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from issue no. 05 - 2007

PERSONAGES. The former President of the Republic of Iran speaks

Let there be charity and justice between us

The Ayatollah Seyyed Mohammad Khatami asked this of Pope Benedict during their meeting. «I have read the De civitate Dei… and I believe that no just man can lack great respect for Saint Augustine».

Interview with Seyyed Mohammad Khatami by Giovanni Cubeddu

Seyyed Mohammad Khatami with Giulio Andreotti during the meeting at the Gregorian University, 3 May 2007

Seyyed Mohammad Khatami with Giulio Andreotti during the meeting at the Gregorian University, 3 May 2007

An Ayatollah is, literally, a sign of God. For the Shiites, who also live in expectation of the second manifestation of their divine guide, the Mahdi (the twelfth imam), the Ayatollah is a safe harbour, a doctrinal authority who can legitimately and publicly offer his interpretation of the Koran. Furthermore, Ayatollah Khatami – former president of the Republic of Iran and, even before that, member of the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution and Minister of Culture and of Islamic Orientation of Iran – is universally considered a reformist in politics, that is a leader, who has tried, and still tries, to heal the fractures between Islamic faith and modernity. It is striking to listen to him while he associates Islam and Christianity as facing the problem of understanding what might be the residual place of faith in the world at this point. But his sincere admiration for Saint Augustine, witness to the happiness that lies in unity with God alone, is indeed surprising. Ayatollah Khatami is wont to discuss freely the evident contradictions of his country. Well before 11 September he promoted a more open world-wide debate and had the United Nations declare 2001 the «Year of dialogue between civilizations». And with 30Days he plainly emphasized that common roots are shared by Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and showed himself aware that the same treatment should be guaranteed to the Christian minorities in the Muslim world as that enjoyed by Muslims in the West.

Mr. President, on 4 May you met Pope Benedict for the first time. What can you tell us about this?
SEYYED MOHAMMAD KHATAMI: It was a very fruitful and very fine meeting, it lasted little less than an hour, much longer than planned. The topics of our conversation were numerous and very varied, starting from the fact that, on this earth, we can flank each other in order to try to resolve the problems of humanity. There are two fundamental truths from which problems arise in the world: the lack of charity and the lack of justice, and they are both held in great consideration both by Islam and by Christianity. Charity and justice, therefore, are the most important elements in the collaboration between Islam and Christianity. We must overcome all the misunderstandings there have been throughout history, and must not allow others to exploit them negatively.
So, with the Pope we discussed the situation in the Middle East region, the subject of Iranian nuclear energy, the issue of the Christian minorities in the Muslim countries and of Muslims in Christian societies – because Muslims, who are a minority in the Christian countries, must feel themselves protected in their civil rights, as the Christian minorities in the Muslim societies must enjoy the same rights as Muslim citizens.
We certainly discussed many things and I’m very glad about the meeting.
Benedict XVI with Seyyed Mohammad Khatami, 4 May 2007

Benedict XVI with Seyyed Mohammad Khatami, 4 May 2007

Of the misunderstandings between Islam and the Christian faith, which one, as you see it, is the greatest and the one most exploited by those who want to encourage the clash?
KHATAMI: I believe that the three religions of Abraham have numerous historical and cultural roots in common. In the course of history there have been various clashes, but I don’t believe that they were conflicts between religions, the motivations that triggered them were economic and political instead. Probably there are those who have profited from some existing difference between the faithful of the different religions, in such way as to create incorrect images of the other. But what is important is that we have common objectives and are exposed to the same threats. In fact today we must determine what the place of religion in the life of every person is and see what problems the disappearance of ethics and morals is causing in the world. This is a problem on which Islam and Christianity can establish good collaboration. Of course, in our two religions there are different precepts, liturgies and features, but they are however carefully observed in both of our faiths respectively. And so we must get through the surface and go into things. And going into things we may discover ourselves very close, and faced with a common enemy. It is therefore a fundamental duty of the religious leaders to give importance to this shared interest. I believe that the present is a good period in which to establish dialogue between Islam and Christianity. It is in dialogue alone that we can find harmony and empathy.
You have conducted advanced theological and philosophical studies. You also know that Pope Benedict has a particular love for Saint Augustine. Do you know the Doctor gratiae?
KHATAMI: I admire Saint Augustine. Saint Thomas Aquinas was also very great. But, if I had to set up a comparison between the two, I can say that Saint Augustine is much closer to Plato and the neo-Platonists, while Saint Thomas is close to Aristotle and Avicenna. And since I consider mysticism the spirit of religion, I see that the mystical aspect in Saint Augustine is much stronger, it is what prevails, and because of this he appeals to me. Of Augustine’s I have read De civitate Dei, whereas I have devoted more sporadic study to his other works. I believe that no just man can lack great respect for Saint Augustine. We know also that after Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas there have been new opinions and new directions, but respect for these two saints does not mean a lack of respect for the others. These two are the great patrimony of theology, and we must always lean on this patrimony, and we must also however live in the modern world and have modern thoughts.

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