Following an Egyptian institution's decision to freeze inter-religious talks with the Vatican earlier this month, the head of the Pope's department for interfaith dialogue has voiced his assurance that the Holy See is still planning to attend their next scheduled meeting.
The Vatican official’s comments were unrelated to the massive civil unrest which has erupted in the country.
Relations between the Holy See and Egypt, and also between the Catholic Church and Islam, have had a rocky month and the Vatican is still trying to understand the cause.
During speeches highlighting a need for greater religious freedom earlier this month the Pope made reference to Egypt among other nations where attacks have taken place against Christians. He called the bombing attack on Coptic Christians in Egypt last New Year's Eve “yet another sign of the urgent need for the governments of the region to adopt ... effective measures for the protection of religious minorities.”
The nation recalled its ambassador to the Holy See to clarify the Pope's meaning and shortly after, on Jan. 20, leaders at Cairo's Al Azhar University made the decision to freeze ongoing colloquia with the Vatican. Al Azhar is an important research center for Sunni Islam and the one of the Vatican's key points of reference for the Muslim world.
In comments to world media outlets, a spokesperson for the university's Islamic Research Academy alleged that Pope Benedict had interfered in the nation's affairs.
No official indication of suspension has been acknowledged by the Vatican. After hearing of the news, Vatican spokesman, Fr. Federico Lombardi, said that the Church continued in a position of “openness and readiness to dialogue” and was still seeking information on the freeze.
Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, the president of the Vatican Congregation for Inter-religious Dialogue, told L'Osservatore Romano that despite confusion over the reasons for the apparent suspension, the Holy See hopes dialogue will continue.
Speaking for the Catholic Church's delegation in a Jan. 29 interview, he said they “would like to understand well” the motivations that led to the freeze.
“I think an attentive reading of the words of Benedict XVI’s 2011 message for World Day of Peace and his speech to the Diplomatic Corps on January 10 would help dispel the misunderstandings,” he said.
He said that the Pope referred simply to “universal values and therefore, in speaking of the effective enforcement of rights and freedoms of the human person, he did not interfere in any way in matters which are not within his competence.”
He defended the Pope's will to maintain open channels with Islam to bring about increased mutual understanding and joint action for “social justice, moral values, peace and freedom for the benefit of all mankind.”
Since the first day of his nearly six-year pontificate, Benedict XVI has shown appreciation for the Church's relations with Islam and other religions, said Cardinal Tauran. “I never found the least contempt for Islam in the words of Benedict XVI,” he added.
Cardinal Tauran hoped for a return to talks, emphasizing that it is “more necessary than ever” for the world's religions to promote love and peace.
“If we want progress in dialogue, we must first of all find the time to sit down and talk person-to-person and not through the newspapers.”
He hoped that readers of the Pope's addresses would see his intention to create “schools of prayer and fellowship” among believers.
As for relations with Al Azhar, with whom the Holy See holds talks twice a year, the cardinal hoped that their meetings will continue. For the Vatican, he said, the next scheduled appointment in February and all others are “still valid.”