Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran. Via Wikimedia Commons

A Dialogue that Rests on a Certainty

The letter from 138 Muslims to Benedict XVI, the visits of Muslim notables to the Vatican, and the Pope’s reply to Prince Ghazi. “Who is my God and how do I live my faith?” An interview with Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran
Riccardo Piol

“I have the pleasure to tell you that His Holiness would be very pleased to receive Your Royal Highness and a select group, of your own choice, of the signatories of the open letter.” The writer was Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Secretary of State and the Pope’s closest collaborator. He was addressing Prince Ghazi of Jordan, promoter of the letter that 138 Muslim intellectuals sent on October 13th to Benedict XVI and to leaders of other Christian confessions. The “Letter of the 138,” as it was immediately called, was entitled, “A Common Word Between Us,” meaning between Muslims and Christians. And immediately it was read as a positive signal from the Islamic world. “It’s the first real attempt at dialogue by Muslims with Christians,” comments Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran. “Usually the first steps have been made by Christians, while this time they have taken the initiative.” 
The Pope’s reply was delivered to Prince Ghazi on November 30th. So the Cardinal–long the Vatican’s Secretary of Relations with States and since September President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue–believes the exchange of letters provides a good opportunity for taking stock of relations between Christians and Muslims. Tauran is clear about the value of the letter: “It is a significant document, both in its wording and also because it is signed by Sunni and Shiite Muslims alike.” The following interview with Tauran sheds more light on our understanding of this exchange.

Interviewed by Radio Vatican, you stated, “It [the “Letter of the 138”] could be the start of a new season.” That was two months ago. Can you confirm it? 

It’s an important development and might well reflect a more general urge in the Muslim world, a willingness to adopt a more open approach to Christianity. It’s not a polemical letter and should help foster dialogue. 

A dialogue which passes through Regensburg and the letter from 38 Islamic intellectuals sent to the Pope over a year ago… 

That’s certainly one factor. But I wouldn’t connect it directly with that first letter or with Regensburg.


Because it’s new in itself. For example, the text is rich in quotations from the Old and New Testaments. And the references to Jesus Christ are taken from the Gospels and not the Koran. These are new departures. 

It has taken many steps, large and small, to get to this letter. What do you feel were the decisive ones? 

The efforts at reciprocal understanding and the search for peaceful coexistence between Christians and Muslims naturally go all the way back to the birth of Islam in seventh-century Arabia. The three major religions have always been in close contact. Jews, Christians, and Muslims coexisted at Medina in the time of Mohammed. All the same, it’s true that this cohabitation has had its ups and downs and only very impartial scholarly study conducted by Christian and Muslim scholars will establish the truth of the facts and find a path to reciprocal forgiveness, to what is called the purification of memory. As for the most recent steps, the Conciliar Declaration Nostra aetate and all the other documents that followed have clearly been so many stepping stones in the history of this interfaith dialogue between Muslims and Christians. A lot has been achieved in recent years. I believe John Paul II’s visit to Morocco [1985] was a milestone on this path, this pilgrimage. A pope had never spoken to an all-Islamic crowd before. Now we see Benedict XVI: beginning in Cologne [2005], he has always been deeply concerned about fostering this dialogue and keeping it alive.

What are the prospects and the main points on which to build a relationship with the Islamic world? There is much talk of the quest for common ground. Where can we find this? 

First of all, before seeking common ground, each side has to be aware of its own identity. Who are we? What do we believe? Once we have done this work of what we can call “identification,” then we can discover that we actually have a great deal in common as Christians and Muslims–for examples, faith in the one God who is creator, providence, and the judge of each one of us, and who will reward each according to his works; and that we are all called to obey God and try to do His will in all things. This is a very important heritage, to which we can add the value of life and the family. We have all these things in common, but first we need to be clearly aware of our own identity.

When speaking to the members of the International Theological Commission, the Pope indicated natural moral law as the foundation of  “a universal ethic belonging to the great legacy of human wisdom.” Could this provide a shared starting point with Islam? 

