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Pope’s comments on violence prompt Muslim dialogue partner to halt talks

Robert Mickens In Rome

A CAIRO-BASED group that has been the Vatican’s main Muslim dialogue partner for more than a decade has indefinitely suspended bilateral talks in protest over what it called Pope Benedict XVI’s “offensive” remarks about anti-Christian violence in Egypt. The Islamic Research Academy at al-Azhar

University said it “reviewed in an emergency meeting [on 20 January] the repeatedly insulting remarks issued by the Pope towards Islam and his statement that Muslims are discriminating against others who live with them in the Middle East”. Al-Azhar, founded in 969, is the oldest and most prestigious cen- tre of learning for more than 1 billion Sunni Muslims worldwide. The university’s Permanent Committee for Dialogue with Monotheistic Religions has conducted an international dialogue with the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue since 1998. Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the university’s president, and members of the Islamic Research Academy “decided to freeze dialogue between al-Azhar and the Vatican for an indef- inite period”, said the Muslim group. The move was taken because Pope Benedict

on 1 January referred “to the discrimination endured by Coptic Christians in Egypt” after

23 people were killed in a bomb attack on a church. The sheikh had already denounced the remarks as “unacceptable interference in Egypt’s affairs”. But then the Pope recalled the bombing again in a 10 January address to diplomats and said there was “the urgent need for the governments of the region to adopt, in spite of difficulties and dangers, effective measures for the protection of reli- gious minorities”. This irked the Egyptian Government, which recalled its Vatican-based ambassador to Cairo “for consultation”. The suspension of the dialogue came about a month before the joint committee of the Vatican and al-Azhar were to hold the next round of annual talks in late February. The day al-Azhar announced the boycott

Vatican spokesman, Fr Federico Lombardi SJ, said the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue was “gathering information needed to adequately understand the situation”. But he said, “In any case, the line of openness and the desire for dialogue on the part of the pon- tifical council remain unchanged.” One of the architects of the relationship

between al-Azhar and the Vatican was then- Bishop Michael Fitzgerald, a member of the Missionaries of Africa (“White Fathers”) and one of the foremost Catholic experts on Islam. When the joint committee for dialogue with the Cairo-based university was started he was

Bishops in cautious critique of Berlusconi

THE PRESIDENTof Italy’s episcopal confer- ence (CEI), Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, has broken the Catholic hierarchy’s silence on a prostitution scandal directly involving Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, writes Robert Mickens. In a speech to the CEI executive committee on Monday, the cardinal alluded to the recent barrage of news stories concern- ing “behaviour contrary to public decorum”. Although he never mentioned the 74-year- old premier by name, most commentators agreed he was speaking of Mr Berlusconi. He said whether the charges were “true or presumed”, such behaviour was certainly “not compatible with the temperance and propri- ety” demanded of public servants. Milan magistrates opened an investigation

on 14 January into reports that Mr Berlusconi has habitually hired prostitutes, some of them minors, to attend late-night parties for wealthy friends and political allies. Mr Berlusconi

denies the accusations and has refused to sub- mit himself to judicial questioning. Cardinal Bagnasco was cautious in his crit- icism, pointing out that some Italians were perplexed over the “huge mass of investigative resources” employed in this case. Since Mr Berlusconi gained power for a third time in April 2008, he has been able to count on the backing of the Holy See and Italy’s bishops because he and his coalition have opposed legislation that violates Vatican positions on several moral issues. But many Catholics are scandalised that the church leaders have remained mostly silent over this scandal. Pope Benedict was perceived to have broached the issue during a 21 January audi- ence with Rome police officials. The Pope said that public officials should “rediscover their spiritual and moral roots”. The CEI-owned newspaper, Avvenire, then published some letters from readers critical of Mr Berlusconi.

Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the president of al-Azhar University.

Photo: Reuters/ Amr Dalsh

secretary of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, becoming its arch- bishop president in 2002. But in February 2006, he was moved out of that office and made apostolic nuncio, ironically, to Egypt. In a 21 January interview on,

a Milan-based website focusing on affairs in the Holy Land, Archbishop Fitzgerald said he was sure al-Azhar had misunderstood the Pope’s comments. “The statements of Pope Benedict XVI are not interference in the inter- nal policies of countries but a call for individuals and leaders to respect religious beliefs and to encourage all peaceful initia- tives,” he was quoted as saying. “We hope the current misunderstanding does not harm the dialogue between the Holy See and al-Azhar … Indeed, misunderstandings make the need for pursuing dialogue all the more urgent.” (See Catherine Pepinster, page 5.)

Turkey rejects status request from Church

THE TURKISHGovernment has rejected Vatican requests for legal status to be granted to the country’s Catholic Church, which has long been denied formal recognition in the predominantly Muslim country, writes Jonathan Luxmoore. “For now, it isn’t possible for us to meet

the Vatican’s demands for legal personality for the Catholic Church in Turkey,” a vice premier, Bulent Arinc, told the Zaman Daily. “What matters is that different faith groups in Turkey should be able to live freely and peacefully … But first we have to dispose of fears, delusions and prejudices.” The official was responding to an early

January call by the Pope, during Rome talks with Turkey’s new Vatican ambassador, Kenan Gursoy, for Catholics to be given “civil juridical recognition”.

29 January 2011 | THE TABLET | 27

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