Can Islam and Christianity coexist? Vatican expert hopeful, but wary.

Denver, Feb. 17, 2006 (CNA) - Sandro Magister, one of the world’s foremost experts on the Vatican and religious relations, told a crowd gathered in Denver last night that while there is some hope for the future, he thinks that deep self-reform is necessary for Islam to assimilate to the modern world and be able to truly coexist with Christianity.

Following his talk, entitled ‘Christians, Islam and the Future of Europe’, Magister, who writes for Italy’s L’Espresso magazine, discussed the difficulties and perhaps fatal differences between Islam and a traditionally Christian Europe.

Moving from intellectual dialogue within the Muslim world to the heated debate over whether or not to include Turkey in the European Union, the mostly Catholic crowd struggled to find hope for peace between what Magister laid out largely as diametrically opposed worldviews.  

Speaking in Italian through an interpreter, Magister said that while historically, Christianity and Islam have some common roots and a record of genuine intellectual exchanges, that these have by and large been deserted for centuries.

Answering a question from the audience, he said that one of the major reasons for the breakdown was that the major interpretation for Islam in recent decades has become the Sunni one--which insists that the Koran is final and closed for interpretation and debate.

Magister likewise cited a failure in the thought structure of Islam which, he thinks, prevents adaptation, growth and true creativity, adding that he has reached this conclusion through the influence of many Muslim authors themselves.

“The extreme difficulty of establishing dialogue is the intellectual deserting in Islam,” he said, “there are really no intellectuals in the Islamic world up to the challenge.”

On this, he pointed to the startlingly small number of books that are published Muslim countries.

This, he said, not only stems from the widespread opinion that everything has already been said in the Koran, but the stress, put by many political and social leaders on “the imaginary moment that the book was given to the world as well as the paradise promised” therein.

During his talk, Magister said that for many Muslims, the Koran is not the equivalent of the Christian Scriptures; it is the equivalent of Christ.

He added that this mindset, naturally and fundamentally closes them off from new or diverse ideas.

Magister balanced this fact however, saying that within the Islamic world, the Shiite branch actually makes up a noteworthy ten percent of the population.

Unlike the Sunnis, they believe that the Koran’s exact interpretation is still up for debate, and therefore, he said, it is possible in Shiite mentality to create political structures that are not merely recreations of what happened in the past.

Magister went on to cite a small, but influential number of truly moderate Muslim thinkers who are encouraging self reform and even have positive views toward Christianity.

Among them, he named, Khaled Fouad Allam, editor of the Italian ’La Republica’ newspaper who recently wrote a major editorial calling on Muslims to adapt and recognize their own Christian roots. He also named Iraq’s influential Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who believes that Islam can live within a democracy.

The Vatican expert compared these moderate, but largely hidden voices to the “Church of silence” which existed underground in communist Europe. He said that the world must encourage them, just as the Church needed encouragement.

In the western world however, he said that violent Islamic extremists tend to look like the mainstream, citing the recent violent protests over Danish cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed, and last summer’s violent outbursts across France

Capacity to Govern

Toward the end of the evening, Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput, who was on hand together with visiting Salina, Kansas Bishop Paul Coakley, asked Magister about the widespread worry of many that within a number of years, much of central Europe could become predominately Muslim.

The analyst acknowledged the definite predictions thereof, as well as a growing influx of Muslims, especially to countries like Spain and France, but said that those sorts of movements and population shifts are impossible to predict.

He said however, that the bottom line is not about population, but rather about the potentially lost capacity for Christians and the west to continue to govern Europe.

Christians, Europeans, he said, should be worried about “losing our Christian identity which would allow us to continue ruling Europe.”

Here, he cited Pope Benedict XVI who, from the outset of his pontificate, has stressed the need for Europeans to remember and reclaim their fleeting Christian heritage which may be far more in jeopardy than many think.