Thursday, January 24, 2008

A Common Word: A Bridge Between the Islamic and Christian World?

As stated earlier, on 13 October 2007, 138 Muslim leaders called for a dialogue between Muslim and Christian leaders. The open letter to the leaders of Christianity is known as “A Common Word Between Us and You". Some have criticized this proposal as not representing a broad enough spectrum of Islam or not representing the countries that are most identified with the War on Terror. However, a reading of the document disputes this. The signatory members represent universities, NGOs, nations, religious organizations and humanitarian organizations. The leaders in fact hail from around the globe and include members from:
Nigeria, Chad, Jordan, Morocco, the United States, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Tunisia, Azerbaijan, Sudan, Mauritania, France, Syria, Turkey, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Algeria,
Iran, Kuwait, Lebanon, Russia, Slovenia, Yemen, United Arab Emirates, Germany. Gambia, Malaysia , Pakistan, Egypt, Oman, Iraq, Canada, Switzerland, Brunei, United Kingdom, Croatia, Palestine, Belgium, Ukraine, Kosovo, Indonesia, India, Uzbekistan , and Syria.

The letter points out that half of the world’s population consists of members of these two world religions. The writers believe that without dialogue, without peace between these two faiths there cannot be peace in the world. They then identify the common ground on which to dialogue. This includes Love of God and Love for Your Neighbors. The writers point out that these two tenets of faith can be found over and over in the scriptures of both faiths.

Over 300 Christian leaders from around the world and from various denominations have responded positively to this initiative. On Nov. 19, 2007 the Vatican responded, stating, "Without ignoring or downplaying our differences as Christians and Muslims, we can and therefore should look to what unites us, namely the belief in one God.” A working meeting is scheduled between the Vatican and members of the open letter.

Those critical of the letter or at least pessimistic about its impact have elucidated a number of concerns. These include that a reading of the document makes it clear that the signatories view their faith more favorably than Christianity. However, when have leaders of faiths or denominations not viewed their faith or denomination as superior to others? If they do not hold this view why are they the leaders of that faith?

Another concern is the discrepancy between love of neighbor and the human rights violations and religious discriminations of Christians by Muslims in some Islamic nations. While this is a valid concern the counterpoint would be that Islamic citizens also are the target of hate crimes and discrimination in Christian nations. The call for dialogue is not to deny problems but to open up a forum to solve problems.

A reading of the blogosphere will reveal numerous articles that bring up the Muslim massacres of minorities over the centuries. There is no value in denying history. At the same time the counter point could easily be the religious wars of Europe, the Crusades or imperialism in the name of God. There is enough guilt for everyone. The signatories are asking to focus on the tenets of each faith and not the failings of each faith’s followers.

I remember citizens in Iran, Jordan and Egypt standing in solidarity with America after the attacks of September 11th. I remember Islamic scholars denouncing the terrorists and I remember Americans asking why Muslims weren’t standing up to terror! I did not understand how those responses could be ignored and I do not understand how this current offer to dialogue, to attempt to bridge differences can so easily be viewed as suspect.

Father Dan Madigan SJ, founder of the Institute for the Study of Religions at the Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome and member of the Vatican's Commission for Religious Relations with Muslims, points out that the Christian West distorts history when they point to Islam as the “greatest threat to mankind”. His arguments to the contrary include:
In the past 15 years millions of Christians have been killed in Africa by fellow Christians
A Catholic missionary is “dozens of times” more likely to be killed in Latin America than in the Muslim world
The 20th century witnessed the murder of millions of Jews by people who grew up in Christian nations

There is no doubt that we are living in a new age of martyrdom. The plight of Christian minorities throughout the world is a very real and serious concern. There is no doubt that many followers of Islam fear their faith is being threatened by the secular West. However, we might do better to respond not only as theologians and religious leaders to this call for dialogue. Perhaps we need to respond as the parents and brothers and sisters of those who have died, of the innocents. There has been too much suffering, too much killing and dying. The plight of Christians and Muslims just trying to live in the world, the death of our loved ones and the tenets of our faiths demand that we talk to one another, that we talk to our neighbors.

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