It’s not often that an Iranian Ayatollah addresses a meeting of bishops in the Vatican attended by the Pope. In fact, until last week, it was unheard of.
But that’s what happened when Ayatollah Mohaghegh Damad gave an intervention at the Synod of Church bishops on the Middle East currently taking place in Rome. He became the first Iranian Shi’ite Muslim ever to address such an event.
Benedict XVI had invited him, along with a Sunni Muslim, to help the Synod’s discussions on Islam and Islamic extremism which is a major concern of the Church across the Middle East.
In his address, the ayatollah said he hoped for an “ideal world” in which believers of all faiths could live “without fear” according to their traditions, and said modern communications and widespread migration should be “beneficial” in bringing about a brotherhood of man.
But the Islamic scholar’s remarks clearly didn’t square with religious freedom restrictions across the Middle East (in Iran, Muslim converts to Christianity are treated as renegades and traitors). “Freedom to choose a religion is one thing, conversion is something else,” he told me later at the Iranian embassy to the Holy See, under the supervision of a government official.
“If conversion means taking action against Islam, then it’s not permissible,” he said, adding that such a reaction against Christianity is also outlawed in Iran. It then becomes a form of “propaganda” against the former religion, he said, which is “not permissible”.
A somewhat eccentric yet friendly Islamic scholar who helped found the Common Word initiative to foster closer Catholic-Muslim relations, the ayatollah said “no compulsion in religion” is a key tenet of Islamic tradition and the Church is as free as anyone else to practice their religion. “I have many Christian and Jewish friends,” he said, “and all of them live under the same protection as Muslims, they have the right to worship, freedom of speech, freedom to go to their churches.”
But when the interview turned to questions concerning the Iranian regime, he became evasive. Asked if he shared President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s views on Israel (Ahmadinejad said the country was “doomed” on a recent visit to Lebanon), the Islamic legal scholar ducked the question, saying he was attending the Synod when the Iranian president made those remarks.
When asked if he ever speaks out against Iran’s policies, for example on its nuclear program, he suggested the question be put to the ambassador instead.
Somewhat predictably, he made a point of saying that Israel was not a true democracy and even went so far as to blame the “Zionists in Israel” for “starting all fundamentalism” in the region. “We are not fundamentalists,” he said, adding that he condemns it in any religion.
When it was put to him that many would call Ayatollah Khamanei an extremist, he replied that Iran’s spiritual leader had recently issued a fatwa aimed at reducing hate speech against other religions, especially within Islam. “Many struggles” exist between Shia and Sunni Islam, he stressed, which “run deeper” than those between Islam and Christianity.
Ayatollah Mohaghegh Damad is optimistic about Catholic-Muslim relations, saying they are “getting better everyday.” And he made a point, one that is to some extent shared by the Pope, that the real danger is not Islam as such, but “of forgetting God, forgetting love, prayer, worship, friendship between each other.”
“This is the real danger for us — for any religion,” he said, “because what is the difference between a religious man and a secular man? I believe the difference is that a religious person believes in some values, a secular man doesn’t.” Both religions, he said, “should help each other to promote these values in society.”
The ayatollah said the Pope, whom he has known for some years, liked his speech and said he agreed “one hundred percent” with what he said.
“He said he hoped to see me again,” he said, adding with a chuckle: “We said we hoped to see him in Iran!”
The stern government official beside him was keenly taking notes.
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