Issue 45, July 2005

Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue 40 years
Hans Ucko

The Reformed scholar F. Lovsky says in one of his books about the Jewish-Christian relationship that dialogue is the pivot of ecumenism. This is not the place to enter into the significance of Judaism for the self-understanding of the church. I would however like to use this image to address the ecumenical dimension of the interrelationship between the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (PCID) and the Office on Interreligious Relations and Dialogue (IRRD). Our joint staff meetings, our co-operation, our jointly sponsored projects on various issues in interreligious relations and dialogue and through all this the personal friendship, which has developed between staff colleagues in Rome and Geneva, is a pivot, which inspires and stimulates ecumenism. In saying this, I am not saying that Christians, irrespective of confession, need to stick together in order to face people of other faiths more effectively. This would be contrary to the spirit of dialogue itself. I am saying that it is through the encounter with the other that we learn more about ourselves; the dialogue with people of other faiths teaches us something about ourselves as Christians. Christian theology in relation to religious plurality faces a particular challenge, how to understand the other, how to understand what God is doing in the lives of people of other faiths, how to understand our truth claims and how to understand ourselves in the reality of the religious manifold. Throughout many of the last forty years, staff in the PCID and staff in the IRRD, have been graced by God to work closely together, in relation to people of other faiths and in relation to our in-house reflection on the significance of religious plurality. It is in such an environment that we come to realise that we grapple with the same questions and that in similar ways we interpret the stirrings of the Spirit. Such discoveries side by side enable ecumenism.

Our interrelationship goes back many decades. The yearly joint staff meetings were already an institution, when I joined the WCC 15 years ago. Despite changes in the structure of the WCC and in staffing in the IRRD, the liaison between PCID and IRRD has continued, developed and matured.

It is in this fellowship that we together have tried to analyse the present religious situation in the world, tapping the resources that our constituency worldwide provides. It is in this context that we together have been following the almost explosion or sudden increase of international interreligious initiatives, telling us about the true longings and yearnings of many ordinary people to hear and see religious people be of one mind and speak peace in the world, but also saying something about how easily these longings will be taken advantage of and abused in many superficial interreligious happenings. We are as institutions often solicited to be present at this or that interreligious gathering. It is of capital value to be able to discuss together how to assess this or that initiative, how to interpret its thrust and orientation, how to see it grounded in values we could share and how we understand it to be rooted in reality and in religious traditions. It is in such discussions that we also have an opportunity to explore with each other how to interpret the role of religion in contemporary society. These conversations enable us to understand better the various expressions of religion, from the links between secularisation and religion, the hardening of religious positions, the re-emergence of religion, the re-composition of religion, the search for new spiritualities, the manifestations of religious fundamentalism and the various aspects of involvement of religion in politics and public life. This has led us into fruitful and useful deliberations on how to understand the various aspects of what has been called New Age. It has made us realise the role of religion as a tool for peace but also as a weapon for conflict. Indirectly, these conversations throughout the years have certainly influenced the way documents produced by our respective offices have tried to articulate some of the issues confronting or challenging the way religious people live their religious tradition today.

Our common pilgrimage has led us into the very heart of places and concerns. Let me share with you a couple of our attempts to walk together in encouraging good and sustainable relations between peoples of different faiths.

Following a call by some Jewish personalities in the midst of the First Intifada that the Church, the Vatican and the WCC, as they put it, shoulder a responsibility and try to bring Jews and Arabs together for the sake of peace, that they do not shrink their calling to be peace-makers or artisans of peace (“Blessed the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God” (Matth.5, 9), we consulted extensively and prepared thoroughly throughout our constituency and particularly in the region itself and brought finally together, Israelis and Palestinians, Jews, Christians and Muslims under the heading: “The Spiritual Significance of Jerusalem for Jews, Christians and Muslims” in May 1993 in Glion, Switzerland. Providing space for Israelis and Palestinians to explore the attachment to Jerusalem for Jews, Christians and Muslims meant being prepared for confrontation. So close to the hearts and minds of everyone is Jerusalem that the air will be filled with frustration and anger. And yet, our joint effort yielded some fruit, some understanding for the claims of the other. A couple of years later, in 1996 in Thessalonica, we came together to encourage Israelis and Palestinians to shoulder yet again the responsibility of being Jewish, Christian or Muslim for constructing peace in the region. Some bridges were built and some are still possible to walk. There is today, in spite of all hardships, a small group in Jerusalem maintaining the contact from Glion and Thessalonica, where one of the Jewish participants sends Christmas cards to one of the Christian participants and where the Christian participant phones the Jewish participant to wish a joyful Passover. These are small signs, but as the prophet says, “a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice…”(Isaiah 42:3).

