From Tolerance to Love; Don't Kick and Pray

Cardinal Tauran Comments on Interreligious Dialogue

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By Edward Pentin

ROME, JULY 16, 2009 ( High level interreligious meetings are rarely major events where great progress is made, yet a recent major gathering in Kazakhstan appears to have come close.

According to Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, the president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, the Third Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions held July 1-2 in the Kazakhstan capital Astana was «important» and «very interesting» because of the large number and variety of representatives who attended. It also managed to deal directly with the pressing issue of tolerance and peace.

Speaking with him this week, the cardinal told me that the participants (400 people from 35 countries representing all the world’s main religions) were able to stress «that peace rests with religions — that religions are messengers of peace.»

Moreover, Cardinal Tauran said he had the opportunity to offer the Christian message on tolerance. Interreligious dialogue, he told the congress participants, is «much more than tolerance because you don’t tolerate your brother, you love a brother.»

He added: «We have to pass from the concept of tolerance to the concept of brotherhood, and we as Christians have a particular role in that because of the message of the Gospel.»

The challenge, however, is effectively conveying this message to Muslims. They don’t have the universal concept of love of the other, the cardinal told me, but see their neighbour simply as the person physically next to them. 

Still, it’s hoped the Astana conference — a tri-annual event that began in 2003 — will have helped in some way to change that. Hosted by Kazakhstan’s controversial President Nursultan Nazarbayev, it was held in the «Pyramid of Peace and Accord,» a $50 million construction especially designed for the congress by the British architect Sir Norman Foster. The grand event was also attended by leading political and religious figures such Israeli President Shimon Peres, Israel’s two Chief Rabbis, and representatives from the U.N. and  the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Turning to relations with Muslims in general, Cardinal Tauran played down earlier comments he reportedly made in June that «great trust» is developing between the two religions. «I wouldn’t say ‘great,'» he said, «but no doubt there is an improvement in the dialogue.» The problem, he said, is that this improved climate «is not yet visible at the grassroots level — the masses are still very much against Christians.»

«What we have to do,» he added, «is to help those responsible for education in Arab countries to have a more open-minded approach to other religions.»

Turning to Saudi Arabia, unfortunately interreligious initiatives made by King Abdullah last year, such as a large meeting he hosted in Madrid, seem to have gone quiet. Cardinal Tauran said it was because the Saudis are «following-up» those initiatives through further study.

But I asked the cardinal if, despite this lack of visible activity, advances were nevertheless being made behind the scenes regarding religious freedom in the kingdom where churches are still forbidden. «Unfortunately, no,» came the cardinal’s reply.

But he did give one possible glimmer of hope: Saudi’s influential foreign minister, Prince Saud Al-Faisal, flew by private jet from Jeddah just to see the cardinal at the Vatican last week on what appears to have been his own initiative. It was his second visit to the Vatican in as many months, having met with Vatican officials in early June.

Was anything particularly interesting discussed on his latest visit, I asked? «Yes,» the cardinal replied. «But it’s confidential.»

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The Separation of Faith and Soccer

At the end of the FIFA Confederations Cup Final last month in South Africa, a triumphant Brazilian Soccer Team gathered in a circle on the pitch, knelt down and prayed for a full minute in gratitude for their 3-2 victory over the United States.

One player, Kaka, a devout Christian, displayed an «I Belong to Jesus» T-shirt.

Nothing unusual or wrong in that, you might think, but it was for the head of the Danish Football Federation, Jim Stjerne Hansen. «Personally I do not think that sport and religion should be mixed to such a degree that we more or less see a manifestation of a religious stance,» he said. «Just as we reject political manifestations, we should also say no to religious ones. There are too many risks involved in clubs, for example, with people of different religious faiths.»

His views were backed up by Sepp Blatter, President of FIFA, who warned Brazilian players not to make such expressions in the future, and has promised to prohibit such visible religious fervor at next year’s World Cup in South Africa.

For Edio Costantini, president of the John Paul II Foundation for Sport, the reaction to the Brazilian team’s celebration is yet another sign of the «progressive emptying of ethical and religious values which is responsible for the moral drift in football, and sport in general.»

Speaking with him this week in his Rome office near the Vatican, Costantini said the tendency in professional sport to cut out any popular form of celebratory or religious expression is because the sports top managers see it as «contaminating» the marketplace. «There’s a sense that ‘secular sports’ must absolutely not be contaminated in this way,» he said, adding that the managers look upon the sport simply as «a product of the market.» The market, he said, «wants a neutral product, a product that goes down well with everyone, a product that doesn’t provoke emotions, that denies such emotions,» he said.

But such a «market strategy» is «emptying sport of ethical, religious and human values,» Costantini warned. «Sports such as soccer are the fruit of the world’s people because of its fans and their love of football,» he said. «They cannot be built only out of trade, nor just be the fruit of the marketplace.» He stressed the joy and celebration that comes from within needs to be expressed. «If you eliminate each form of religious expression or celebration, then I believe you deprive football of this ‘fire’ within the players,» he said.

«Sport is for man, not the market,» Costantini continued. «I agree that sport must take account of the marketplace, but it cannot be reduced to being mere market entertainment, because then it deprives it of that energy, that human component — emotions, attitudes, and its identity.»

Costantini said that while Blatter’s view is shared by a number of other soccer federation heads, it is not in countries such as Italy, Brazil or Argentina. He said optimistically that Blatter, who is Swiss, has voiced such concerns before, yet never formally prohibited such celebrations.

He added that the John Paul II Foundation, which was established last year, will fight this trend, but he believes such a view will, in any case, gain little traction. Soccer, he said, has «many other serious problems to resolve» such as some clubs spending vast amounts of money on players despite the current economic crisis, and being heavily in debt.

Costantini, who sees soccer and sport as an invaluable education tool, is especially concerned that sports champions set a good example, and be «credible points of reference» for the world’s youth.

And he is by no means alone in his concerns. In an interview with L’Osservatore Romano last week, the great Brazilian footballer Pelé also lamented the state of «The Beautiful Game.»

«The problem is that nowadays, when a young footballer starts playing, he is already thinking about how much money he can make,» Pelé said.

«A player goes to Real Madrid and kisses the shirt, only to change teams the following day, kiss the shirt of the new club and pledge eternal love,» he said. «In truth, they only love those who pay more, and all this is dangerous for the future of the sport.»

* * *

Edward Pentin is a freelance writer living in Rome. He can be reached at:

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