Turkish Experience of Muslim-Christian Dialogue: Past and Present

First of all I would like to say that I am very happy to be invited to this meeting. I would like to take this opportunity to state that, as everybody here knows, today the world is faced with many problems such as international terror, human rights violations, hunger, prostitution, pornography and similar problems. We must accept that these threats are aimed at everyone without discrimination, whether Christian, Jew, Muslim or Buddhist.

Of course none of this has been brought about or produced by religious people or religious ministers (priests, rabbis or imams). However, we must agree that it will take great concerted effort by all religious people to deal with these people. I believe that everyone here would concur that inter-religious and inter-faith dialogue and cooperation are needed for this purpose.

A verse in the Holy Quran reads as follows: "If God had wished it, He would have made you all one nation". This means that God chose pluralism and multi-culturalism at least until we, who must establish His Will on earth, establish cooperation and harmony through our own desire and will.

In 1985 during his Visit to Morocco, the leading figure of the Christian world, and of Catholics in particular, Pope John Paul II, said:

"Generally speaking, we Christians and Muslims have misunderstood each other, and in the past weakened each other with polemics and wars, which sapped all our strength. Today God Almighty calls on us to give up those old attitudes. With mutual respect, we should therefore advise each other to perform good acts on God's way".

During his Visit to Bangladesh in 1986, he repeated his words in stronger form: "An end should now be put to mutual distrust and fear arising from misunderstandings and differences".

The point I want to draw your attention to is the fact that the Pope's call to dialogue and reconciliation of others did not receive a sufficient response, and were not developed to the degree necessary, to prevent the savagery.

With your permission, I want to pass from here to past dialogue between Muslims and Christians. Fifty years ago, a similar barbarity was experienced in Europe and close on twenty million people lost their lives. The destruction was terrible throughout the continent; distress, suffering, disappointment, and despair were rife. Most importantly, anarchy was born in people's spirits. Around that time, a voice was heard in Turkey, which was affected by the War despite not actually entering it. This was the voice of Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, one of the most eminent contemporary Islamic scholars. He said:

"It is recorded in authentic traditions of the Prophet (Peace and blessings be upon him) that at the end of time the truly pious among the Christians will unite with the People of the Qur'an to fight their common enemy, religion. And at this time, too, the people of religion and truth need to unite sincerely not only with their own brothers and fellow believers, but also with the truly pious and spiritual ones among the Christians, temporarily refraining from the discussion and debate of points of difference in order to combat their joint enemy — aggressive atheism".(1)

In a letter he wrote some time later to his students, he appeared to accept this unity as existent, for he described his anxiety that "the current from the North" (communism) might attempt to destroy it.(2)

Now I would like to quote from Professor Thomas Michel's book, (who is at present employed in the Vatican), which corroborates this:

"Christian history itself even is full of wars, the settling of accounts, and examples of greed, intolerance, and exploitation. It was Christians who created the Inquisition and organized the massacres of the Crusades. The genocide which claimed the lives of millions of Jews, gypsies, and others was the product of Christian Europe. These are facts and a serious indictment of Christian society. The only way they can be explained is as the result of denial by Christians of Jesus' teachings or refusal to comply with them".(3)

Doubtless, Islam is 'the religion of the sword', but this has been reflected by its wars being fought more in accordance with principles of defence. Be this as it may, Bediuzzaman stated that now "freedom of conscience, which is opposed to force and compulsion in religion, and to religious struggle and armed jihad for religion, [has been accepted as] a fundamental rule and political principle by governments" and "secular republics" have begun to be set up.(4)

In his final years, Said Nursi exerted himself personally to bring about reconciliation and friendship with Christians. In 1950, he sent a collection of his works to Pope Pius XII in Rome and received in reply, on 22 February 1951, a personal letter of thanks. One observer notes that it was only a little over ten years later that, at the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church proclaimed its respect and esteem for Muslims and asserted that Islam was a genuine path of salvation. In the same way, a few years later in 1953, Said Nursi visited the Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras in Istanbul to seek cooperation between Muslims and Christians in the face of aggressive atheism.

