Cairo’s Dominican Institute builds bridges between Islam and Christianity

Father Emmanuel Pisani’s intensity and rapid-fire conversation belie his life’s vocation and the lofty goals he pursues.

The 50-year-old French monk is the director of Cairo’s Dominican Institute of Oriental Studies, a prominent academic centre whose genesis lies in a tiny monastery established by three Dominican brothers from Jerusalem more than a century ago.

It is now a global magnet for scholars of Islam and Arab civilisation and, more importantly to Father Emmanuel, it acts as a bridge between Christianity and Islam.

The holder of a doctorate in medieval Islamic philosophy and a fluent Arabic speaker, Father Emmanuel says his leadership of the institute is more than a job or even a calling — it is everything.

It is not easy, but it’s our hope, my calling and my mission in life. It’s what gives my life a meaning

Father Emmanuel Pisani, director, Dominican Institute of Oriental Studies, Cairo

“It is not easy, but it’s our hope, my calling and my mission in life. It’s what gives my life a meaning,” he told The National during a tour of the institute’s library of more than 180,000 volumes, which has one of the Middle East’s largest collections of Islamic heritage books in Arabic.

“I have no spouse or children. So, if I have no calling or a sense of purpose, then my life will be difficult. What I try to do is what gives sense to my life.”

When founded in the late 19th century, the monastery was located in the desolate desert on the eastern side of the Egyptian capital. The focus of the founding monks and their successors was the in-depth study of Egypt’s history to enable them to better understand the Bible from a historical perspective.

They also immersed themselves in theology and the interpretation of the Quran at a time when Egypt was witnessing a renaissance in Islamic thought led by scholars such as Mohammed Abdou and Rasheed Reda.

Inside the Cairo library built by Christian monks to study Islamic heritage

The monastery has not changed its location — although it became a research institute in 1953 — but the area around it has morphed beyond recognition.

The cemetery on whose edge it once sat has been rolled back to make way for a motorway. The barren desert that once surrounded it has become a busy but drab district of government, police and military buildings that becomes eerily deserted after sundown.

Visitors to the institute, however, only have to take a few steps after passing through its metal street door to be rid of the dreariness of its surroundings and savour the place’s isolation.

FULL ARTICLE FROM THE NATIONAL NEWS

‘A need for Islamic ecumenism’: An interview with Cardinal Fitzgerald

A cardinal, with decades working and praying with Muslims, talks about interreligious conversation.

When Cardinal Arthur Roche received the red hat on Aug. 27, he became the third living English cardinal.

Many Catholics could name a second one: Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the current Archbishop of Westminster and president of the English and Welsh bishops’ conference.

But they might struggle to name the third. That’s probably because he is living in retirement in a parish in the city of Liverpool. But he is an eminent churchman who is one of the Church’s leading experts on Islam, and he once led a Vatican dicastery.

Days before Pope Francis’ trip to the Muslim-majority country of Bahrain, Cardinal Michael Fitzgerald spoke with The Pillar about the most pressing challenges in Catholic-Muslim relations, the need for “Islamic ecumenism,” and the impact of Benedict XVI’s Regensburg lecture.

In a pithy email interview, the cardinal also discussed why he joined the White Fathers in his youth, his missionary work in Africa, and what it was like to serve at the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, the Vatican body overseeing interfaith relations.

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England’s three living cardinals (left to right): Cardinal Michael Fitzgerald, Cardinal Arthur Roche, and Cardinal Vincent Nichols, pictured on Aug. 28, 2022. © Mazur/cbcew.org.uk.

Cardinal Fitzgerald, what is Christianity?

At Antioch, the followers of the Way were called Christians for the first time. So Christianity is the following of Jesus Christ according to his teaching and the way of life that he indicated. Of course, we know the teaching of Jesus through Tradition (which includes the Gospels). According to Matthew 25, we shall be judged more on our lives than our beliefs.

FULL ARTICLE FROM PILLAR

‘Reasons for Our Hope’: Video Series Presents Christian Belief to the Muslim World

“In our time, when day by day mankind is being drawn closer together, and the ties between different peoples are becoming stronger, the Church examines more closely her relationship to non-Christian religions,” begins the Vatican II declaration Nostra Aetate, written in 1965. 

In our own time, a group of scholars are putting these principles into practice in a format that the Council Fathers would never have anticipated: YouTube. 

