The Vatican has given warning that the West's efforts at inter-faith dialogue must not be “held hostage" by Islam and are in danger of becoming "obsessed" with it at the expense of other religions.
Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, head of the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue, said that the Church “has to have regard for all religions". He said that the council had this week discussed new guidelines for inter-faith dialogue.
“What was interesting about our discussions was that we did not concentrate on Islam because in a way we are being held hostage by Islam a little bit," he told the Catholic website Terrasanta.net. "Islam is very important, but there are also other great Asiatic religious traditions. Islam is one religion."
Pope Benedict XVI has convened an unprecedented Catholic-Muslim forum for October. He has also sought to make amends for his controversial speech at Regensburg University two years ago, when he appeared to suggest that Islam was irrational and inherently violent. He later visited Turkey and prayed at the Blue Mosque in Istanbul alongside the local imam.
However, asked if there was a sense that Islam must not "monopolize" inter-faith dialogue Cardinal Tauran replied: "Yes, people are obsessed by Islam. For example I'm going to India next month and I want to give this message that all religions are equal. Sometimes there are priorities because of particular situations, but we mustn't get the impression there are first-class religions and second-class religions".
He said that the new guidelines being discussed amounted to "a kind of road map for priests, bishops and ordinary brothers and sisters ... Of course, these have to be adapted to local situations, as someone in Morocco is not in the same situation as someone in Japan." The guidelines however would be "more concrete" than those issued in the early 1990s.
Cardinal Tauran said that Christians "have many things in common with other believers — for example that we all believe in one God, that we profess the same sacredness of life, the necessity of fraternity, the experience of prayer."
The council had also emphasized "the formation of youth, because we realize that in the society in which we live, in multi-ethnical, multi-cultural societies, the young generation are perhaps lost. So we have to give them points of reference, and religions are obviously very important in that."
The cardinal criticized Saudi Arabia for not allowing Christian worship. “What is good for me is good for the other, so if it's possible for Muslims to have a mosque in the West, we should have the same in Muslim countries. This is not the case in many countries."
He said that last week he had celebrated mass at a new church in Doha, Qatar, consecrated a month ago. "It is a very impressive building. Now we're going to have a school there run by nuns. So this is an example of very good inter-religious dialogue with very concrete effects. In Saudi Arabia that is not the case yet."
Asked about reports of a Vatican-Saudi dialogue, Cardinal Tauran said that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia had in mind a "tripartite dialogue" between Christians, Muslims and Jews. “I think he's beginning to convince his own people," the cardinal said. However talk of building a church in Saudi Arabia was premature.
"We don't have precise information about what the King has in mind, but I suppose it will be a gradual evolution, for example the possibility to celebrate services in hotels, in embassies,” Cardinal Tauran said. He said that preparations for the ground breaking Islamic-Christian Forum called by the Pope were well under way.
The cardinal said that he discussed Tony Blair's new Faith Foundation with Mr Blair himself. “I am ready to help it. But it's a very demanding task. I suppose he has the charisma and the will, but it is very demanding. If we can help him, we would do so very willingly because he has a clear leadership and much good will," Cardinal Tauran said.
Mr Blair was "a new Catholic, he has intelligence and experience". The cardinal said he agreed with Mr Blair that religious extremism was a danger. "The truth has to impose itself by itself, not by the sword."
Cardinal Tauran's comments came in the run up to an inter-faith meeting in Amman, the capital of Jordan, later this month organized by Oasis, the research center for inter-religious dialogue founded in 2004 by Cardinal Angelo Scola, the Patriarch of Venice.