Dialogue and Friendship Among Religions

June, 2015

Brandon Vaidyanathan

Post Doctoral Fellow, Social Sciences Research Institute

How and why do religious institutions work to bring about religious tolerance? To address this question, I conducted a pilot study with the generous support of the Boniuk Institute, examining one institution in particular, the Roman Catholic Church, and two of its initiatives which go beyond tolerance to foster dialogue and friendship between diverse religious traditions as well as between religious and secular peoples.

Notions of the freedom of conscience and religious liberty - central to modern notions of religious tolerance - were once condemned as errors by the Catholic Church. However, since the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, the Church has formally championed these ideals. In recent decades, the Church has sponsored numerous initiatives of interreligious dialogue between religious leaders. But attempts organized by and for laypeople from across religious traditions remain rare. This study examined two such initiatives: (1) The Meeting for Friendship Among Peoples, a major cultural festival organized by the Comuinone e Liberazione movement and held annually in Rimini, Italy, aimed at fostering friendship across diverse religious and cultural traditions, and (2) the International Meeting for Peace, an international meeting for inter-religious dialogue organized annually by the Community of Sant'Egidio, held this year in Belgium. Both are large public events, the first drawing several hundred thousand participants, and the second drawing a few thousand.

The Rimini Meeting, held between August 24-30, primarily showcased lay initiatives, such as exhibits on inter-religious solidarity in Egypt during the Arab Spring and in Ukraine during the revolution in Kiev's Maidan. The Sant'Egidio dialogue, held between September 7-9 in Antwerp, entailed formal conversations between religious and secular leaders, including topics such as "Religions and violence" and "Religious and Secular Believers in a Globalised World." Participants included Herman Van Rompuy, President of the European Council; Ignatius Aphrem II, Syrian Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch and All the East; Vian Dakheel, Yazidi member of Iraqi parliament; sociologist Zygmunt Bauman; Katherine Marshall, Senior Advisor of the World Bank; Argentinian Rabbi Abraham Skorka; Shawqi Allam, the Grand Mufti of Egypt, and other international leaders of Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, and other faiths, as well as prominent non-believers.

Some of the discussions at the Rimini Meeting challenged the need for formal dialogue among religions. Muslim scholar Wa'el Farouq in particular claimed he was "anti-dialogue," since dialogue cannot happen among "religions," but only among people committed to friendships that do not have religion at their center. He argued that it was a waste of money to organize major inter-religious dialogue events where religious leaders with little political clout came together only to conclude with little more than what the events typically presume - that they should live together in peace. This perspective was shared by a group of second-generation Egyptial Italians of Muslim and Coptic faiths, who organized an exhibit on Muslim-Christian friendship during the Arap Spring. The Sant'Egidio event, on the other hand, highlighted the importance of sustained friendships between religious secular leaders over time, and how such sustained contact can contribute to joint initiatives for peace among their constituents. But these leaders also admitted the challenges to this process, partularly by groups who do not recognize their authority as legitimate.

The results of this pilot study suggest important differences in the modes of interreligious dialogue on the part of exclusive faith traditions such as Catholicism and Islam. The Sant'Egidio model exemplifies a mode of "deliverative" dialogue, focused on formal discussions and public expressions of shared commitment. The Rimini model, exemplified in Farouq's group, suggests a "non-deliverative" approach to tolerance centered on practical action that emerges organically out of lived friendships.

These models, which both see dialogue and friendship as ends in their own right, can be contrasted to yet a third approach which I previously studied - an "instrumental" model, which is evident in an annual inter-religious dialogue event organized by the state of Qatar. At the state-let event I attended in Doha, there were no attempts at shared sacred ritual; rather, in spite of well-organized formal public events of dialogue, there were visible tensions about the presence of Jewish participants, and struggles to maintain the public face of Qatar by silencing religious leaders' attempts at critiquing local problems such as the mistreatment of migrant laborers. This model suggests limits on the scope of dialogue when it threatens an institutional order.

This study also raises larger questions about the relationship between inter-religious tolerance and other societal institutions, including politics (e.g., the role of the city and state in sponsoring such events), science (which, due to perceptions of epistemological conflicts can promote intolerance of religion, as evident in prominent figures such as Richard Dawkins), and commerce (which may both promote inter-religious tolerance for the sake of economic gains through diversity, or hinder it in order to maintain harmony). These are promising topics for further exploration.