Reasons for Our Hope, a joint project between the Oasis International Foundation and the McGrath Institute for Church Life at Notre Dame, is a YouTube series intended to advance mutual understanding between Christians and Muslims. In so doing, the series seeks to be respectful to Muslim believers (quoting Muslim philosophers and writers, closely studying the words of the Quran and Muslim traditions, and consulting Muslim scholars) while also being honest about the different worldviews that Christianity and Islam present. 

The collaborative project traces its roots to a 2017 symposium between the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and its Muslim counterpart, the Al-Azhar Center for Dialogue, held in Cairo. At the symposium, Gabriel Said Reynolds, Notre Dame professor of Islamic studies, met Martino Diez, the scientific director of the Oasis International Foundation. Founded with the initiative of Cardinal Angelo Scola in 2004, Oasis aims to foster dialogue and understanding between Christians and Muslims in the Middle East, facilitating research, conferences and public conversation on the topic. 

Both Diez and Reynolds realized while attending the symposium that, among Christians, there was both a lack of knowledge about Islam and a lack of resources for attaining that knowledge. Similarly, many Muslims regularly encountered misinformation about Christianity and Catholicism. 

John Cavadini, director of the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame, similarly noted the problems facing Muslim-Christian dialogue. A project that would aim to educate Catholics on theological differences between themselves and Muslims was a good fit for the McGrath Institute’s goal to “empower faithful Catholic leaders at all levels.”

FULL ARTICLE FROM THE NATIONAL CATHOLIC REGISTER

How a Book on Islam Strengthened my Catholic Faith

I do not pretend to be as devout a Catholic as I should be. Too often, I am not even a particularly good one. Nonetheless, I am and was raised a Catholic, so I tend to view nearly every theological topic through a Catholic lens. David Pinault’s The Crucifix on Mecca’s Front Porch gave me the chance to do exactly that. 

I have long been curious about Islam, and The Crucifix on Mecca’s Front Porch provides a Christian – and particularly a Catholic – guide to understanding Islam. Though not impartial, Pinault draws on his own extensive experience to provide an expertly researched and respectful analysis of the theological differences between Islam and Christianity, with particular focus on the two religions’ competing conceptions of the nature of Jesus Christ. The book is simultaneously detailed and readable, and Pinault ably emphasizes the need for Christians and Muslims to learn from one another even as he is careful not to minimize the significant differences between the two faiths.

Pinault, a longtime professor of religious studies at Santa Clara University, has a lifetime of experience researching “comparative Christology and the status of Christian populations in Muslim-majority societies.” He has conducted extensive fieldwork in Egypt, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Yemen, among other places. Pinault’s comparative study of Islam starts with the life of Muhammad, and concludes by addressing contentious contemporary issues such as increasing Muslim migration into Western countries and the rise of Islamic extremist terrorism. 

Pinault draws on his own extensive experience to provide an expertly researched and respectful analysis of the theological differences between Islam and Christianity.

Straightforward about his own status as a Catholic Christian, Pinault critically examines pre-Islamic Arabia, the Koran, the life of Muhammad, the development of Islamic thought, Shia-Sunni relations, and more. Pinault draws from various Islamic primary sources translated from the original Arabic, Persian, or Urdu, many of which he translated himself. He compares and contrasts these materials with excerpts from the Bible and other Christian texts, examples from the life and works of Jesus Christ, and even primary sources written in Latin by Christian crusaders. 

FULL ARTICLE FROM THE MICHIGAN REVIEW

Bahrain church project cements Gulf region’s reputation for religious tolerance

DUBAI: It all started when the monarch of Bahrain donated a plot of land to the kingdom’s Catholic community seven years ago. Officially taking matters a step further, in 2014 King Hamad Al-Khalifa met with Pope Francis at the Vatican, reassuring him of Bahrain’s commitment to coexistence and presenting him with a detailed three-foot-long model of a proposed cathedral and its surroundings.

Next year, Bahrain will inaugurate the largest Catholic cathedral in the Gulf region, the latest testament to its longstanding tradition of openness and tolerance.

The Cathedral of Our Lady of Arabia, expected to open to the public in May, sits on a complex of approximately 9,000 square meters in the expatriate-populated municipality of Awali, located about 20 kilometers away from the capital Manama.

