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VATICAN LETTER Oct-6-2006 (790 words) Backgrounder. xxxi

Is interreligious dialogue slowing? Vatican emphatically says no

By Carol Glatz
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- The president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue said the Vatican's commitment to interreligious dialogue not only continues, but "it is even stepping up."

For example, the council is promoting a November meeting in Assisi, Italy, that will bring nearly 100 young people from a variety of religious backgrounds together to talk about peace in education, said French Cardinal Paul Poupard, who also heads the Pontifical Council for Culture, in an interview with Catholic News Service Oct. 5.

In November, he is scheduled to travel to Jakarta, Indonesia, for an interreligious meeting. He is also scheduled to go to India to talk with religious representatives and to attend a gathering of people involved in Catholic cultural centers there.

The centers, run by local parishes all over the world, regularly hold cultural initiatives about a new book, film or social problem. The events give the church the opportunity to talk about values that are important to Christianity and draw people from every faith or no faith at all.

The cardinal said in an earlier interview with CNS that these cultural centers have the most impact in countries that are predominantly Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist.

And in mid-October the council's secretary, Archbishop Pier Luigi Celata, was to meet with the head of Turkey's directorate of religious affairs in Istanbul and address some 400 Muslim representatives.

Cardinal Poupard told the Italian daily Corriere della Sera the occasion "will be a unique opportunity to clear the air."

The controversy sparked by Pope Benedict XVI's September address in Regensberg, Germany, triggered condemnation and violence in recent weeks against Christians and their places of worship in several Muslim-majority countries.

Cardinal Poupard insisted that speculation that interreligious dialogue had been put on the back burner under the new pope is misguided. He denounced any assumption that the pope intends to weaken the interreligious council as a "complete lie."

Cardinal Poupard said despite their continued efforts, Vatican officials have had dialogue partners from other faiths "come to us convinced that the council (for interreligious dialogue) doesn't exist anymore or is about to be dismantled."

Those misconceptions grew from events starting in mid-February when the presidency of the Vatican's interreligious dialogue council was left vacant after the pope appointed its head, Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, as papal ambassador to Egypt and the Vatican's representative to the 22-member League of Arab States.

In mid-March, the pope merged the leadership of the interreligious dialogue and culture councils.

Although the two councils have one president, the councils "remain intact and autonomous," with neither being subordinate to the other, Cardinal Poupard said in an Oct. 5 interview with Corriere della Sera.

In no way does the pope wish to diminish the importance of working with peoples of other religious faiths, he said, "and it is very grave" that speculation to the contrary "continues to resurface in spite of every correction."

At the Vatican, Cardinal Poupard routinely receives ambassadors to discuss interreligious relations and he told CNS that he recently met with Buddhist monks from China, Islamic representatives from Iraq and Sikhs from India.

He said the representatives he meets with are happy with the Vatican's efforts at dialogue and exchange, and they are all working "in a harmonious climate."

Meanwhile, Cardinal Poupard said he agrees with Pope Benedict's view that interreligious and intercultural dialogue are entwined.

The cardinal said in an Oct. 2 interview with Vatican Radio that interreligious dialogue can't be divorced from culture "because the religions aren't dialoguing; those who are in dialogue are women and men whose beliefs have been embodied and lived, for some, for millennia."

Meanwhile, Archbishop Fitzgerald said in an interview with Vatican Radio Oct. 2 that he is looking into cultural exchanges as part of his efforts in fostering interreligious relations.

While his relations with top religious representatives in Egypt "are cordial" and it helps that they know each other from the past, he said he doesn't have frequent meetings with the Muslim representatives as they are very busy.

"Ongoing discussions, ongoing exchanges probably have to be developed at a different level," he said, such as is already happening on the grass-roots level in order to complement the work of the world's religious leaders.

He said that he was "hoping to develop something with the cultural side of the Arab League."

He said he has proposed a sort of cultural exchange that would bring people from the Western world to visit scholars and institutes in Arab League countries and vice versa.

He said he knows of an initiative that would bring people from Egypt's al-Azhar University, the center of Sunni Muslim learning, to the United States.

END


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