today it is the synagogues in Gaza, but tomorrow it could be mosques or churches."

Amar said he believed that "any such attempt against the holy sites of any religion" should be rejected.

Amar told reporters that in the car on the way to the papal audience, he and Metzger got a phone call from Israeli military forces asking what to do about two other synagogues in another vacated settlement area, this one not located in the Gaza Strip. After what Amar described as "long deliberations," which included a call to another rabbi in Israel, they decided that one synagogue could be dismantled after valuables had been removed, the other should be buried under sand so that it would not be burned down.

"Our hearts are bleeding over this," Amar said. "It's the most difficult decision we have ever had to make."

Though in more indirect fashion, Benedict also had a request to make.

Israeli Ambassador Oded Ben-Hur said that Benedict XVI told the rabbis that while the Vatican is pleased to have diplomatic relations with Israel, it "eagerly awaits the fulfillment of the Fundamental Agreement on the issues that are still outstanding." The comment is a reference to long-running negotiations over the juridical and tax status of church-run institutions in Israel, a source of mounting frustration for Vatican diplomats.

I asked the rabbis about the recent diplomatic exchange between the Vatican and Israel, in which an Israeli official accused the Vatican of "silence" about terrorism directed against Israel. Do they see a pattern of Vatican silence?

"I see an improvement in the attitude of the Vatican regarding this issue, and I hope it continues getting better," he said, citing among other factors "actions and declarations" on the subject by Benedict XVI.

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Last week, a Belgian member of the Missionaries of Africa (once known as the "White Fathers") was arrested in Rwanda while waiting for a flight at the Kigali airport, and charged with complicity in the Rwandan genocide of the mid-1990s.

Fr. Guy Theunis lived in Rwanda from 1970 to 1994, serving as a parish priest, teacher, and editor of various publications focused on social justice and human rights.

Rwandan authorities have apparently asserted that in one of his magazines, Theunis printed extremist material that incited genocide. Officials in the Missionaries of Africa, however, told NCR that they have reviewed the volumes of the magazine and find no such references. Moreover, no such charges were made at the time.

The order has denounced the arrest.

"Knowing Guy personally and his lifelong commitment for the freedom of the press and for justice in the spirit of the Gospel, we find the accusations brought against him completely incomprehensible," a Sept. 15 statement said.

"We are distressed by the seriousness of the accusations against him when all the evidence we have points towards someone who spoke out and denounced the widespread human rights abuses which led to the genocide."

The order is asking supporters to contact their national governments to request an intervention in the case. Information can be found at

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John Paul II liked to commission statues of saints he'd canonized to fill exterior niches around St. Peter's Basilica, and generally he'd drop by to bless the work when it was in place. These were quick events that attracted little fanfare.

(CNS/L'Osservatore Romano)
Pope Benedict XVI blesses a newly installed statue of St. Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer in an exterior niche of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican Sept. 14.
Put Opus Dei in the equation, however, and things change.

So it was that some 1,000 people, along with a scrum of TV crews, were on hand Wednesday, Sept. 14, to watch Pope Benedict XVI bless a new statue of St. Josemaría Escrivá, the founder of Opus Dei, canonized by John Paul II in 2002.

The statue shows Escrivá in his priestly robes, with two angels at his feet. (Escrivá received the inspiration for Opus Dei, according to tradition, in a vision on the Feast of the Guardian Angels).

In his blessing, Benedict expressed the wish that "all those who contemplate [the statue] will be encouraged to do their daily work faithfully in the spirit of Christ, and to serve with ardent love the work of redemption."

Two questions suggest themselves: is there any significance to this being the first statue Benedict XVI has blessed, and is he especially close to Opus Dei?

In both cases, the best answer seems "no." This statue happened to be the next one ready to go. Moreover, while Benedict admires Escrivá and Opus Dei, he is clearly closer in spirit to Communion and Liberation and its founder, Fr. Luigi Giussani.

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is

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