By Gabriela Maria Mihlig
DAMASCUS, Syria, JAN. 21, 2011 (Zenit.org).- Christians and Muslims might lack a common dogmatic base from which to discuss theology, but they share devotion and esteem for a woman who brings them together: Mary, mother of Jesus.
This reflection was offered by Father Joseph Saghbini, a priest of the Greek Catholic Melkite Patriarchate of Jerusalem. Father Saghbini was speaking about a Dec. 15 conference in Damascus, sponsored by the Syrian president and Patriarch Gregorios III Laham, patriarch of Antioch for the Greek Melkite Church. The conference was a follow-up to the synod on the Middle East held last October at the Vatican.
Some 1,000 people participated — Christians and Muslims, representatives from Eastern Churches, and participants from Lebanon, Jordan and other Arab nations.
In the following excerpts from the interview with Father Saghbini, the priest speaks of the conference, Christians in the Middle East and prospects for Christian-Muslim collaboration.
Q: Would you please provide an introduction to this conference?
Father Saghbini: […] This Congress shall be conducive to realize the intentions the fathers of the synod in Rome have written in the “Final Message to the People of God,” locally in the Churches here in Syria and in daily life, especially in the daily common life between Christians and Muslims. Prior topics are the unity of Christians in the Middle East — according to the Lord’s word in John 17:21: ”That they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” — in order to give common testimony of faith. Further topics are related to the problems of migration of Christians to the West, as well as religious pluralism, the consciousness of God’s plan with our society in the Middle East to live in peace with the Muslim people and the efforts for promoting and supporting interreligious dialogue.
Q: Have theological issues been discussed at this conference?
Father Saghbini: There is no common dogmatic basis that is valid for Christians and Muslims together in order to deal with theological questions and the magisterium of the Church. However, what is possible is the common reflection about Mary. The Christian point of view is: Mary is the elected Virgin and Mother of God and we are venerating her and we are praying to her. She is the intercessor for us with Jesus Christ. The Muslim point of view is: Mary is a special woman and the best among the women.
In Lebanon, for example, a common feast day for the honor of Mary has been introduced. On this day Christians and Muslims have the possibility to venerate Mary in their own religious approaches.
Mutual appreciation and mutual respect as human beings and as creatures of God have, of course, a very great value in common daily life. Topics related to ethics and moral issues have been discussed as well. The human and ethic values of daily life are of high importance and have been reflected in several speeches during this congress.
Brotherhood (Ikha’ in Arabic) between Christians and Muslims shall be intensified and supported by the lectures given at this conference. Another important issue for the synod fathers is daily, peaceful common life between Christians and Muslims. The daily talks between Christians and Muslims should be led and should be based on the foundation of love, mutual tolerance and respect. In this manner a common dialogue, for a common search for truth, enables a better understanding of each other and the exchange of personal points of view and experiences. Here in Syria, Christians and Muslims are living together in a tradition that spans over centuries. Christians are deeply rooted in this region, belonging to Holy Land, and they can offer a substantial and comprehensive treasure in culture and religion.
The mental, intellectual dimension of the synod held in Rome is mirrored here within this conference in a very particular form: Various Muslim leaders have arrived and we hope that the lectures and speeches as well as the personal encounters will lead to a deeper mutual understanding and to an ongoing peaceful cooperation in our society, especially here in Syria.
Q: His Beatitude Gregorios III wrote a letter in June to the Muslim leaders of the Arab countries, wherein the sense and the significance of the synod are expressed. Is this also part of the speeches given here at this conference?
Father Saghbini: Yes, of course. This letter from the patriarch has also been addressed to the Arab kings. Today at the conference his letter has been mentioned in order to remember the content of it, which is also part of the texts composed in the synod. Patriarch Gregorios III emphasizes repeatedly that for us Christians living in the Middle East, it is a great concern to have a peaceful fellowship with Muslims, which is founded in mutual respect and in fraternal benevolence. We need each other in day-to-day life. We do not only speak about dialogue, but we live it! Dialogue has its origin in the essence of the Church by proclaiming the Gospel to all humanity. The Gospel by itself gives testimony of the truth and the love of God, revealed in the incarnation of the person of Jesus Christ. He is our king of peace and it is, in present times, very necessary to recognize this truth and to live from it, in order to bring the peace of Christ to all people.[…]
Q: What does the Greek Catholic Melkite Patriarchate expect from this conference?
Father Saghbini: After this blessed synod that took place in October in Rome, we hope — together with the Christians living in the Middle East — for a deeper and mutual understanding, in a greater mutual respect, in the necessary tolerance and in a peaceful common life. This is our hope and for this intention we are praying, especially now during Christmas time, and we hope that many Christians will follow this prayer in the spirit of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Q: What further initiatives will the patriarchate organize in the field of interreligious dialogue, enabling Christians and Muslims to have encounters on an academic level?
Father Saghbini: Our Patriarch Gregorios III is planning similar meetings in Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt. Of course, the Center Al-Liqa, founded by His Beatitude, is a place where encounters between Christians and Muslims will take place and which may lead to a better knowledge and understanding between the cultures and religions.