By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Asserting that “the future of the world depends on peace between Muslims and Christians,” an ad-hoc group of 138 Muslim clerics and scholars from around the world have appealed to Pope Benedict XVI and 25 other Christian leaders “to make peace and to come together in harmony.”
The 28-page appeal was released on Thursday during news conferences in Dubai, London, and the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.
The missive comes on the one-year anniversary of a similar letter addressed to Benedict XVI by 38 Muslim scholars, that one drafted in the wake of his controversial Sept. 12, 2006, lecture at the University of Regensburg, which fired Islamic protest by quoting a 14th century Byzantine emperor to the effect that Muhammad brought “things only evil and inhuman,” such as “his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”
This time around, the Muslim leaders said they wanted to issue a letter that would not be merely "reactive," but rather one that would initiate something.
John Esposito, director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, described the letter as an “historic event,” saying that "this is really the first time in history that we’ve had an initiative in which Muslims have collectively come together and agree to what binds them theologically to Christians."
The document argues that the twin commands of love of God and love of neighbor are shared by the two traditions.
“Whilst Islam and Christianity are obviously different religions – and whilst there is no minimizing some of their formal differences – it is clear that the Two Greatest Commandments are an area of common ground and a link between the Qur’an, the Torah and the New Testament,” it says.
On that basis, the Muslim leaders say, there is no necessary antagonism between the two traditions.
“As Muslims, we say to Christians that we are not against them and that Islam is not against them – so long as they do not wage war against Muslims on account of their religion, oppress them and drive them out of their homes,” the document says, referring to a passage in the Qur’an.
The Muslim leaders argue that the sheer size of the two faiths makes cooperation essential.
“Christianity and Islam are the largest and second largest religions in the world and in history,” the letter says. “Christians and Muslims reportedly make up over a third and a fifth of humanity respectively. Together they make up more than 55 percent of the world’s population, making the relationship between these two religious communities the most important factor in contributing to meaningful peace around the world.”
“If Muslims and Christians are not at peace, the world cannot be at peace. With the terrible weaponry of the modern world; with Muslims and Christians intertwined everywhere as never before, no side can unilaterally win a conflict between more than half the world’s inhabitants. Thus our common future is at stake. The very survival of the world itself is perhaps at stake.”
The Muslim authors also reject violence in the name of religion.
“To those who nevertheless relish conflict and destruction for their own sake, or reckon that ultimately they stand to gain through them, we say that our very eternal souls are also at stake if we fail to sincerely make every effort to make peace and to come together in harmony,” the letter reads.
While the Vatican has not yet issued an official reaction, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, who is also among the Christian leaders to whom the letter is addressed, welcomed the initiative.
The world’s top Anglican called it “indicative of the kind of relationship for which we yearn in all parts of the world, and especially where Muslims and Christians live together. It is particularly important in underlining the need for respect towards minorities in contexts where either Islam or Christianity is the majority presence.”
“I shall endeavor in this country and internationally to do my part in working for the righteousness which this letter proclaims as our common goal,” Williams said in an Oct. 11 statement.