Institute Fosters Christian-Muslim Relations

Interview With PISAI Professor Father Michel Saghbiny

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By Andrea Kirk Assaf

ROME, OCT. 15, 2010 ( The Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies (PISAI) in Rome is the Holy See’s go-to organization concerning academic questions related to Islam and the Muslim world, and with the synod fathers now gathered to discuss the Church in the Middle East, Benedict XVI has called upon the institute once again.

PISAI’s president, Father Miguel Ángel Ayuso Guixot, is currently participating in the Special Assembly for the Middle East of the Synod of Bishops, which is under way in the Vatican through Oct. 24.

ZENIT spoke with the institute’s dean of academics, Lebanese Father Michele Saghbiny, to discuss the history and unique mission of PISAI, which was founded to teach priests about Islam.

ZENIT: In the past few years Benedict XVI has shown PISAI much attention, first granting it pontifical status and then asking the head of a Catholic charitable organization to financially sponsor it. What motivates the Pope’s interest in PISAI?

Saghbiny: PISAI was founded as an idea in Tunisia in 1926 by the Society of the Missionaries of Africa, or the White Fathers, as they are called, to give formation to their members who worked in the Muslim world. Later it took on the name Institut des Belles Lettres Arabes. In 1964, Pope Paul VI was the first to bring it to Rome, and in 1979 it took on the name PISAI.

The actual interest of this current Pope in PISAI was expressed in 2006 when his Holiness asked the Congregation for Catholic Education and the Administration of the Patrimony of the Holy See (APSA) administration to bring PISAI under the patrimony of the Apostolic See. This re-launched PISAI’s mission.

For this Pope, the formation of priests who interact with Muslims is very important, not only in Muslim countries, but also to dialogue with Muslims in Europe. The years 2006-2009 saw the beginning of PISAI’s new status with the Vatican. But the administrative direction of academics continues to be under the Missionaries of Africa, as they are the founders of PISAI. Now, however, the economic administration has moved to the Vatican.  

The president of PISAI currently is Father Miguel Ángel Ayuso Guixot, a Comboni missionary. Other professors and staff come from other orders, are members of the laity, and are even from other religions — so we are both Christian and Muslim, Arab and European.

The nomination «pontifical» was there even in Tunisia, in 1960, when it was known as the Pontifical Institute of Oriental Studies. When we say pontifical, it is a way of designating that the institution follows the teaching of the Catholic Church. The most important thing for dialogue is formation, publishing, and research, and then additional activities, such as conferences and our exchanges with other universities such as Al Azhar in Cairo, and LUMSA [Libera Università Maria SS. Assunta] and the Gregorian University, both in Rome.

The Pope knows the economic needs of PISAI, that the number of students there is not sufficient to cover the expenses, and he knows that the Church needs PISAI. He wants PISAI to always remain as a center of formation.

ZENIT: What is PISAI’s role at the synod?

Saghbiny: The Holy Father has invited the president of PISAI to be an expert guest at the synod concerning interfaith dialogue with Islam. He is an academic expert/voice, with experience dialoguing at an academic and theological level with Islam, so can assist the synod fathers in their own interreligious dialogue.

Obviously, it is important to find a well-formed Christian to speak with Muslims. The method PISAI uses when a Christian professor is teaching Islam is such that a Muslim student does not feel strange that a non-Muslim is teaching about his religion because it is done in an objective and respectful way, just as we create an atmosphere of friendship among students and staff. The synod fathers will benefit from hearing that there is an institute devoted to teaching in this manner.

ZENIT: Benedict XVI has decided to give the final niche for a sculpture of a saint in St. Peter’s Basilica to St. Maroun; what is the background to this selection and what will his permanent «presence» at the Vatican symbolize?

Saghbiny: Why St. Maroun? He is the patron of the Maronite Church, but he is also a Catholic saint and so belongs to all the Church’s rites. His disciples defended the teachings of the Chalcedonean Council and then found themselves to be the only Chalcedoneans in the area until the reunification of some of the other Eastern rites centuries later.

The importance of St. Maroun and his disciples is their remaining in unity with Rome, the only [Eastern] Church that remained in unity of faith with the bishop of Rome. The Maronite Church is the only [Eastern Church] that does not have two branches — one orthodox, one Catholic.  All the others are referred to as «uniate.»

Also, when the Crusaders arrived for the first time in the Middle East, they came into contact with the substantial community of Chalcedonean Christians native to that area, the Maronites. After communication with Rome was re-established at that time, Pope Innocent II recognized the authority of the Maronite Patriarchate of Antioch.

The Maronites are concentrated in Lebanon, the Patriarchate is still there. Lebanon is the only country that is both Arabic and of a Christian nature. It is the only place you can find such a large population of Christians. The Christians in other Middle Eastern countries count on the Christians of Lebanon. They sustain the other Middle Eastern Christians.

For this reason, his Holiness, to mark the 1,600th year anniversary of the death of St. Maroun, gave this privilege to the saint (to be placed in the niche in February).

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