Aside from the cathedral, the palm tree-lined complex will feature a multipurpose building, a spacious courtyard, as well as a two-story parking area. How is it that this small, predominantly Muslim island nation — smaller in area than London — is building a significant monument to the Christian faith?

FULL ARTICLE FROM ARAB NEWS

Muslims for the Pope

Pope Francis has shown understanding many moderate Muslims lack a voice and are in fact the first victims of extremists

Despite much of the popular alarmist talk, Islam is arguably in a deeper crisis than the Christian world, and this is the problem.

Islam has little or no structured unified organization independent from a single state, unlike the Christian world, where the Catholic church is the largest unitary religion, and there are vastly organized Orthodox and Episcopalian churches.

There is no longer a caliph and a publicly recognized caliphate able to muster the faithful of the world.https://d3f71db5a4a064e2a6e289b5f9409def.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html?n=0

There is no Islamic superpower. There are many countries where Islam is important – Indonesia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, Algeria, Morocco – but they cannot band together. They have very different agendas that have little to do with their religious beliefs.

None can rise to the rank of superpower, challenging the United States, China, Russia, the European Union or even Japan or India.

Unlike in the first Cold War, there is no superpower supporting the Islamic world per se, fighting Israel, portrayed as a puppet of the United States.

There is no longer a strategic asset like oil, which since the 1970s gave the Islamic world clout and influence through blackmail on prices and inflation. Oil is no longer a rare commodity. Gas and oil are plentiful, and new shale technology is revolutionizing the market, taking away the hedge these Islamic countries had in the past.

They do not even have blackmail through the export of terrorism. In the past three decades, some rich Islamic countries paid off radical extremists to wage war on infidels in foreign countries. This policy exported abroad an internal threat and at the same time lent legitimacy to the existing authoritarian regimes.

FULL ARTICLE FROM ASIA TIMES

ASIA/MIDDLE EAST – Document on the future of Christians in the Middle East: Western “protections” or “alliances between minorities” do not help us

Antelias (Agenzia Fides) – In the Middle East there are ecclesial realities that “in order to obtain assistance from some American and European Christian groups, they adopt ideas that militate against coexistence, exaggerate the suffering of Christians, and promote the theory of systematic persecution by Muslims”. Other ecclesial subjects are betting everything on the strategy of the “alliance between minorities” or on the protection of authoritarian regimes as the only ways to ensure the survival of indigenous Christian communities in the Middle East. These are misleading choices and orientations, which risk weighing negatively on the future of the Christian presence in the Middle East and denying the same mission to which the Church called today in the part of the world has lived her earthly life. These are some of the provocations disseminated in the document entitled “Christians in the Middle East: Towards Renewed Theological, Social, and Political Choices”.


The long and dense contribution, divided into one hundred paragraphs, is offered as a systematic attempt to consider in depth the present condition of Christian communities in the Arab-Middle Eastern context. This is an initiative that has no equal in the recent history of theological and pastoral reflection on the present and future of Christians in the Middle East.


The document, released today during an official presentation organized in the conference room of the church of Sant’Elia, in Antelias (Lebanon), is the result of the long work carried out by an ecumenical team of specialists in theology, social studies and geopolitical issues , “Men and women, ordained and lay ministers, who wanted to confront themselves with frankness and freedom also “on issues that some may consider inappropriate for a public debate”.


The team, which has taken as its initials a formula that echoes a verse from Deuteronomy (“We have chosen life in abundance”), includes, among others, Professor Souraya Bechealany, former secretary general of the Council on the Churches of the Middle East, and Maronite priest Rouphael Zgheib, national director of the Pontifical Mission Societies of Lebanon.

FULL ARTICLE FROM FIDES.ORG

Muslims, Our Brothers and Sisters in the Abrahamic Faith

Afghanistan has once again been captured by the Taliban, who are known for their complete disregard for human rights and international conventions, sending tremors across the region. The electronic and social media displayed images of Afghan citizens trying to leave the country in fear by hanging on to the planes that took off from the Kabul airport. Who will forget the images of the Afghan women throwing their children over the barbed wires of the airport walls begging American soldiers who were leaving Kabul for good to take them away with them? The situation has become even murkier with many a regional power entering into the embroiled scenario.

