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HOLY SEE
from issue no. 10 - 2006

Diplomacy between the cross and the crescent


Almost all the Islamic countries have an apostolic nuncio already. Ten Muslim States, however, are missing from the list. For the moment


by Gianni Cardinale



The Cardinal Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone, in his presentation of the lecture given by Benedict XVI at the University of Regensburg that we publish in this issue, points out that to improve relations between the Catholic Church and the Islamic world «the Holy See proposes to make the most of the apostolic Nunciatures to the countries with Islamic majorities, to increase knowledge of, and if possible also the sharing of, the positions of the Holy See». But what is the current situation as regards diplomatic links between countries with Islamic majorities and the Apostolic See?
The Holy See started to have full diplomatic relations with Islamic States already toward the middle of the last century, during the pontificate of Pius XII. In 1947 it established diplomatic relations with Egypt and the Lebanon in fact. In 1950 it was the turn of Indonesia and the year after of Pakistan. In 1953 it was then the turn of Iran and Syria. During the brief pontificate of John XXIII diplomatic relations were established with Turkey in 1960 and with Senegal the following year. With Paul VI the number of Islamic countries with diplomatic relations with the Holy See increased remarkably. Both in Africa (Niger in 1971; Algeria, Tunisia, Sudan, Ivory Coast in 1972; Upper Volta – then Burkina Faso – in 1973; Nigeria and Morocco in 1976; Gambia in 1978); and in Asia (Iraq in 1966, Kuwait in 1969, Bangladesh in 1973). During the pontificate of John Paul II other Islamic countries set up diplomatic relations with the Apostolic See. In Europe: Albania in 1991 and Bosnia and Herzegovina the year after. In Africa: Mali in 1980, Guinea and Guinea-Bissau in 1986, Chad in 1988, Sierra Leone in 1996, Libya in 1997, Djibouti in 2000. In Asia: Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kirghizistan and Uzbekistan in 1992; Jordan in 1994; Tajikistan and Turkmenistan in 1996; Yemen in 1998; Bahrein in 2000; Qatar in 2002.
Browsing the list of the member countries of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) one can then see that out of the 57 nations belonging, 47 already have diplomatic relations with the Holy See (among them there are countries that in themselves do not have an Islamic majority – such Benin, Cameroon, Gabon, Guyana, Mozambique, Surinam, Togo and Uganda – but belong to the OIC for politico-economic reasons). In 24 countries out of 47 then the nuncio is resident, and that is in Albania, Algeria, Bangladesh, Benin, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Egypt, Gabon, Guinea, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Mozambique, Nigeria, Pakistan, Senegal, Syria, Sudan, Turkey and Uganda. Diplomatic relations of a singular kind exist between the Holy See and the PLO, which from 1995 appoints its own Director of Representation Bureau, a post currently vacant. There are plenary diplomatic relations instead with Bosnia and Herzegovina, a country that belongs to the OIC with the status of observer, and the Apostolic See, with the nuncio resident in Sarajevo. From 2000, then, the Holy See has a permanent observer at the Organization of the Arab League with offices in Cairo.
This is the current situation. From which one can see that there are still ten countries with an Islamic majority that don’t have diplomatic relations with the Holy See: Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Brunei, Comoros, United Arab Emirates, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Oman and Somalia. But the situation could be in for future development. One has to remember first of all that in five of these countries (Brunei, Comoros, Malaysia, Mauritania and Somalia, in this case formally) the Holy See has an apostolic delegate who already represents it with the local Church (even if not with the government). To this must then be added that each of these countries has its own features. In the past, for example, Afghanistan (where in 2002 a missio sui iuris was set up, run by a Barnabite priest) and Somalia (100 Catholics and the diocese of Mogadishu vacant now since 1990, when bishop Salvatore Colombo was killed) declared themselves willing to establish diplomatic relations with the Holy See, but the tangled local situations made a positive opening seem unlikely, at least in the short term. The prospects look better for some other countries, such as Oman and the United Arab Emirates, where there is a substantial presence of Catholic immigrants and there are good relations with the Apostolic Vicariate of Arabia already, whose offices are in Abu Dhabi, the capital city of the UAE. The situation is more static in Brunei (21,500 Catholics out of 347,000 inhabitants), where there has been an apostolic vicariate since 2004; in the Comoros (4,300 Catholics out of about a million inhabitants), that that has been an apostolic administration since 1957, run by a religious; in Mauritania (4,500 Catholics out of about three million inhabitants), where there is a single diocese currently led by a German White Father; in Malaysia (where the Catholics are 3.2%, 790,000 out of about 25 million inhabitants), that has two metropolitan archdioceses and six suffragan. The doors in Saudi Arabia remain closed, but where a certain – extremely discreet – pastoral activity is unofficially tolerated, and in the Maldive Islands, where instead any spiritual assistance is expressly forbidden even for the many Catholic tourists who go to pass their holidays in the archipelago.
At the end of this brief survey it may be useful to remember that the Holy See has stipulated a half dozen diplomatic agreements with Islamic States. In 1964 a Convention (modus vivendi) was in fact signed between the Apostolic See and the Republic of Tunisia. An exchange of letters between the King of the Morocco and John Paul II on the Status of the Catholic Church in the North African country dates back to the period 1983-1984. The Holy See then signed a couple of Conventions on specific matters with the Ivory Coast in 1989 and in 1992. An Agreement on bilateral relations was stipulated with Kazakhstan in 1998. A Basic Agreement with the PLO dates from 2002 and an Agreement on the regulation of reciprocal relations with Albania from 2002.


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