CNS PHOTO | AMMAR AWAD, REUTERS
Palestinian girls hold torches during a celebration to mark the breaking of the fast during the holy month of Ramadan in Jerusalem July 26.
The Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which ended Aug. 18 in many countries, is a time of fasting, prayer and repentance, when Muslims distance themselves from worldly activities in an effort to align their lives more closely with God and his laws.
According to the Vatican's point man for dialogue with Islam, Ramadan is also an opportunity for Catholics to learn from Muslims' example of obedience to the Almighty – and thereby strengthen their own Catholic faith.
Msgr. Khaled Akasheh runs the section for relations with Muslims at the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, an office founded by Pope Paul VI in 1964, during the Second Vatican Council.
One of the most important aspects of Vatican II, Akasheh told Catholic News Service, was that "the Church accepted all that is right and beautiful in religions." The council thus fostered a culture in which theological disagreement did not mean disrespect for what others hold sacred.
Even half a century later, however, many Catholics perceive a tension between the need to respect other religious traditions and Christ's call to bring his truth to all people.
"Managing mission and dialogue is perhaps the major theological challenge" in communicating with other faiths, Akasheh said.
Catholic experts engaged in dialogue do not make any "explicit appeal to others to embrace our religion, but this doesn't mean that we are not faithful to our faith and our mission, because in dialogue we say what we are," he said.
For Akasheh, who was born in Jordan and has taught at the seminary of the Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem, dialogue is a process of witnessing to one's own beliefs, learning about others and sharing common concerns.
Pope Benedict's famous 2006 speech in Regensburg, Germany, was part of that process, he said.
The pope's quotation in the speech of a 14th-century Byzantine emperor who had described the legacy of the prophet Mohammed as "evil and inhuman" provoked violent reactions in much of the Islamic world.
But following that controversy, a whole new stage in dialogue was launched: The pope met personally with ambassadors of countries with a Muslim majority and with Italy's Muslim leaders; 138 Muslim scholars from around the world wrote an open letter to Pope Benedict and other Christian leaders asking for a dialogue about shared values; and a new Catholic-Muslim Forum for dialogue held its first meeting at the Vatican in 2008.
Dialogue with Islam will be on the pope's agenda again in September, when he is scheduled to meet with Muslim leaders during a three-day visit to Lebanon.
Akasheh said interreligious dialogue at the theological level should be reserved for experts: people who know their own faith well; carry a mandate to speak officially in the name of their faith community; understand the beliefs, culture and language of their interlocutors; and who will never compromise on theology for the sake of agreement.
This is not the kind of dialogue underpinning peace deals or settlements that are founded on compromise and concessions, he said.
Therefore, talking theology with Muslims can present certain dangers for ordinary Catholics.
"There is a danger when we are not sufficiently strong and rooted in our Christian identity," or lack knowledge of the basic tenets of the other faith, or fail to understand what true interreligious dialogue entails, he warned.
Friendship between lay Catholics and Muslims is a good thing, Akasheh said, but the best way for everyday Catholics to engage with their Muslim neighbours is by becoming "better Catholics, better believers."