Subsequently, prejudices and biases against Islam and Muslims have once again become table-talk across India. People passionately discuss the Taliban brutality and Islamic fundamentalism. It is important to discuss and debate public issues that affect millions of lives in our neighbourhood. However, only informed deliberations will profit us. Discussions driven by bigotry will do no good but remain one-sided and superficial and lead to unfair conclusions. During my conversations with many Christians recently, some portrayed Muslims as ‘communally charged fundamentalists’ who spread fear and unrest among people of other faiths. We do hear many Christians making sweeping statements connecting Indian Muslims and Indian Islam with ‘conspiracies against Christians’. These include members of the clergy and, at times, even members of the hierarchy. This editorial aims at offering in broad strokes some basic understanding of Islam and Muslims that will help us in pastorally engaging with Muslims and dealing with Christian-Muslim controversies.

FULL ARTICLE FROM INDEPENDENT CATHOLIC NEWS (INDIA)

What can Catholics learn from Muslims about encountering God?

Islam is the world’s fastest growing religion, embraced by one fourth of the global population and with three and a half million adherents living in the United States. Yet dialogue between Christians and Muslims is fraught, given differences in theology, ethics, history and contemporary political realities. Benedictine Br. David Steindl-Rast offers this slim book, 99 Names of God, as a beginning point for Christians to enter into the devotional life of Muslims in the hope of opening up dialogue between them.

Steindl-Rast is well positioned to do this. Born in 1926, he was awarded a doctoral degree in psychology and anthropology from the University of Vienna. He entered the Benedictine monastery at Mount Savior in Elmira, New York, in 1953 and was co-founder of the inter-religious Center for Spiritual Studies. Although best known for his writings on gratefulness, he has been engaged in interfaith dialogue since 1966, in both Christian-Buddhist and Christian-Muslim discussions.

99 Names of God
99 NAMES OF GOD By David Steindl-Rast219 pages; Published by Orbis Books $20.00

His insight is that if Christians can explore a principal devotional ritual of Islam, namely repetition of the Koranic names of God, this will give them a starting point to appreciate what can seem like a strange and inaccessible religion to some Christians. All three of the Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — are “people of the book,” each has a written scripture and all name God.

Steindl-Rast is clear about why humans name. In their encounter with God, who is understood as “Thou,” they make clumsy attempts to address and call by name the transcendent yet intimate reality. He attests that this naming expresses the human experience of God, but only indirectly the Ultimate Reality encountered. All these 99 names are related and connected but none singly or together can capture God. Steindl-Rast analogizes these names both as a prism that refracts God’s resplendent beauty and as windows onto God’s mystery.

Some of these names of God derive from human intellect and reason, including the “almighty,” “the powerful,” “the sovereign.” Others arise from the intimacy of the encounter, such as “the merciful, “the compassionate,” “the ever-forgiving.” The devotional purpose of repeating these names is to bring one closer to the encounter that produced them. Naming is a stammering attempt to “call to” Ultimate Reality experienced as “Thou.” Christians should find here a ritual practice familiar to them.

FULL ARTICLE FROM NATIONAL CATHOLIC REGISTER

Pope visit favors Shia-Catholic connection; Iraqi Christians remain divided

Iraq (MNN) — Pope Francis made history earlier this month when he visited Iraq. Today, Catholic leaders praise the trip as a “milestone” for relations between the Catholic Church and Shia Islam.

Speaking to Crux last week, senior official Cardinal Miguel Angel Ayuso said:

For what concerns the relationship between Christianity and Shia Islam, the Najaf meeting is a further step forward for the dialogue of respect and friendship with the Shia community both in Iran and in Iraq, in which both the local Church and the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, which I preside over, have been involved in for years.

“The main impetus of [the pope] coming is a political framework, not a religious or spiritual framework. The outcomes of that are about building relationships between Muslims and Christians,” Samuel* of Redemptive Stories says.

“It was very interesting and very telling that he visited Shia sites and met with Shia leaders as the primary impetus for his travels, which is something most heads of state would never do.”

The Vatican is the world’s smallest independent nation, and Pope Francis is its appointed leader. As described here, “the general politics and governance of the Vatican City are undertaken by the head of the Catholic Church, the Pope… The Pope exercises ex officio supreme legislative, executive and judicial power over the state of the Vatican City.”

FULL ARTICLE FROM MISSION NETWORK NEWS