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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Dialogue or Protests

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The reaction in parts of the Muslim world to recent statements made by the head of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Benedict XVI, at the University of Regensburg once again brought before participants in the inter-faith and, more broadly, intercultural discussion the questions of the sense and effectiveness of this dialogue. Future relations between two great religions descendant from Abraham, Christianity and Islam, depend on the answers to these questions.

The mass media often equate the present situation to the reaction on the part of some Muslims to the publication in a number of European newspapers and magazines of caricatures depicting the prophet Muhammed. But there are significant differences between these cases. In the case of the caricatures, the religious feelings of Muslims were insulted by the acts of representatives of the secular worldview, and of an anti-religious sentiment in particular. They justified the publication of the caricatures on the basis of their right to freely of express their critical opinion in relation to displays of religiosity. In that case, practically the entire religious world, including Christians of different denominations, came out in defense of people whose religious convictions were ridiculed.

Judging by the text of the lecture, the pope had entirely different motives. The head of one of the world's largest religious communities, the Roman Catholic Church, had for over half a century been actively involved in the creation of mechanisms for the establishment of interfaith and intercultural dialog. What's more, the pope has often come out in defense of religious freedom along with such values as faith and religious life.

But the reaction from representatives of Islam this time was just as less, and in some instances even stronger. Not only Muslim religious leaders and theologians came out in protest, but also political leaders from a number of Islamic countries. There were also cases of arson at Christian churches of different denominations.

Special attention must be paid to the character of the conflict. Here it possible to break the problems down into their religious and non-religious, basically political parts. It is the combination of these two aspects that represents the greatest danger.

The voice of Islam as a religion was heard in the protests by Muslim religious authorities, who maintain that the pope's speech included insults against the prophet Muhammed. It is clear that, despite a number of common features, Christianity and Islam are different religions with contradictory theological positions. But the sense in dialogue between them consists of revealing what they have in common and where they are different, to find the maximum mutual understanding and cultivate mutual respect to find the proper path for coexistence within societies and in the same world, cooperating in those areas where it is possible.

The urgent necessity of such a dialogue is recognized and accepted by many Christian and Muslim figures. This dialogue has been undertaken by different Christian churches and has already generated positive experiences.

At the same time, even under this successfully developing dialogue there remains a serious problem related to bringing the positive results of this dialogue to the broader number of the faithful. This problem is not just one of finding a way to transmit the message, but also the very content of the themes discussed during the dialogue. It is unavoidable that difficult theological and historical characteristics of religion are distorted in the process of simplification, including in the media.

It is for this reason that the sharp reaction from some parts of Muslim society to the pope's statements as part of a contemporary theological discussion are improper. Here, what is at issue is not so much the respect for differences by the representatives of one religion from the standpoint of theology expressed toward the position of another religion, but the politicization of evaluations of religious statements. The non-religious, character of the protests, which are hostile to any dialogue, is clear from their rude and at times aggressive forms. The people involved in these protests in front of television cameras were clearly unfamiliar with the complete text of the pope's academic report and had received incomplete and distorted information about its contents from sources who were either incompetent or were looking for a confrontation.

There is something else that should be noted. It is no secret that far from all pronouncements from Muslim leaders in the circle of their fellow believers regarding Christianity can be viewed as completely tolerant and inoffensive for Christians. But we have yet to see incidents where those on the Christian side have staged protests of the type associated with the fragment from the pope's speech that was taken out of context.

There is no doubt that the mass media played a role in the conflicts in question and that they bear much of the responsibility for what has transpired. Expressing different current opinions, and calling for tolerance and composure, the mass media often becomes not a provider of information, but a catalyst for conflict.

Approaching interfaith dialogue with the goal of finding opportunities for harmonious relations, it is necessary to recognize the rights of your partner in the discussion to express his or her convictions and remain him or herself. Without respect for the opinions of others, even if they don't coincide with your own, both dialogue and the hoped for result -- mutual understanding -- are impossible.

If the Muslim world really wants to be understood and heard in Europe and the Christian world as a whole, it has to do its part in building the road to extending dialogue.

Hurried and sharp reactions to statements made in the course of discussion, particularly in discussions about complex questions on which there is little agreement, can't be allowed.

By the same token, it is necessary to find a way to expand the very culture of dialogue and mutual respect among peoples of different beliefs. This all the more so as we must counteract the politicization of interfaith relations and the fomenting of conflict between members of different cultures on the basis of religious differences.

Hegumen Filaret is the Moscow Patriarchate's representative to the Council of Europe in Strasbourg.