he first Catholic-Muslim Forum to take place at the Vatican appears to have matched expectations. Since the meeting between scholars was suggested last year both faiths hoped the unprecedented gathering would increase understanding and cooperation between the two religions at a time when relations between the West and Islam have been under increasing strain.
Fr Federico Lombardi, the Holy See spokesman, said the Forum succeeded in taking dialogue between the two faiths "a significant step forward". He added that the meeting, on the theme of love of God and love of neighbour, allowed a more deep and frank exploration of essential themes and successfully expressed, with greater clarity and fidelity, that which unites and differentiates the two religions.
Prof Christian Troll SJ, an expert in Islam and a leading figure in the Forum, was equally positive. "Given the circumstances, quite a lot was achieved," he told Vatican Notebook, and he complimented the Muslim delegation for fielding a group of well-respected and influential scholars such as Tariq Ramadan.
But what did it concretely achieve? What stands out in the declaration, and what differentiates it from the rather empty and platitudinous Catholic-Muslim statements of the past, is the amount of attention given to religious freedom and protection of religious minorities. Point number fivethe most hotly contested by the Muslim delegation upholds the right of conscience and religion, adding that it "includes the right of individuals and communities to practice their religion in private and public".
Points number three and six, meanwhile, underline the importance of equal rights and full citizenship for religious minorities, and respect for their own religious convictions, practices and places of worship. These will be hard for some Muslim political leaders to swallow, but they are nevertheless consistent with the UN Declaration of Human Rights something to which many Muslim governments are signatories (this argument allowed these points to be included in the final declaration).
What was not explicitly mentioned in the final statement, however, was the freedom of Muslims to convent° other religions such as Christianity without having to face death for "apostasy". Prof Troll raised the issue in the discussions but said it was omitted because of probable resistance from Muslim states. Still, he said it is implicitly referred to in point five.
The hope now is that the substance and sentiments of the Forum will filter down to the local and community level arid, as Pope Benedict XVI said in his address to the participants, remove prejudice and increase understanding between the two faiths. Moreover, the meeting underlined the importance of something close to the Holy Father's heart: how both faiths can come together on common issues to face the challenges of secularism.
The Vatican, however, is playing down these meetings a little. Cardinal Jean-Louis Taman, the Vatican's point-man for interreligious dialogue, this week said there was a danger of too many Christian-Muslim dialogues, saying they could lead to confusion (Anglicans and Orthodox also had meetings with Islamic leaders recently). Earlier this year he suggested that people were becoming "obsessed" with Islam. Prof Troll, however, sees the danger not so much in a plethora of exchanges so much as superficial dialogue. The effectiveness of these meetings, he said, "depends on the persons who take part and their seriousness".
The Vatican has other, more institutional, Muslim dialogue partners, so this one lacks some weight. But while this is likely to have some positive impact the next forum promises to have even more. That will be held in 2010, in a Muslim majority country yet to be announced.
The Pope's strong condemnation of organ trafficking last week has been warmly welcomed by Professor Francis Delmonico. The Harvard surgeon has been at the forefront of a campaign to end the practice of buying and selling of organs. usually from poor slum-dwellers, and has worked hard to bring the Church's moral voice to bear on the issue. Trafficking in kidneys, lungs and other human organs has increased in recent years. The most lucrative market is in Saudi Arabia and those most affected come from Asia. But the scourge seems to have turned a corner. -We are already having success in the Philippines, China, and Pakistan with important leaders in each of those countries paving the way," says Prof Delmonico, adding: "The papal statement is an important affirmation for the international community of a concerted opposition to trafficking, tourism and transplant commercialism."