“The growing contact among people of different religious traditions has brought an increase in dialogue and relations. These can take many forms, on of which is exchange at level of religious experience. This can include the desire of praying together, for prayer is one of the deepest expressions of the human heart. Yet fulfilling such a desire is not without difficulties.” Thus begins the editorial of the joint publication of PCID and IRRD on Interreligious Prayer, the visible result of a project of several years, including a consultation in Bangalore, where Christians from all over the world, Catholic, Orthodox and Protestants shared their experiences, joys and frustrations of praying with Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists. We learned about how combating hunger in Rio de Janeiro brought people of different faiths together in common action and in common prayer. We were brought into the last years of struggle against the apartheid regime in South Africa, where people of different faiths spent time in prison and were strengthened in praying together. We heard how the Interreligious Harmony Movement in India explored the ways of meditation. But the project on Interreligious Prayer was aware of the complications and complexities of interreligious prayer. A questionnaire was widely distributed and gave us material to bring together a scholarly consultation exploring the reality of interreligious prayer, but also some of the problematic issues involved: the understanding of idolatry, the risk of a simplistic syncretism, the temptation towards the least common denominator and the presumptuousness of imposing a Christian understanding of prayer on the prayer life of the other. The consultations discussed some of the limitations but tried in all this to pint to the possibilities to respond to the longings of people to come together to pray.

My last contribution in this testimony to the co-operation between the PCID and IRRD is not yet a finished whole, something that can be assessed and evaluated. We are still in the process of working together on the “Contributions of Africa to the Religious and Spiritual Heritage in the World.” We are in the midst of preparation for a concluding consultation to take place in Addis in mid-September this year. When, Deo volente, we will have concluded this consultation, we will have travelled across not only the continent of Africa, taking rest in places such as Enugu in Nigeria and Dakar in Senegal; we will also have been listening to the voices and experiences of Africa in Diaspora, in the Caribbean, in the USA and in Latin America. The thrust of this project is to point to and make known that which is evident but hardly recognised and celebrated: Africa as a continent and its peoples have throughout the ages contributed to the many and deeply spiritual contributions provided by the manifold expressions of the Christian faith, Islam, African Traditional Religion on the continent and in the Diaspora. There is the ancient Ethiopian Church, there is the wisdom of African traditional religion, there is the mystical form of Islam in West Africa, the African Independent Churches, the Negro spiritual in North America and in the Caribbean and Latin America the many other forms of religious and spiritual life as a protest against slavery and as an eternal memory of Africa. It is appropriate that we have this focus on Africa. In this way we can contribute to another view of Africa than that, which is so pervasive: Africa ripe with conflicts, poverty, corruption, AIDS and wars. The religious and spiritual heritage of Africa will, if allowed to enfold, contribute to a necessary healing and reconstruction. The voices and experiences of Africa in its various manifestations need today to be heard in religious and interreligious discourse in a world looking for sustainable values and a moral fibre for society.

My final remark touches upon that we, in cooperation and collaboration, in probing conversation and exchange, also have recognised that ours is the task of assuming a responsibility together to address one of the most controversial issues in interreligious relations: conversion. People of other faiths are not sure they can entirely trust Christians and how are they to distinguish between this and that confession? Not all Christians are on crusades but how can one tell in the heat of events? Memories and living experiences of being targeted as object for conversion, wounds of hurt that one’s religious tradition is being vilified, feelings of humiliation that that which is an integral part of oneself is being trampled upon in insensitivity and contempt. The reactions can be a withdrawal from a necessary dialogue, an entrenchment in hardened positions, counter arguments and counter actions: churches burned, Christians restricted in movement and action, exemplary work for the building of a just society being thwarted and the voice for justice quelled. Representing our constituency, we need to address the issue of conversion in interreligious relations, to provide space to articulate the experiences of people of other faiths in their encounters with aggressive mission campaigns, to restore good relations between Hindus and Christians, Buddhists and Christians, Muslims and Christians, Jews and Christians and to recuperate the understanding of conversion as a God-given right to turn to God, to tread another way, to change direction without any of this having to do with the denigration of the other.

Throughout our pilgrimage together, the IRRD staff has been enriched by the fellowship of friends and colleagues of PCID. We certainly believe that our common way in engaging with people of other faiths, raising vital issues also for our constituency, is indicative of our commitment to foster an even closer relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and the constituency of the World Council of Churches. With these words, it is appropriate for me to bring at this anniversary of the PCID all the good wishes and blessings of the General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, Rev. Dr Sam Kobia.

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