Another complicating factor, he added, is that there is no central authority that speaks for all Muslims. As a result, events such as the ongoing attacks on Christians, yield conflicting messages from Muslim leaders.
Fr. Samir said that honest dialogue is the key to true understanding between the religions. And, he said, the Vatican takes a long view.
The key is to be able to disagree without regarding the other as the enemy, he said.
“I think dialogue can make real friends discover that the other is not an enemy. He is opposite but not the enemy and it’s his right” to hold contrary views.
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Quoting in Arabic from the Koran, Fr. Samir said, “Dispute with them in the best manner, in the better way.”
A common misperception, he said, is that dialogue means “to be kind to someone” and to smooth over differences. True dialogue means confronting the differences honestly and speaking truthfully about what one believes.
“First, to be true and honest and not to lie,” he said. “It is not to say half of your opinion — the half he could hear — because then you are then misguiding him. He thinks that you are in agreement, and it will be worse afterwards. To be honest, truthful, sincere and to do it in the best way possible.”
He notes that Muslim interviewers often ask him whether he believes that Muhammad is a “prophet.” He says he always responds honestly that he does not. Muslims consider Jesus to be a “prophet” but not the Son of God.
Fr. Samir tells them that he respects their beliefs but that he cannot share them.
“I have to be honest and … logical,” he explained. “I cannot say Christ is God's Word, but that afterwards God sent another 'Word' (the teaching of Muhammad and the Koran) which is in some points contradictory with the previous one, so that Christ is not … God’s last Word on earth, so that nobody can come after him.”
He adds that he expects the same honesty from his Muslim partners in dialogue.
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“I understand that they must say that Muhammad is the seal of the prophets, as the Koran says. They must say it, this is their faith,” he said. “They are not saying that to contradict me, they are saying that to be honest with their own faith. The same as I am.”
Fr. Samir said that the dialogue is fruitful when both sides understand that their differences do not make them enemies.
“I find in the Christian faith that there is no enemy,” he explained. “There is a person who has a different vision but he is not my enemy. He can consider himself as my enemy. But that is his problem, not mine. I have no enemy. I have people with whom I agree or agree with partly. I try to tell people that I don’t want to offend them, but that unfortunately I cannot be Muslim and Christian at the same time."
For the future of the dialogue, Fr. Samir believes there needs to be a new recognition in Muslim countries of the need to respect freedom of conscience and the rights of religious minorities. He said few Muslims have yet to see the issue as important in political or religious terms.
“The importance of liberty of conscience, few people feel that or understand it,” he said. “But the Pope is repeating it — and in my experience it is fundamental.”
While he is optimistic about the possibilities of peaceful co-existence, Fr. Samir believes there must be an agreement within Islam that all violence is “anti-religion” and in fact, a work of the devil.