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DIALOGUE-OASIS Jun-22-2005 (840 words) xxxi

Local churches find direct contacts key to Catholic-Muslim relations

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VENICE, Italy (CNS) -- When it comes to Christian-Muslim relations, Pakistani Bishop Anthony Lobo measures progress in small steps.

For example, when President Pervez Musharraf began hosting an annual Christmas dinner as an expression of seasonal goodwill, Pakistan's minority Christian community took notice.

"It's a small thing, but it indicates changes on a high level," said Bishop Lobo, who heads the Diocese of Islamabad-Rawalpindi.

"We never dreamed that the president of Islamic Pakistan would be writing 'Christmas turkey' and 'Christmas pudding' on his menu," he said.

Bishop Lobo was one of about 35 pastors and church experts who assembled in Venice June 20-21 to discuss the problems of integration faced by Christian minorities in the East and Muslim minorities in the West.

The participants were members of the editorial board of Oasis, a biannual journal launched earlier this year by Venice Cardinal Angelo Scola. The journal focuses primarily on the challenges confronting small Christian communities, especially those in the Middle East, while highlighting the church's dialogue efforts with Muslims.

Bishop Lobo said that while Pakistan's tiny Christian community has experienced sporadic attacks in recent years, most violence is based on caste differences, not religion.

He emphasized a point made by other participants: that the "Muslim world" is far from uniform. In Pakistan, for example, he's had fully veiled female Muslim students come to ask him about Jewish philosopher and theologian Martin Buber, or about the Catholic charismatic renewal movement.

He said it is true that some Muslims are convinced that non-Muslims are infidels and that killing them means a straight path to heaven. On the other hand, he said, some of the most influential Pakistani Muslims send their children to church-run schools.

In a significant development this spring, the Pakistani government returned two Catholic colleges to the church, and Bishop Lobo said he plans to open a third college in Islamabad.

Equally important was a recent change in election laws, which allows Christians to vote for Muslims running for office; previously, they could only vote for Christian candidates. That sparked a new political dynamic for religious minorities, Bishop Lobo said.

"Now we have become valuable to Muslims, and they are chasing us," he said. "And when we approach the government, they help us."

These reports from the front lines of Catholic-Muslim interaction often have a down-to-earth quality that differs from theoretical pronouncements about the "clash of civilizations."

Cardinal Scola prefers the term "mixing of civilizations," which he uses to describe the increasingly rapid process by which cultures are being thrown together through immigration, a globalized economy, the modern mass media, the Internet and even biotechnological research.

One consequence, he said, is an urgent need for dialogue between religions, especially Christians and Muslims. But members of the Oasis board said it must be a dialogue that above all takes into account local circumstances, and which does not sacrifice beliefs in the name of tolerance.

Nikolaus Lobkowicz, a Czech-born philosopher who directs an institute for studies on Central and Eastern Europe, said the task of integrating Muslim immigrants is posing serious questions for the traditionally Christian populations of Europe.

"Millions of Muslims are afraid to integrate because they're afraid to lose their identity, or to have their children educated in a way they don't agree with. Europe needs to find a way to integrate Muslims without threatening them," he said.

At the same time, Lobkowicz said the West has to be careful when it promotes the ideal of tolerance as a key to successful integration.

He said one of the greatest problems of modern times was how to educate young people into tolerance without letting it slide into indifference -- indifference toward truth, toward what is morally good or toward values.

The Oasis group heard a report from Jesuit Father Franz Magnis-Suseno, who has worked in Indonesia for more than 40 years. He, too, cautioned against generalizing about the Muslim world.

Father Magnis-Suseno said that despite highly publicized acts of violence against Christian targets in Indonesia several years ago, as well as several years of ethnic and religious conflict in certain provinces, the church's relationship with Muslims has probably never been closer than today.

He said Christian relations with the country's biggest Muslim organization, Nahdlatul Ulama, have improved, and on Christmas and Easter night Nahdlatul Ulama militias now protect many Christian churches from possible terrorist attacks.

"I cannot use the expression 'persecution of Christians.' I don't think this has happened. You need to look very carefully at the situation (in Indonesia)," he said.

While the Oasis group was also very cautious about attributing terrorism to religious factors, they were very much aware that terrorist acts can impact interreligious dialogue.

During their meeting, Cardinal Scola apologized to Egyptian participants for making them come to Venice. The encounter was originally scheduled for Cairo, but was switched for security reasons after two bombings in April killed seven people in tourist areas of the Egyptian capital.


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