On Benedict XVI's Dialogue With Islam

Interview With Islamic Scholar Father Justo Lacunza

ROME, NOV. 19, 2006 (Zenit.org).-- Turkey is a lay republic where Islam plays an important role in people's identity, says a scholar who sees no reason why the country should enter the European Union.

Father Justo Lacunza Balda, of the Missionaries of Africa, is a professor of the Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies of Rome (PISAI), of which he was rector from 2000 to 2006.

He holds a licentiate in Arabic language and Islamic studies from PISAI and a doctorate in African languages and cultures from the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London.

Father Lacunza spoke with ZENIT about the paths that he thinks Benedict XVI is pursuing in dialogue with Islam.

Q: The Pope is going to Turkey in a few days on a trip that has aroused high expectations. Why is it a difficult trip?

Father Lacunza: Turkey is a lay, democratic and secular republic. The state has no official religion, but we must not forget that the majority of the population in Turkey is Muslim.

Therefore, the relations of the Catholic Church come into play with a country of Muslim majority, and this is difficult from the point of view of Christian minorities, religious liberty and pastoral activities.

It is a difficult trip because at stake in this crucial moment is Turkey's entrance into the European Community.

Personally, I don't see why Turkey should be part of the European Union. Suffice it to see its geographic situation to realize this. Have we forgotten that Turkey has borders with Iran, Iraq and Syria?

The core of the problem is that the difficulties must be analyzed one by one and not state straight away: "Yes, Turkey is part of Europe."

The fact that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan will not receive the Pope is a significant event which does not help to strengthen relations between the Holy See and Turkey.

Q: Turkey states that it respects human rights. Is this really so?

Father Lacunza: Everything lies in what one understands by "human rights." If one must defend being Turkish at all costs -- and this prevents people from freely changing their religion -- then there is a real problem of human rights and freedom.

If the term "Turkish" is identified with Muslim, there is a long way to go. One must see if the Christian minorities feel free. The idea of the Islamic state in Turkey has never been discarded by Islamist currents.

Q: As an Islamic scholar, do you think Benedict XVI is taking significant steps in the dialogue with Islam?

Father Lacunza: I believe the Pope is convinced of the need for dialogue between Christians and Muslims at the cultural and religious level.

He affirmed this in his address in Cologne in August 2005, on his visit to Germany for World Youth Day, when he spoke with Muslim representatives. Benedict XVI has affirmed this on several occasions.

In my opinion, the Pontiff is following three paths, with only one objective: to make himself bearer of the mission of the Church in the world. In a certain sense, it is the continuation of the apostolic mission of his predecessor, Pope John Paul II.

The first step is to apply the binomial "faith and reason" to interreligious and intercultural dialogue, especially in relations with Muslims, which seems to be the most difficult and conflictive.

This challenge is addressed to all Catholics, to all bishops and to all ecclesiastical institutions. Dialogue is not invented without interest, knowledge and learning. But Benedict XVI's action is also directed to state institutions which have the tendency of laying aside religion, of suffocating believers' faith and of spreading the idea that belief is something of the past. Cynicism in the religious field is a dangerous cancer of our time.

The second step is to build with wisdom Catholics' religious identity and to defend it intelligently.

It is important that Catholics know what it means to be Christian believers. This calls for education, catechesis and progress of the faith. It is the only way for Catholics to prepare for interreligious and intercultural dialogue.

The latter is arduous and difficult when Catholics' religious identity is uncertain and hesitant. If faith is reduced to a brilliant varnish, all dialogue will entail fear, prejudice and confrontation.

The third step is to put one's finger in the wound and affirm categorically that defenders of the faith cannot make use of violence to justify their own actions. In this connection, freedom of expression must occupy a central place in all forms of intercultural and interreligious dialogue.

The Regensburg address, which was not an address on Islam, has raised a storm of criticisms, protests and controversies, within and outside the Church. This means that there is a long way to go and that voices are not always harmonized.