There are now so many efforts to improve relations between Christians and Muslims that they risk overlapping and creating confusion, the Vatican's top official for interfaith contacts said just days before a United Nations interfaith conference organized by the Saudi king was to start in New York.
Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, head of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, said a conference between Catholics and Muslims last week was a fresh bid for mutual understanding that could become a "favored channel" for the Vatican.
But there is now so much interest in Christian-Muslim dialogue that it is getting hard to see where it is going, said Tauran, who was preparing to fly to New York for United Nations talks linked to another drive led by Saudi King Abdullah.
The Saudi king and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon are organizing a special session of the U.N. general assembly on Wednesday and Thursday for talks on "interfaith" issues and the "Culture of Peace."
"In my opinion, there are too many Christian-Muslim initiatives. Everybody's doing it," he told Reuters in an interview. "One doesn't know where this will go. That proves there is a great interest, but it shows a bit of confusion.
"There's a risk of overlapping... It may be the price to pay for all this interest that interreligious dialogue incites."
But Saudi liberals say such high-profile events pressure the conservatives at home who created the ideological environment that feeds Islamist militancy.
"This hits at the extremists, who we say are wrong in terms of Islam," said Mohammed al-Zulfa, a liberal member of the consultative Shura Assembly. "There is opposition (to reform) from conservatives who have spent three decades controlling education, media, mosques and the street."
Dialogue between Christians and Muslims is nothing new, but the Sept. 11 attacks and sharpened tensions between western and Muslim states have given it a new urgency and sparked concern about a growing gap between the world's two largest religions.
A Common Word, an informal group of religious leaders and scholars across the Muslim world, gave interfaith dialogue a new impetus last year by inviting Christians to examine how both faiths have shared core principles of loving God and neighbor.
On Nov 4-6, a Common Word delegation held an unprecedented meeting at the Vatican called the Catholic-Muslim Forum, a bilateral exchange due to be held every two years.
But whether such interfaith dialogues will result in tangible results remains unclear, according to sime, since there are few ways to measure their impact.
“As an ideal, an objective it’s a wonderful thing (interfaith dialogue), it’s absolutely imperative,” Gurharpal Singh, a political scientist working on issues of management of religious diversity at the University of Birmingham, told AlArabiya.net. “But at the point of impact it may not have policy objective in terms of changing attitudes and behavior at ground level.”
He noted that after Sept. 11, 2001 Western countries adopted policies of engagement with faith leaders to put forth collective responses, which may have been more useful for reducing tensions but less so in the policy arena. “The broader impact of interfaith dialogue remains to be evaluated,” he said.
The broader impact of interfaith dialogue remains to be evaluated
Gurharpal Singh, University of Birmingham