Monday, June 5, 2017

Open Dialogue?

One of Freiburg's twelve sister cities is Isfahan in Iran. This is remarkable for Freiburg is the only city in Germany that has a partnership with a city in Iran. Already in the past at the time of the Khomeini regime Freiburg came into political focus. Freiburg city officials in vain assured their colleagues in Berlin that it was a partnership between people and not governments. Fact is that citizen trips to Isfahan are still the top hit but this activity by no means is reciprocal.

Six mullahs and their hosts at the episcopal ordinariate (©BZ/Thomas Kunz)
So it came as some sort of a surprise when the other day a delegation of Shiite clergyman visited Freiburg. They met with city and Catholic church officials including our archbishop but they were also seen in Freiburg's streets window shopping.

Studying the city map (©BZ/Thomas Kunz)
During their stay we frequently read about a dialogue between religions in the local press. Our cultural mayor Ulrich von Kirchbach said that Freiburg was the first city to start such a religious dialogue. Such talks are urgently needed for we know too little about each other. That sounds like the mantra of our federal government: As long as there are talks there will be no war, e.g., in Ukraine?

Let us discuss the historical visit of those six mullahs in its historical context. The author of a recent article about Syria called the local military conflict a new Thirty Years' War. Indeed it has been even more than 30 years since the Iran–Iraq War started on September 22, 1980, a war between two Muslim countries. Since that date there has not been one single day without violence in the Middle East.

Presently the Shiites and Sunnis, the two main Muslim creeds, are fighting each other in a proxy war. Since the Saudis (and the US) assume that Iran's ayatollahs support the Shiite Houthi rebels in Yemen they started bombing the country within a coalition of Sunni countries. Yemen is one of the poorest regions of the world and as usual the civilian population is suffering most in the military conflict. It seems that with all their efforts the Saudis were running out of military equipment, a stock that POTUS lately replenished making a 100 billion deal that will create jobs in America's arms industry.

Let us come back to the two Thirty Years' Wars. From 1618 to 1648 the German territory saw the invasion of Swedish, French, Spanish, Italian and other foreign troops while suffering a population loss of more than 40% and in some regions a complete loss of infrastructure.

Nowadays Syria is the battleground of national and multinational alliances. Pictures on television show the complete destruction of once flourishing cities while the loss of human lives among civilians suffering bomb and gas attacks is simply unbearable. As in the case of the first Thirty Years' War the war on Syrian territory has long since degenerated into a fight of everyone against everyone.

In this context what kind of dialogue can we expect when talking to Iranian mullahs in particular when in the run-up to their visit we learned of the arrest of thirty gay men in Iran? The Shiite clergymen said they were ignorant of the facts but promised to look into the matter when back home.

Otherwise Seyed Hussein Momeni impressed Archbishop Stephan Burger by citing the Qur'an at the episcopal ordinariate. It was about Jesus, Surah 27:57: Then We caused Our messengers to follow in their footsteps; and We caused Jesus, son of Mary, to follow, and gave him the Gospel, and placed compassion and mercy in the hearts of those who followed him.

The visiting mullahs were extremely friendly. Holding lighted candles, they even took part in a Catholic procession devoted to St. Mary starting at the M√ľnster church and ending at St. Martin's. They emphasized common prayer as an important shared feature of the two religions.

Archbishop Burger, however, went further: We as theologians have the duty to reject all ideologies of violence and extremism in the name of God. And he added: The Creator abhors violence, the true God calls for unconditional love, for a fraternity among the faithful and the non-believers. The response of Mehdi Georgi, the head of the delegation, was short and clear: Because of our faith we fully reject violence. Did he consider that Iran has been ruled by Shiite ayatollas since 1979, that they constitute the government?

Was this the beginning of a beautiful friendship or at least the beginning of an open dialogue between Shiites and Catholics? Should we simply forget Surah 3:28: Let not believers take disbelievers as allies rather than believers. And whoever [of you] does that has nothing with Allah, except when taking precaution against them in prudence. And Allah warns you of Himself, and to Allah is the [final] destination.

Only God knows or is it rather Inshallah?

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