The reply of the Christian world to the Muslim thinker Bediuzzaman's call to "dialogue and co-operation with Christians" came around twenty year's later. Moves to draw closer to Muslims began under Pope John XXIII; however, they were realized only in the decisions of the Second Vatican Council, which was convened in 1962 and continued till 1965. The paragraph concerning Muslims is this:

"The Church has respect for Muslims, who worship the One God, the Creator of the Heavens and Earth, Who is Powerful over all things, sent signs to men, and is and ever shall be. The Council advises that Christians and Muslims forget the centuries long misunderstandings and enmities between them, and sincerely endeavour to understand one another, together establish social justice, peace, and liberty, and preserve them and moral and spiritual values for all mankind".(5)

This decision was accepted on 28 October 1965 with 1763 votes in favour and 242 votes against. Such a decision was truly revolutionary in the history of Christianity. Both Muslims and Jews are on the way leading to God. For Christianity, this then forms the basis of dialogue.

It will be apt to quote here a passage from a speech of General de Gaulle, one of the most famous statesmen Europe has produced:

"See, there are countries developing on the other side of the Mediterranean. They too have a civilization, a culture, a humanism, and human relations such as have started to be lost in our industrialized society. One day it may please us to borrow these human relations.... If we want to found an industrial society which considers man to be not its means but its end, we shall have to open up our cultures to one another to a large extent".(6)

Twenty-five years after General de Gaulle made these points, Prince Charles made some noteworthy comments. He said both at the opening of the Oxford Islamic Centre in 1995, and in his speech at Wilton Park in Sussex last December that there should be greater contact with Islamic civilization, and stated even that through such relations Western civilization could be saved from complete decline.

It is my opinion that with their many contributions to Muslim-Christian dialogue through their analyses of the decisions of the Second Vatican Council, such as Michel Lelong, who for many years directed the Secretariat for Muslim Relations in the Vatican.

Michel Lelong states that according to a verse of the Qur'an (5:48), "If God had so willed", He would have made us all a single people or community. But He created us as different communities in order to test us. There is therefore great wisdom in this.

In his very useful books, Lelong bases his discussion of dialogue on Abraham (UWP) and invites members of the two religions to meet at that point. He frequently stresses that the majority of Christians are unaware that Muslims accept Jesus and Moses (upon whom be peace) and that they believe in the Gospels and Torah.

According to the Tunisian professor, Muhammad Yalawi, if one takes note of the international situation, "three Jonah's are needed today", for the development of dialogue and co-operation. These will be for the Jews, Christians, and Muslims respectively.

The Tunisian professor says that the Muslim Jonah would address his co-religionists like this: "You fought for independence in the age of imperialism, and you were right. You are right too to reject the materialism which threatens the West and the economic pressures of the big powers. But while exercising your lawful rights like remaining true to the religion of your forefathers and preserving your identity, beliefs, and spirit, you should study the principles and commands of the Qur'an; you must not fall into the situation of only looking inwards and should give up outdated feelings of aggression. Do not forget that throughout history Islam has remained open to other cultures and other religions. It cannot be doubted that today Western civilization has many sides that are disquieting and unacceptable, but at the same time you should not forget that that same civilization has a vast spiritual legacy and has made scientific conquests that may be thought of as wondrous. It might offer the way of freedom. The Qur'an tells us that we came from God and it is only to Him that we shall return. It rejects every kind of idol and idol-worship and in consequence, fanatic sectarianism. It calls on humanity to be honourable, just, philanthropic and compassionate".

A Jonah is needed for the Jews of today, too. He addresses them in this way: "For centuries you suffered. You were abased and persecuted and repressed. Today everyone knows what you underwent in medieval Christendom and the Nazi camps. But today do you hear and understand the groans of the Palestinians? The prophets of the Old and New Testaments frequently told you that it was not enough for you to want to be united, to pray in the temple and to say that you were "God's chosen people"; they continually reminded to you that the main thing to be done was to be just, respectful of rights, and not to cause distress to strangers. But what have Israel's rulers done this last few years? Those who claim to be faithful to the tenets of the Jewish religion should recognize the rights of the Palestinians".

