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May 30th, 2008:

Scusate, e il Dialogo?

And the Dialogue?


A shocking news: the yearlong full time academic course in Islamic Studies at Tangaza College of Nairobi has been suspended because of a lack of students. The course started in Rome in 1989 at the prestigious Pontifical Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies (PISAI) founded by the Missionaries of Africa (White Fathers). The course objective was to give a basic formation for pastoral agents of the church working in Islamic regions. In one year participants learned a substantial knowledge regarding Islam and were prepared for encounter and dialogue.

After noting that the majority of students were from Africa, and after a prolonged evaluation, it was decided in 2000 to transfer the Islamic Studies course to Tangaza College of Nairobi. In the first three years in Nairobi, only two or three students were full time and for the past few years there were none. The teachers—all highly qualified—now offer only elective courses in the school of theology. Even if these elective courses are well attended and appreciated, it is evident that they are unable to prepare individuals for a specific responsibility.

Is this a sign that Christian-Muslim dialogue is still not considered a priority more than 40 years after the promulgation of the Vatican Council II document, Nostra Aetate?

This distressing question seems justified when reading the Lineamenta for the next African Synod. In the printed version circulating in Kenya, there is a single page of text dedicated to Islam and only one question in the final questionnaire. This out of 66 pages. A really paltry preparation for a synod on a continent where Islam has a considerable presence in a good many countries and has an enormous majority in countries such as Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Gambia, Libya, Mali, Morocco, Niger, Tunisia, Senegal, Somalia, and Sudan.

I spoke with Missionary of Africa Father Paul Hannon concerning this issue. Father Hannon has dedicated his entire life to the encounter with Islam, and, until a few weeks ago, was the Coordinator of the Department of Islamic Studies at Tangaza College. Currently he is preparing to return to a large parish on the outskirts of Khartoum, where he believes he may be able to exercise a ministry more useful to the Christian community and to his Islamic friends.

Why wasn’t the course in Islamic Studies successful at Tangaza? “One reason might be the high cost of living in Nairobi,” said Father Hannon, but, he added immediately: “we need to say, however, that the principal reason is that the encounter with the Islamic World is not a priority for the bishop and religious congregations, especially in places like Kenya where Muslims are a minority. While there are some Muslims, they are not the menacing kind—there is no urgent need to confront ourselves with them. And thus, we lose a great opportunity to develop relationships. In countries like Sudan, where the Church has suffered marginalization and persecution at the hands of the Islamic majority, the Christian community prefers to maintain a certain distance. I understand this reaction, and I certainly don’t judge those who have endured tremendous sufferings, but it seems to me that we must go beyond these incidents. Notwithstanding all this, we need to increase opportunities for encounters and showcase agreements which already exist.”

And yet some dialogue with the Islamic World seems to have started, even if the atmosphere is not very relaxed. After the provocation of Pope Benedict XVI at Ratisbon, there followed the October 2006 Open Letter of 28 professors at the Academy of Amman, and then, there were several high level meetings squeezed into the calendar; the last one was held in Rome. Eight delegates of the Islamic Culture and Relations Organization of Teheran met and discussed with the leadership of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue on the topic: “Faith and Reason in Christianity and in Islam.” A real “civil dialogue” is slowly emerging, which is quite different from the “clash of ignorance” fed by those on both sides who rely on stereotypes and stock arguments.

According to Father Hannon, we shouldn’t overlook the possibilities of Islamic-Christian collaboration that emerge in daily life. “At a very basic level, before we begin to speak of dialogue,” he sustains, “we need to speak of encounter. First of all, we need to become aware that throughout Africa there are Muslims all around us. We need to ‘see’ their presence, recognize it and promote opportunities for encounters, not necessarily on religious themes, but on topics of common interests, such as, justice and peace, human rights, economic development and social equality. For example, the serious problems in Kenya recently could have become an occasion for common reflection and action. In Kenya there are some open and illuminated Muslims with whom it is possible to meet and begin a fraternal assessment on these themes.”

The Christian-Islamic encounter is potentially easier and more fruitful right here in Africa, where the Islamic community has absorbed often a spirit of tolerance and the capacity to live in harmony with neighbors, which is typical of traditional African cultures. It is enough to bring to mind the Islamic community of Senegal and the Sahel region in general.

Father Hannon speaks enthusiastically about the efforts of his confreres in Tandale, a suburb of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and about the Interdenominational Association of Kenya organized just a few years ago. Also, in Uganda, despite the resistance and misunderstanding of some Muslim leaders, the editorial board of the Ugandan interdenominational magazine, Together, was finally able to convince the members of the Supreme Council of the Uganda that dialogue is not a secret strategy of the Catholic Church to convert Muslims. Of even greater consequence is the experience of dialogue at Hajj Yousif on the periphery of Khartoum along the road to Kassala. It is here in August 2005 following the death of John Garang in a helicopter crash that there was lootings, violence and homicides. Garang was the leader of the fight for the liberation of South Sudan and many believed that Garang’s death was organized by the most intransigent Muslim forces. Nevertheless, though difficult, it was in this parish where authorization was given in 2006 for the first time in Sudan for decades to construct a church.

The theme of the next synod is “The Church at the Service of Reconciliation, Justice and Peace.” A first elemental reflection on these great themes reveals immediately two possible “movements” in regards Christian-Islamic relations in Africa. First of all, reconciliation between the believers of these two religions must start from acknowledging one another, to look each other in the eye, to  actively discuss divisions, conflicts and pass massacres (where these have taken place, like the one on the coast of Kenya) in order to learn how to look at our common origins and at the one God. The diocesan initiative in Mombasa, Kenya for street children did just that. The street children project had the inspired name: of “Sons of Abraham.”

The other movement would be an activity which would bring the faithful of these two great religions together in service of justice and peace for all people. This is not a dream. An understanding in this field is achievable, if there is reciprocal resolve. As Father Hannon stresses, when he speaks of the progress in the last few years, “it is important to say that where we see abundant fruit, it is because individual Christians [and Muslims] with courageous efforts leapt into action, allowing the Spirit to guide them.”

Returning to the Lineamenta for the synod, we can hope that this painfully inadequate text, even if it is only an initial reflection on the possible encounter and collaboration between Christians and Muslims, may have been substantially improved by the contributions of the African episcopate. Maybe the Instrumentum Laboris, the text which will serve as the basis for synod discussion and whose publication is expected within the next few weeks,will offer a vision better articulated and at the same time may it be more prophetic.

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