Iftar, in case you missed hearing about it (hard to do these days), is the evening celebratory meal held after sunset during Ramadan, when Muslims fast during the daylight hours.
Hosting such meals seems to be all the rage these days - even (well especially if you believe the US 'he's a secret Muslim' conspiracy theorists) President Obama held one.
But frankly I just don't get it.
Worshippers of the one God?
Cardinal Pell's do included representatives of a number of different Churches - Eastern Rite Catholics and Orthodox, as well as representatives of the Jewish, Hindu and Muslim communities.
And the event as being in the name of friendship and tolerance. According to the website:
"Cardinal Pell said during the dinner that gatherings like this are really one of the fruits of tolerance that flourishes in Australian society and is a sign of respect for diversity.
He said all the belief traditions gathered at the dinner have a common respect for human life.
"We are all called to be instruments of peace and harmony among aggressors and those who practice terrorism although we worship the one God in different ways," Cardinal Pell said.
"We gather united in our plans for respect and friendship."
Whether or not we actually do worship the same God in different ways is a matter of some legitimate debate. Certainly in the case of the Hindus, I think that just isn't true.
Endorsement of false religion?
But leaving that issue aside, my problem with this.
Even if we recognise the existence of some elements of truth in their beliefs, even if we can form common cause on some issues, it is one thing to engage in acts of friendship, quite another to actually endorse and participate in the religious practices of another faith.
Now maybe I'm not understanding it properly, but as far as I can gather, the Iftar meal, with its rituals about what should be eaten and when, is a religious ritual. The fast is traditionally broken by eating three dates, in imitation of the Prophet Mohammed, and hosting others for the dinner apparently earns you special brownie points with Allah in the charity stakes (although presumably only if one is actually a Muslim). So by participating in an Iftar meal, surely one is participating in the practices of a false religion?
The attractiveness of fasting
Worse, it seems to me that the Cardinal is de facto actually promoting one of the more attractive elements of the Islamic religion to many, namely its demanding practices. Sociologists of religion have long pointed out that religions and churches that actually demand that their adherent adopt particular 'high demand' practices tend to be better at attracting converts and sustaining their membership.
It's a lesson the Catholic Church used to know and make use of, but finally abandoned altogether back in the 1960s when it dumped even the relatively minimalist practices of the three hour eucharistic fast, fish on Fridays, and fasting through Lent.
Does the eagerness of contemporary Christians to join themselves to Muslim fasting practices in part reflect a touch of nostalgia for the days when Christians still believed in the necessity of mortification of the body? Perhaps.
How do Muslims view these gestures?
I wonder too, how Muslims really view these gestures of non-Muslims hosting Iftar meals.
Do they really subscribe to the theory of mutual tolerance? Will they lobby on our behalf, for example, to allow Christians to build churches in the many Islamic countries that refuse to allow Christians to build churches at all, and even where they do, subject them to all sorts of restrictions and persecution? Will they refuse, in future, to accept large amounts of funding from 'intolerant' countries such as Saudi Arabia to promote their particular brand of Islam?
Or do Muslims see it rather as a chance to increase their profile and push back against any restrictions on Islamic practice alone, without any mutuality beyond those things they agree with us on?
As a sign of the weakness of Christians, who won't even stand up for their own faith?
Or perhaps even as part payment of the tax non-believers are supposed to pay Muslims?
And even they are genuinely committed to this very modern Western notion of tolerance, is the issue really primarily an issue for Christians or is it one for Muslims?
I know Muslims do host open days and such things at their Mosques, but assuming for the moment that the Ifar meal is not really a ritual, can one imagine a Muslim leader hosting an Easter Sunday meal for the Cardinal and allowing Christian prayers for grace before meals to be said?
Let's just say that as far as I know it hasn't happened yet!
Discrimination and intolerance?
I've no doubt that Muslims do experience some intolerance. Some of it is no doubt unfair.
Because there are genuine reasons why Christians tend not to be keen to see Muslim minorities growing in this and other countries, and that goes to their intolerance of our customs and practices, their importation of attitudes to women in particular that many do not want to see given any tolerance to whatsoever.
It goes to the failure of most Australian Islamic communities to condemn terrorism; indeed quite the contrary, a number of mosques seem to have been positive promoters of it.
And it is a religion that has been promoting itself over the last year by claiming Our Lord as one of its prophets through giant billboards!
I'm sorry, I just don't get the reasons for the Cardinal's gesture. But no doubt someone in the inter-faith relations mafia can explain to me why we should be implicitly promoting and endorsing another religion rather than actually attempting to convert its adherents to the true one...