Edward Pentin’s Vatican Notebook
Further advances with the Muslim world were made last week when the Pope met Amr Moussa, the secretary general of the Arab League. Their meeting came the day after the Vatican signed an agreement with the League, aimed at fostering increased cooperation between the Vatican and the League’s 22 member nations.
Some of these developments grew out of the Holy Father’s 2006 Regensburg lecture, which served as a catalyst for improving CatholicMuslim dialogue, and put it on a firmer, more sincere footing. But this latest advance also owes much to the work of Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, the apostolic nuncio to the Arab League and Egypt.
In 2006 Archbishop Fitzgerald – a White Father originally from Walsall – was appointed nuncio after serving three years as president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. Many saw the appointment, if not as a demotion, then certainly a sideways move, aimed at removing him from a Council which needed a more frank form of dialogue than the archbishop appeared willing to offer.
But his move to Egypt looks to have been wise and fruitful. Since he arrived in the post, he has been trying to secure this agreement with the Arab League, which is no mean feat. Speaking to me on the telephone from Cairo this week, he said it shows the League wants to “consolidate relations” with the Holy See, and added that it has two emphases: working together towards peace in the Middle East, and improving a “dialogue of civilisations”.
Asked whether it might help prevent the occasional conflagration between the West and the Islamic world, he said it “could give rise to greater communications when there are difficulties”.
But, no doubt reflecting on past tensions, he hoped “there won’t be any such circumstances”. There’s no denying that Archbishop Fitzgerald is a consummate diplomat, able to say just enough without giving too much away, and certainly unwilling to enter into any controversy. The way he downplayed the effectiveness of the recent accord with the Arab League in leading to possible advances in religious freedom in Muslim countries was a case in point.
“It’s not aiming at negotiations in any way, but maybe a greater discussion of some of these themes will be productive,” he said. “I would hope so.” The 71-year-old archbishop, who sounded content with his current role, also preferred to steer away from the Pope’s forthcoming pilgrimage to the Holy Land, saying it didn’t really involve him. Yet his expertise in Islam, coupled with his diplomatic skills, might be valuable resources on a pilgrimage which, if some Jewish and Muslim political groups get their way, will be more of a trap than a trip.
The Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall came and went, and no formal invitation to the Pope to visit Britain was publicly proffered. But having had the Prime Minister already issue an invitation in February, a further one from the Prince would have probably looked pushy. It also indicated an interesting probability: that another invitation was unnecessary as the Vatican is already responding to the request, and plans for the visit are underway.