50 years of Catholic-Muslim dialogue
ON October 28, 1965, the Second Vatican Council, a gathering of over 2,500 Catholic bishops from all over the world, promulgated a historic document: “Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate).” The document has a lot to say about the esteem and respect that the Catholic Church has for followers of Islam and other religions. Nostra Aetate acknowledges areas of common affinity between Christianity and Islam, especially our common heritage in the faith of Abraham, and urges Christians to genuinely seek to understand, appreciate and promote what is good in Islam.
According to the document, “The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men” (NA 3).
On Islam, Nostra Aetate declares: “The Church regards with esteem also the Muslims. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in himself; merciful and all-powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth… Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honour Mary, His virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the Day of Judgment when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting” (NA3).
As believers in one God, both religions should unite us in the worship of God and in our joint commitment to address common human problems that affect all human beings. Our religions can also help us to approach life positively and to answer some of humanity’s most puzzling questions bordering on our common origin and destiny. In an age where the actions of violent religious extremists are threatening to destroy the foundation of many years of good relations between Muslims and Christians, we can easily get drawn into the logic of extremism by engaging in accusations and counter-accusations, which further erode mutual trust and respect. On November 2013, the document, “The Joy of the Gospel,” was published by Pope Francis. He advised all Catholics to avoid the danger of running into generalisations about Islam. He said “our respect for true followers of Islam should lead us to avoid hateful generalisations, for authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Koran are opposed to every form of violence.” Nostra Aetate urges “all to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual understanding and to preserve as well as to promote together for the benefit of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom” (NA 3).
Since its promulgation in 1965, Nostra Aetate has inspired countless initiatives between the Catholic Church and other non-Christian religions in the work of promoting peace, justice and reconciliation in the world. Earlier in 1964, Pope Paul VI established the Secretariat for Non-Christians, later renamed in 1988 as the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue (PCID); the central office of the Catholic Church for the promotion of inter-religious dialogue. The Pontifical Institute for the Study of Arabic and Islam (PISAI), which arrived in Rome from Tunis in 1964, has been the Catholic Church’s study and research centre for cutting-edge scientific and theological scholarship in Islam, with teachers and students drawn from different parts of the world.
There is also the Vatican’s Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with Muslims (CRRM), established by Pope Paul VI in 1974. This consultative body is made up of eight Catholic leading experts in Christian-Muslims dialogue from diverse countries of the world. Among the eight experts is a Nigerian Catholic priest and prolific writer, Rev. Fr. Cornelius Omonokhua who is also the Director of Mission and Dialogue at the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria, Abuja. He represents the whole of Africa in this commission. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria (CBCN) has a dialogue committee in the department of Mission and Dialogue in the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria. The Episcopal chairman of this committee is Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah of Sokoto Diocese. He is also the Co-Chairman of the Inter-religious Dialogue Committee of the Regional Episcopal Conference of West Africa (RECOWA) along with Bishop Martin Albert Happe (Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Nouakchott, Mauritania) while Fr. Cornelius Omonokhua is the secretary of this Dialogue Committee.
Two other trailblazers in this field of promoting inter-religious dialogue across global frontiers are John Onaiyekan, Cardinal Archbishop of Abuja, and Ignatius Kaigama, Archbishop of Jos and President of CBCN. Cardinal Onaiyekan was for many years Co-President of the Nigerian Inter-religious Council (NIREC) with the Sultan of Sokoto, and after his term of office he and the Sultan established the Nigeria Inter-Faith Action for Peace. In 2012, the Cardinal and the Sultan both won the Leadership Newspaper Persons of the Year for their work in building bridges of peace, friendship, mutual respect and harmonious coexistence among people of all faiths in Nigeria. Their names also appeared on the list of short listed persons for the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize, a sign that their work for peace was receiving international recognition.
In 2013, Cardinal Onaiyekan was elected as Co-President of the World Council of Religious Leaders – Religions for Peace (WCRL-RfP) with headquarters at the UN headquarters in New York. This high responsibility affords him the opportunity of being in the global vanguard of promoting inter-faith dialogue, especially in difficult situations. He also sits on the 17-member Global Agenda Council on the Role of Faith in the World Economic Forum, where he is bringing a touch of religion and spirituality to bear on discussions about the future of global economy.
All of these and many other initiatives have been inspired by the hand of friendship and openness, which the Catholic Church extended to all non-Christian religions with the coming of Nostra Aetate 50 years ago. The whole aim is to preserve with open hearts and minds that which reflects the beautiful, the good and the true in all religions. There is to be no place for religious bigotry and hatred. “We cannot truly call on God, the Father of all, if we refuse to treat in a brotherly way any man, created as he is in the image of God” (NA 5).
• Fr. Ojeifo is a Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Abuja.