Pope Benedict XVI met with representatives of inter-religious dialogue groups in Jerusalem on Monday evening, telling them that religious differences are a "wonderful opportunity" for people of different faiths to live together in mutual encouragement in the ways of God. He added that religious belief presupposes truth, which is not a threat to tolerance but rather a common criterion offered to all.
The Pontiff spoke at the Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center before a diverse audience of monotheistic believers, including Christians, Jews, Muslims, Druze, and Samaritan representatives.
After a greeting delivered by His Beatitude Fouad Twal, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Pope Benedict began his speech with a reference to God’s "irruptive call" to Abram to leave his kin for a land God would reveal to him.
This call marked the beginning of the audience members’ respective faith traditions, which the Pope said were shaped through the encounter with Egyptian, Hittite, Sumerian, Babylonian, Persian, and Greek cultures.
"Faith is always lived within a culture," Pope Benedict remarked, explaining that a community of believers "proceeds by degrees of faithfulness to God" and draws from and shapes the culture it meets.
This mutual influence is also evident in the lives of individual believers, he said:
"[A]ttuned to the voice of God, like Abraham, we respond to his call and set out seeking the fulfillment of his promises, striving to obey his will, forging a path in our own particular culture."
Pope Benedict explained that aspects of globalization, especially the internet, have created "a vast virtual culture" of varying worth and "countless manifestations."
While these changes have created "a sense of closeness and unity," they also can easily become "an instrument of increasing fragmentation" which shatters the "unity of knowledge" and neglects complex skills of critique, discernment and discrimination learned through academic and ethical traditions.
Questions about the place of religion in a world of rapid globalization challenge believers to "proclaim with clarity what we share in common," the Pope said.
He declared that Abraham’s first step in faith, and religious believers’ steps to their places of worship, "tread the path of our single human history," unfolding to the "eternal Jerusalem."
The individual transcends his or her own culture in "the constant search for something beyond," in which can be seen "the possibility of a unity which is not dependent upon uniformity."
"While the differences we explore in inter-religious dialogue may at times appear as barriers, they need not overshadow the common sense of awe and respect for the universal, for the absolute and for truth, which impel religious peoples to converse with one another in the first place," Pope Benedict stated. "Indeed it is the shared conviction that these transcendent realities have their source in – and bear traces of – the Almighty that believers uphold before each other, our organizations, our society, our world."
Lives of religious fidelity echo God’s "irruptive presence" and shape a culture with "the principles and actions that stem from belief."
"Religious belief presupposes truth. The one who believes is the one who seeks truth and lives by it," the Pope added, saying that despite religious differences "we should not be deterred in our efforts to bear witness to truth’s power."
"Together we can proclaim that God exists and can be known, that the earth is his creation, that we are his creatures, and that he calls every man and woman to a way of life that respects his design for the world. Friends, if we believe we have a criterion of judgment and discernment which is divine in origin and intended for all humanity, then we cannot tire of bringing that knowledge to bear on civic life," Pope Benedict continued.
"Truth should be offered to all; it serves all members of society. It sheds light on the foundation of morality and ethics, and suffuses reason with the strength to reach beyond its own limitations in order to give expression to our deepest common aspirations. Far from threatening the tolerance of differences or cultural plurality, truth makes consensus possible and keeps public debate rational, honest and accountable, and opens the gateway to peace."
Saying that God’s voice is heard "less clearly" today while reason has sometimes "become deaf to the divine," he said "the din of egotistical demands, empty promises and false hopes" invades the space in which God seeks us.
Pope Benedict suggested that "deep reflection against the backdrop of God’s presence" will embolden reason, stimulate creativity, uphold the value of religious belief, and create "oases of peace and profound reflection" where God’s voice can be heard "anew."
"Friends, the institutions and groups that you represent engage in inter-religious dialogue and the promotion of cultural initiatives at a wide range of levels," Pope Benedict told the audience.
Singling out for praise the "outstanding achievements" of Bethlehem University, he listed other interfaith efforts like bereaved parents groups, musical and artistic initiatives, formal dialogue groups and charitable organizations.
These efforts demonstrate the belief that believers’ duty toward God is expressed not only in worship but also "in our love and concern for society, for culture, for our world and for all who live in this land."
"Some would have us believe that our differences are necessarily a cause of division and thus at most to be tolerated. A few even maintain that our voices should simply be silenced. But we know that our differences need never be misrepresented as an inevitable source of friction or tension either between ourselves or in society at large. Rather, they provide a wonderful opportunity for people of different religions to live together in profound respect, esteem and appreciation, encouraging one another in the ways of God."
"Prompted by the Almighty and enlightened by his truth, may you continue to step forward with courage, respecting all that differentiates us and promoting all that unites us as creatures blessed with the desire to bring hope to our communities and world. May God guide us along this path!"
After Pope Benedict’s speech, a Catholic priest addressed the audience in English.
Then the chief Islamic judge of the Palestinian Authority, Sheikh Tayseer Rajab Tamimi, took the podium and addressed the assembly. During his speech in Arabic, the judge accused Israel of murdering women and children in Gaza making Palestinians refugees, and declared Jerusalem the "eternal Palestinian capital."
Sheikh Tamimi also railed against the security wall being built by the Israelis, the requirement that Palestinians have movement permits and the "Israeli occupation."
Two Jewish leaders stood up to leave in protest of Tamimi's remarks. One of them left the hall.
The spokesman for Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs reacted to Tamimi's words by saying, "It is regrettable that Sheikh Tayssir Tamimi has abused an inter-religious meeting aimed at promoting dialogue and understanding between Christians, Jews and Muslims, in order to incite against Israel."
Fr. Federico Lombardi, Director of the Press Office of the Holy See, also reacted to Tamimi's assertions, telling Vatican Radio, "The intervention of Sheikh Tayssir Attamimi was not scheduled by the organizers of the meeting."
"In a meeting dedicated to dialogue this intervention was a direct negation of what a dialogue should be. We hope that such an incident will not damage the mission of the Pope aiming at promoting peace and also interreligious dialogue, as he has clearly affirmed in many occasions during this pilgrimage. We hope also that interreligious dialogue in the Holy Land will not be compromised by this incident."