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TRADITIONS-CONFERENCE Jun-23-2009 (910 words) xxxi

Conference focuses on religious traditions of majority, minorities

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VENICE, Italy (CNS) -- In the increasing global mixture of peoples, balancing the religious traditions of minorities and those of the dominant culture has proven to be a crucial and delicate task, said participants at an international conference in Italy.

The issue has been pushed to the forefront in many European countries, where immigration has produced large Muslim minorities in recent years.

"It's often said that the newcomers must accept our values, our way of living, in a word, our tradition. But in most cases that's more an appeal than a thought-out argument," said Martino Diez, director of the Oasis Foundation in Venice.

"What is a tradition? What is the relationship between tradition and truth? Are we prisoners of our traditions or can they evolve? These are very important questions for religion," he said.

Diez spoke June 22 at the opening of a two-day symposium sponsored by Oasis, which was formed in 2005 by Cardinal Angelo Scola of Venice to explore interreligious questions and to support Christian minorities in the East.

But the June session of scholars and experts focused more on Muslim minorities in the West. As pointed out by Azzedine Gaci, president of a regional Islamic council in southern France, the issues are more than theoretical: France is now home to six million Muslims.

This minority population, Gaci said, is divided into two primary camps: "literalists" who want the culture to conform to the letter of the Quran, the sacred book of Islam, and "reformists" who believe the sacred texts can be adapted to the European context without touching the foundations of Islam.

In Britain, a public debate arose last year over whether Muslim residents could choose jurisdiction under Shariah, or Islamic law, on some legal matters related to finance, marriage and divorce. Because Islam allows polygamy, the idea prompted an outcry.

John Milbank, an Anglican theologian and professor at the University of Nottingham, said this was a case of a minority religious tradition reaching the limits of tolerance.

"You have to distinguish between valid differences of emphasis which are perfectly acceptable and others which are not," Milbank told Catholic News Service.

He said the majority might not agree with a minority religion's attitudes toward food, for example, but it tolerates these traditions because they are not based on principles incompatible with society.

"But if they don't fully recognize gender equality, or see marriage as between one man and one woman, at that point I think there is a limit, and at that point we have to be honest and say, yes, there is a majority tradition," he said.

Milbank said one danger today is that in a secular society the state, acting as a referee between religious traditions, may try to make the public space "completely neutral" and emptied of all religious traditions. At least in Britain, he said, that is not something desired by the religious majority or the minority.

Cardinal Scola, who organized the symposium, said a certain "depreciation of tradition" was already occurring in societies in which the primary relationship is between the individual and the state. The awareness of belonging to a religious tradition goes against this individualistic trend, he said.

In the United States, Muslim traditions came under public scrutiny after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Malika Zeghal, a professor at the University of Chicago, told the symposium.

Muslims came under suspicion, she said, and had to define and explain their faith to distinguish it from the ideologies of the terrorists responsible for the attacks. In effect, she said, this forced the Muslim community to speak the language of liberal religion when explaining their traditions.

Brother Michel Cuypers, a member of the Little Brothers of Jesus and a scholar at the Dominican Institute for Oriental Studies in Cairo, said Islam itself was undergoing an internal debate over the reform of tradition, with two main directions emerging: neofundamentalism, which idealizes the original Islam, and a more open, modernist approach willing to take a new look at interpreting the Quran.

"The flip side of this 'open' position is that the modernist intellectuals are situated on the margins of the general current of Islam, which remains strongly attached to the Sunna (tradition) as a norm for faith and law," he said.

"We can therefore understand that the different conceptions of the Muslims on the subject of tradition are at the heart of Islam's current crisis," he said.

Archbishop John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan of Abuja, Nigeria, brought the discussion to a more practical level when he explained how harmony between his country's approximately 70 million Christians and 70 million Muslims requires daily efforts at dialogue.

Like Christians, Muslims in Nigeria have strong traditions, with "constant reference to some kind of pure Islam with a gaze fixed toward the Middle East," and featuring the Arabic language of prayers, pilgrim events and the idea of an "Islamic way of life" sometimes expressed in Islamic law, he said.

But, just as for Christianity, the times keep changing and Islam faces a demand for updating, he said. The good thing is that Nigerian Christians and Muslims understand this and have formed effective dialogue forums, he said.

Archbishop Onaiyekan blamed the mass media for focusing solely on the few occasions when Christians and Muslims are in conflict in Nigeria.

"This happens only a few days in the year. The rest of the time, we are working together to make a success of our nation," he said.


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