As for the Christian Jonah, he addressed the churches like this: "You have spent great efforts these last years to solve the new questions raised by your contemporaries. With reinterpretations, and breathing new life into religious rites, theology, and unification of the churches, and increased interest in social matters and the Third World, the Christian churches have managed to maintain their power and vitality. But have the Catholics and Protestants of Europe given adequate thought to the questions raised by international relations of the present? Subsequent to the decolonization they were compelled to bring about politically, have they in truth found a new perspective and new world order which will ensure the establishment of a more just balance between North and South? Have they been able to take up an objective position in matters connected with East and West? And finally, are they able to consider seriously other religions and cultures, and particularly Islam, which is still inadequately known in the West?".(7)

The visits Pope John Paul II made to Turkey in 1979, Kenya in 1980, Pakistan in 1981, the Philippines in 1981, Indonesia in 1981, Morocco in 1985, and Bangladesh in 1986, and the contacts he made and speeches covering many subjects he gave during these visits, further broadened the basis of dialogue. Many meetings were held in Great Britain, France, and particularly in Germay, to further dialogue. Nevertheless, the results and fruits of this work were very limited and did not go beyond being local. Doubtless, it is not easy to remove the remnants of the centuries in one sweep. Only, if we are going to take the decisions of the Second Vatican Council as the basis, the last thirty years is also not a short time.

With your permission, I want now to speak to you of another leading proponent of dialogue. The esteemed person I shall mention appeared with the slogan "Love and Dialogue". And he did not restrict his efforts to merely saying this, he applied it practically. This person is M. Fethullah Gülen. He is a very important follower of Bediuzzaman Said Nursi and his ideas, who was the first person in Turkey and the Islamic world to mention dialogue and co-operation with Christians, and he has put those ideas into practice.

In the nearly three hundred schools that M. Fethullah Gülen has opened in an area so broad it stretches from Siberia to Kenya and from the United States to Thailand, Muslims, Christians and Jews study together in peace and happiness. In fact, in countries like Maldavia, Yaqutistan, and Mongolia, the great majority of the pupils are not Muslim, Christian, or Jewish. It is my guess that you will find these endeavours of a Muslim leader to be very noteworthy.

When in 1996 M. Fethullah Gülen met with the Greek Orthodox Patriarch, Bartolomeos, there were reactions from radicals and fanatics, but the majority of people, who support moderation, congratulated him. He later met also with David Aseo, the leader of the Jewish community, and the Vatican's Ankara Envoy, Pier Luigi, demonstrating his determination to further dialogue.

History has been a stage for very bloody religious wars. We must admit that these were mostly the exploitation of religious people and places of worship for political and economic interests. However, it is time to realize what Jesus said at the Last Supper. As you know, after he washed the feet of all the disciples with him, he said, "I washed your feet even though I am your Master. So from now on, wash each others' feet".(8)

Of course these words command humility, tolerance and helping one another. So come and, as Muslims, Christians, Buddhists or Jews, let's wash each others' feet and take some serious steps towards world peace.

I congratulate and give my respects to organisers of this meeting on behalf of the honorary chairman of our Foundation, Fethullah Gülen which is proud to take an active role in inter-faith dialogue efforts, and on behalf of myself and foundation workers.

This paper has been presented by Mr. Cemal Ussak, Secretary General for Intercultural Dialogue Platform and Vice Chairman of the Journalists and Writers Foundation at the seminar "Call to a New Vision of Others and Ourselves Through Interreligious Dialogue: Focused on Islam" in Rome, Italy.
1. Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, Risale-i Nur Külliyati (two vol. ed.), i., 663.
2. Ibid., ii, 1744.
3. Thomas Michel, Hristiyan Tanri Bilimine Giris, Istanbul 1992, 6.
4. Bediuzzaman, ibid., i, 985.
5. 'Recognize the Spiritual Bonds', 3 (Nostra Aetate, 3); Michel Lelong, E¤er Allah ‹steseydi, Istanbul 1992, Yeni Asya Yay›nlar›, 18.
6. Le Monde, 20 July 1972 (Paul Palta); E¤er Allah ‹steseydi, 15.
7. Ibid., 44.
8. Gospel According to St. John, 13:14-15 (King James Version).
Ref.: Text from the Author. Given for the SEDOS Seminar (May 2003). Mr. Cemal Ussak, SEDOS Seminar, 19-23 May 2003

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