Christians of all traditions were likely surprised on Friday when the Vatican’s Dicastery for Interreligious Dialogue issued a message to Muslims for Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting by day and gorging by night. The fact that such a message was sent was not a surprise, as interreligious dialogue has for many years been far more important to the hierarchy of the Catholic Church and other Churches than actually spreading the Gospel message. The surprising aspect was that in the message, which was entitled “Christians and Muslims: Promoters of Love and Friendship,” the Vatican asserted that Ramadan is important not just for Muslims, but for Christians as well. Christians, were you aware of this?
The message, which was signed by Cardinal Miguel Ángel Ayuso Guixot, a Spanish prelate who is the prefect of the Interreligious Dialogue Dicastery, and Msgr. Indunil Kodithuwakku Janakaratne Kankanamalage, a Sri Lankan who is its secretary, is addressed to “Dear Muslim brothers and sisters.” It immediately states, “The month of Ramadan is important for you, but also for your friends, neighbours and fellow believers of other religions, in particular Christians.” Can Cardinal Guixot or Msgr. Kankanamalage give us any examples of Christians who observe Ramadan, or who think it important?
Certainly there are many Christians who believe for various reasons that it is very important to build good relationships with Muslims, but one would be hard-pressed to find any who actually join in the fasting-and-gorging month, just as it would be difficult to find any Muslims who observe the Christian fasting season of Lent. Although there is always some overlap, particularly among people in mixed marriages, it is rare for people of one religious tradition to follow the practices of another. The Vatican is so anxious to reach out in friendship to Muslims that it is massively overstating its case. That’s not to say that most Christians have a negative view of Ramadan. They just aren’t thinking about it at all.
The Vatican message, however, goes on to assert that during Ramadan, “existing friendships are reinforced and others are built, paving the way for more peaceful, harmonious and joyful coexistence. This corresponds to the divine will for our communities, and indeed for all the members and communities of the one human family.” Gee, that’s swell, but even Guixot and Kankanamalage seem to realize that it’s a bit pollyannish, as they go on to assure us that “we are aware, dear friends, that peaceful and friendly coexistence faces many challenges and threats: extremism, radicalism, polemics, disputes, and religiously motivated violence.”
You can say that again. In fact, much of that religiously motivated violence comes from people who are observing the month of Ramadan that the Vatican is busy celebrating. In April 2022, the Palestinian Authority’s Supreme Sharia Judge, Mahmoud Al-Habbash, declared that “Ramadan is not a month of laziness but rather a month of activity, of effort, and of hard work, and as it also was in the life of the Prophet, a month of jihad, conquest, and victory.” The jihad he had in mind was violence against unbelievers, not getting the kids to school on time, as a Muslim cleric in India, Maulana Bashir Ahmad Khaki, made clear in 2018: “Ramadan is the pious month of ‘Jihad-o-Qital’ (Jihad and killing). Those who attain martyrdom while waging Jihad, doors of heaven remain open.” In 2012, a jihad group in Bulgaria explained, “Ramadan is a month of holy war and death for Allah. It is a month for fighting the enemies of Allah and God’s messenger, the Jews and their American facilitators.” Or as the Vatican put it, “The threats are fueled by a culture of hate.”
The Vatican did not, however, explain exactly where that “culture of hate” was coming from. Instead, it pretended that both sides had an equal responsibility to seek peace: “We need, then, to find the most appropriate ways of countering and overcoming such a culture, enhancing instead, enhancing love and friendship, in particular between Muslims and Christians, due to the bonds that unite us.” Terrific. But did Guixot and Kankanamalage ever pause to ponder why such statements always and in every case come from the Christian side of the interreligious dialogue with Muslims, not from the Muslim side? Where are the Muslim leaders exhorting their coreligionists to reach out to Christians and other non-Muslims in friendship, and to reject the understanding of Ramadan that includes violence?
The Vatican’s naïve and willfully ignorant Ramadan message only highlights the fact that in this as in virtually all other cases, the friendly outreach to other religious traditions is decidedly one-sided.