The Qatar Conference on Muslim-Christian Dialogue concluded on May 29 with three closed door meetings between members of the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with Muslims and an equal number of invited Muslim guests.
Archbishop Fitzgerald presided at a press conference in the afternoon, and was joined by Youssef El-Hage, a professor at Notre Dame University in Lebanon and a member of the pontifical commission, and by Aysha Al-Mannai, dean of the faculty of Sharia, Law and Islamic Studies at the University of Qatar.
The archbishop outlined the history of the Council for Inter-religious Dialogue, the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with Muslims within the council, and the background of this second Qatar meeting on dialogue.
The dialogue was an idea of Emir Abdullah bin Khalifa Al-Thani of Qatar, whose country opened diplomatic relations with the Holy See in November 2002. In his opening day speech, he also expressed a desire to see representatives of Judaism in next year’s meeting.
Dr. Al-Mannai said that the meeting was very positive and that both religions hoped to continue and to deepen the dialogue established between them, noting, when asked by several members of the audience why the sessions were not open to everyone, that such private meetings were necessary to speak frankly, and to achieve the objectives established.
Dr. El-Hage mentioned that all of their sessions were marked by transparency and cordiality.
He said this was a wonderful occasion for the Catholic Church in her dialogue with Muslims, adding that when the pontifical commission started preparing four years ago to work on the question of religious freedom, they felt it very important to hold a meeting together with Muslims.
He said the commission’s basic question was: Is religious freedom one of the rights of believers wherever they live, but especially when a believer is a member of a minority community?
In the evening encounter with journalists, Archbishop Fitzgerald was asked about his overall feeling after three intense days of meetings. He said he felt there was a sort of anguish in the Muslim community worldwide on the issue of religious freedom, especially when it is interpreted from an individual point of view, not with one voice or a single authority speaking out on this subject.
He said his feeling was that the Muslims invited to participate in the closed sessions were very happy with the cordiality and openness of the meetings and with what had been accomplished. No one set out to achieve earth-shattering goals so no one was disappointed in that sense.
He said that serious discussions and frankness were more possible in the closed-door sessions.
The archbishop said that the theoretical part of the meeting included a look at the Declaration of Human Rights. But he pointed out that the definition of religious freedom contained therein – and some other passages in this document, especially related to certain types of freedoms and human rights - are not in fact universally agreed upon.
He agreed that some muslims do indeed see the Declaration of Human Rights as an imposition from the West upon the rest of the world.
The second part of the meeting looked at the Magisterium of the Catholic Church in the matter of religious freedom, and part three looked at modern religious authors and thinkers on this topic in Islamic law.
Part four looked at the process of monitoring religious freedom in the world through such organizations as Helsinki Watch and the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE).
Archbishop Fitzgerald, noting the differences in Catholic teaching and Islamic law on religious freedom, said that nonetheless, “we agreed that religious freedom is part of human dignity that comes from God.”
He noted the difference between freedom of religion (the freedom to believe and to practice one’s faith, or to not believe) and freedom within religion. The former is a full right, but the latter is not, because being a believer implies living a specific set of rules of behavior, not being free to change them.
In conclusion, the archbishop pointed out the difficulties that exist when there is no central authority or hierarchical structure such as the Catholic Church has. Often in the Muslim world, people represent themselves, not a Church or a group.