[ROME] There are three non-Christian participants, known as "special invitations", at the Middle East Synod here, now in its fourth day of speeches and discussions. Rabbi David Rosen is a Jewish American leader well known in Catholic circles, and a regular habitue of the annual interreligious peace gathering (this year's was in Barcelona) organized by the Sant'Egidio community in Rome. Another regular guest there is Muhammad Al-Sammak, political counsellor to the Grand Mufti of Lebanon, who is representing Sunni Islam at the synod. The Shias are represented by a law professor at Shahid Beheshti University in Teheran who rejoices in the many names of Ayatollah Seyed Mostafa Mohaghegh Damad Ahmadabadi (his website is here.)
Al-Sammak and Ayatollah Mohaghegh Damad (I hope I do him no disrespect by choosing two of his names) sat down with journalists this afternoon in a hotel near the Vatican to talk through some issues. You can hear excerpts here.
Both were keen to distinguish between Christians who get caught up in conflicts between groups and the issue of lack of religious freedom or persecution of Christians for their beliefs. Christians in Iraq, said Al-Sammak, had suffered for being treated as part of the US invasion even though none had called for it and had had nothing to do with it. Where Christians were suffering because they were not enjoying the rights of citizens, he said, this was not because Islam, per se, was hostile to Christianity. "The golden rule in Islam," he said, was "no compulsion in religion". Therefore if the rights of Christians were not being respected, this was something that should worry Muslims because of the dictates of their own faith. Ayatollah Mohaghegh Damad cited the example of Medina at the time of the Prophet Muhammad, when Muslims, Jews and Christians "lived peacefully side by side". The Qu'ran itself, he agreed, obliged respect for the religions of others.
But under questions, the responses -- particularly those of the Ayatollah -- gave an insight into the difficulties Christians face in the Middle East when they argue for certain intrinsic freedoms.
Ayatollah Mohaghegh Damad wanted to distinguish between religious beliefs, which were private and no one could touch, because they were matters of the heart, and conversions, which he said were "political" in nature. A Muslim who became a Christian who publicly rejected Islam, for example, was attacking Islam and Islamic society and therefore -- although he did not spell this out -- could not demand equal rights.
I asked both to respond to the Synod's call for the Church to advocate a "positive secularism" (or laicite) in the Middle East, implying a degree of separation between the state and religion which would guarantee equal rights to freedom of conscience and to manifest religion. Both Al-Sammat and the Ayatollah said they wanted better to understand what was meant by the concept. Ayatollah Mohaghegh Damad said in Iran it was the people who elected their leader, not God -- this, surely, was secularism.
He added that there has never been a Muslim country in which there are not Islamic laws and in which the laws of the state were not influenced by Islam. But he added that these did not prevent Christians having the same rights as others, and put forward Iran as a shining example in this respect. "We have no permission to bother Christians," he said, "unless they commit a crime."
But the problem, of course, is what constitutes a crime. A public abandonment of Islam was tantamount to treason.
Listening to the Ayatollah, it came to me that his views would be not untypical of the Catholic Church before the age of Nostra Aetate and Dignitatis humanae, the crucial documents at the Second Vatican Council which endorsed the notion of religious pluralism and the importance of enshrining that principle in law. Islam, it is often observed, has failed to come to terms with modernity and pluralism. Yet it wasn't long ago that Catholicism made that same shift.
And now, of course, it's hard to argue for a "positive secularism" without raising the spectre in Muslim minds of what Pope Benedict in the UK called "aggressive secularism" -- the idea that the state should be "neutral", or that there is no ethical horizon beyond the wishes of the democratic majority or the enlightened elite. Muslims look at the West and see plenty of evidence of moral and social breakdown, and blame secularism for it (as many Christians do). When Pope Benedict calls for laws to be infused with Christian values, he is not advocating the divorce of faith and reason, or law and religion, which leads, as he says, to the "dictatorship of relativism".
But the Catholic Church argues nowadays that freedoms of belief, worship, conscience, expression -- and of course, the vital freedom to "manifest belief" -- are indivisible; that no faith can be privileged above another in terms of the rights and freedoms its adherents should enjoy.
Judging by the stories of what Christians have suffered in some parts -- by no means all -- of the Middle East, that is an argument which many Muslims have yet to accept. As Al-Sammak frankly noted, in response to another question, many Muslims still confuse religious conversion with "switching sides", or assisting the enemy; and the punishment for treason is in many cases death.
If the Catholics in the Middle East are to argue for "positive secularism", as many synod fathers are calling on the Church to do, they will need to find a language and a reasoning which appeal to the integrity and values of Islam.
That is a huge task. But the good news is that elaborating those arguments will assist Catholics in the West in their arguments against "aggressive secularism".
Fundamentalism and theocracy, after all, look pretty similar -- whether their justification is religious or secular.
[UPDATE: You can read yesterday's speeches by Dr Al-Sammak and the Ayatollah here.]