On the basis of natural law, we can engage in a dialogue with all men of goodwill and with society today. With Muslims, we are called on to continue the work begun many decades ago in reciprocal respect, recognizing and preserving the innate dignity and inalienable rights of the human person, in particular the law enshrining freedom of conscience and worship, which is very important to us. Then there is a potential to work together on behalf of those who are in a state of need, because dialogue is not just theory, but should also have a concrete application in this dialogue of works.The dialogue is also political. Some months ago, the former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami met Benedict XVI. In November, there was the first visit of a King of Saudi Arabia to a Pope. The Holy See is also taking this path to reach out to the Islamic world...The simple fact that King Abdullah came is in itself an event, even more than the content. The Pope and the guardian of Islam’s holy places are unique. They are two religious figures and also two heads of state–the Pope in a rather special way. The fact that they met is a sign of recognition and the urge to go the extra mile together. In some respects, the King of Saudi Arabia’s visit is like the “Letter of the 138,” because it was an initiative that came from the Muslim world, as much as to say, “This could be the beginning of a new chapter.”

Internationally, Islamic countries and the Holy See often find themselves of one mind on issues like the family. Are facts like these irrelevant, or could this alliance be common ground? 

Certainly, when it comes to the family and respect for life, we share a very similar heritage of ideals. Some people talk of an “alliance,” but I’d rather speak of convergence on certain issues, without forgetting or ignoring the differences. There’s no point in giving the impression that all the problems have been solved. This positive approach to the subject of life and the family is valuable, but we need to reflect more deeply on the truth to find just where the points of convergence and conflict lie. There is always a certain ambiguity and this requires both parties, Christians and Muslims, to be much clearer when they talk to each other.

What do you mean by ambiguity? 

I’ll give you an example. The “Letter of the 138” speaks of the love of God and love of one’s neighbor. This is fine, but these two concepts are not exactly the same thing. Dialogue should help explain these concepts.

When you speak of the relationship with Islam, one is prompted to ask how it is possible to conduct the dialogue and at the same time support Christians living amid objective difficulties and often tragic situations in countries with Islamic majorities… 

First of all, by saying just who we are, what our identity is, being aware of the treasure our faith is to us. At the same time, we have to understand that there are also elements of truth in the other, truth which God has placed in man’s heart. Concurrently, though, we need to say that faith is not a theory; it is embodied in concrete actions that are lived in a community of believers. These communities must respect each other, and what a community asks for itself it has to grant to others. If Muslims in Europe can have their places of worship, the same should hold good for Christians in countries where Islam is the majority. This is the basis of human cohabitation, of international law: reciprocity.

So you do not agree with those who say the dialogue with the Muslim world should adopt different strategies, depending on whether we are dealing with Islamic communities in Europe or those in Arab countries or the Middle East? 

I think that the interfaith dialogue is not lived in the Roman Curia. In reality, it is lived by the Christians in the countries with Muslim majorities and by Muslims who live in all Western countries. Dialogue is lived in everyday life. True, when you study relations between Catholicism and Islam in Europe, you have to be aware of the political and cultural picture in Europe, but when you go to Indonesia the picture is completely different. This dialogue is not conducted by us here in the Vatican; it is conducted by Christians and bishops who experience everyday life in the different countries.

Is this the reason why, in your letter addressed to our “dear Muslim friends” for the end of Ramadan, you express the hope that Christians and Muslims “will be very vigilant, in particular of the quality of their testimony as believers”? 

Interfaith dialogue is a pilgrimage, a questioning of ourselves. It is a pilgrimage in the sense that, when we agree to enter into a dialogue with the other, we agree to spend time listening to him, trying to understand just who he is, where he is going, and what he believes. And, in the end, I will ask him, “Tell me who your God is and how you live your faith.” And, in turn, the other will ask me those same two questions. I, too, will be obliged to say who my God is and how I live my faith concretely. Interfaith dialogue is a mutual questioning, and at the same time it compels us to explore our faith in depth. Before I feel the urge to question the other–“Who is your God?”–I have to ask myself the same questions: “Who is my God? How do I live my faith?”

In your letter for the end of Ramadan, you invite the Muslim community to continue to quicken the dialogue “in its educational and cultural dimension.” Why did you feel the need to specify this dimension? Mightn’t it risk sounding reductive? 

No, it’s not reductive. Rather, I would say it’s precise. What is one of the great handicaps of interfaith dialogue? Ignorance, which leads to distrust and hence often to violence. It’s a chain. The first thing to do is to understand each other. If we don’t, then it inevitably generates fear and I see the other as a danger (certainly not as a brother).

But if we were to speak about interfaith dialogue in a more general way, without specifying “its educational and cultural dimension,” wouldn’t it be easier? 

It would be illusory. We are beginning to really understand each other. A very important point is that interfaith dialogue has to make people understand that if we believe that we are the children of the same Father then we have to live like brothers. This does not mean that all religions are equal; that would be syncretism, relativism. We say that all believers, as well as those who are seeking God, have the same dignity.