Catholic reaction to letter from 138 Muslims positive, but wary

New York

One week after 138 Muslim leaders issued an open letter to Pope Benedict XVI and other Christian figures urging the two faiths “to come to a common word between us,” reactions from the Catholic side seem largely positive, if still uncertain about the long-term significance of the initiative.

Released Oct. 11 in various parts of the world, the letter argued that world peace depends upon co-existence among Christians and Muslims, who together represent 55 percent of humanity. It argued that a basis for that co-existence can be found in the common commitment in both Christianity and Islam to love of God and love of neighbor.

To date Benedict XVI has not commented on the letter, though he may do so on Sunday when he travels to Naples to attend an annual international inter-religious meeting organized by the Community of Sant’Egidio. The pope is scheduled to say Mass in Naples’ main piazza, then have lunch with some 200 religious leaders, including the Anglican archbishop of Canterbury, the Orthodox patriarch of Constantinople, the chief rabbi of Israel and the Muslim rector of Al-Azhar University in Egypt.

While Benedict will not take part in inter-religious prayer, the Naples trip presents an obvious opportunity to build upon the initiative of the 138 Muslim leaders.

In the meantime, the Vatican’s lone official comment has come from French Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. Speaking on Vatican Radio, Tauran called the letter “very interesting,” because it “comes from both Sunni Muslims and Shia Muslims.”

“I would say that this represents a very encouraging sign because it shows that good will and dialogue are capable of overcoming prejudices,” Tauran said.

Perhaps the most extensive reflection to date comes from Jesuit Fr. Samir Khalil Samir, an Egyptian and one of Catholicism’s most influential experts on Islam. Samir is frequently critical of Islamic extremism, and a fierce advocate for Christians in majority Muslim states. Writing for the Asia News service yesterday, Samir was fundamentally positive about the letter.

Among the points Samir makes:

•tThe letter is representative of a broad cross-section of influential Muslim leaders, including not just Sunis and Shi’ites, but also smaller groups such as Sufis, Ismailites, Jafaarites, and Ribadites;
•tThe letter is addressed to all the proper Christian authorities, laid out in a sequence that parallels the historical development of Christianity, suggesting that “behind this letter is someone who knows and understands Christianity and the history of the church”;
•tThe letter was sponsored by the Aal al-Bayt Foundation in Jordan led by Prince Hassan, whom Samir said “represents the best of Islam today, from the point of view of reflection, openness and devotion.” Among other things, Samir, observes, Prince Hassan married a Hindu and did not force her to convert, which is unusual in modern Islam despite the fact that such a requirement is not part of the Qur’an;
•tThe letter does not depend upon any particular view of the status of Muhammad, but instead focuses on God and neighbor;
•tThe text uses a Christian vocabulary, signaling a clear desire for dialogue. For example, Samir writes, the term “neighbor” is not used in the Qur’an in anything other than a geographic sense. Likewise, the Qur’an does not refer to the “love” of God so much as “obedience” or “adoration”;
•tSamir underscores the importance of the letter’s fundamental argument, that love of God and neighbor represents the common core of the two faiths: “This is the real novelty, which has never before been said by the Islamic world,” he writes;
•tThe letter takes for granted that the Christian Bible is the Word of God, something theoretically affirmed by the Qur’an but in practice often contested by Muslims. In particular, the authors cite St. Paul, even though many Muslims view Paul as a traitor who corrupted the original “Islamic” message of Jesus. (Samir notes that one popular anti-Christian work in the Muslim world is titled precisely, “Unmasking Paul!”);
•tThe letter cites a Qur’anic verse to the effect that God could have commanded everyone to belong to one religion, but instead he has permitted diversity, so that followers of different creeds may “vie with one another in good works.” Samir notes that this is the penultimate verse in the Qur’an in chronological order, so that it cannot be understood as abrogated. He calls it “a beautiful choice for ending the letter”;
•tThe normal pattern in Christian/Muslim dialogue, Samir says, has been for Christians to take the first step. It’s a welcome development to see Muslims doing it, he says: “We can hope there will be a reply to this letter, which is the result of an immense effort by the Muslim part.”

At the same time, Samir is not entirely uncritical. He argues, for example, that the decision of the authors to base their argument entirely on the Bible and the Qur’an may help Christians and Muslims come to terms, but it leaves most everyone else out of view. Eventually, he says, Christians and Muslims will have to seek a more “universal” basis for dialogue, along the lines of Pope Benedict XVI’s invitation to reconsider natural law.

Second, he challenges an aside in the letter to the effect that Muslims do not see Christians as enemies, “so long as they do not wage war against Muslims on account of their religion, oppress them and drive them out of their homes.”

If that’s a reference to the American-led war in Iraq, Samir says, it amounts to a dangerous confusion between politics and religion, since the Americans are not present in the Middle East, he argues, as a Christian army.

“Muslims tend to see the West as a Christian power, without ever realizing the point to which the West has been secularized and [is] far from Christian ethics,” he writes.

Finally, Samir said, it remains an open question “what weight the letter will bring to bear in the Muslim world, considering that priests continue to be kidnapped, apostates persecuted, and Christians oppressed.”

Another fundamentally positive reaction has come from Cardinal Angelo Scola of Venice, an influential figure internationally who has taken up the challenge of dialogue with Islam through a journal and foundation he’s created called “Oasis.”

Speaking to the Italian newspaper Il Foglio, Scola said that the letter is “certainly an encouraging sign.” No document produced by Islamic militants, he said, has ever enjoyed the broad consensus of Muslim leaders who stand behind this text.

“Rooting [the letter] in Islamic tradition is very important, and it makes the text more credible than others that have been proclaimed using a more Western language,” Scola said.

While the letter is no more than a “prelude to theological dialogue,” Scola said, it nevertheless reflects the climate of respect necessary for any dialogue to take place.

“When I was in Cairo and the United States,” Scola said, “I met three signatories to the document: Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Ahmad Al-Tayyeb, and Muzammil H. Siddiqui. I could see for myself that this respect is real.”

Scola said the letter underscores that “taking up the problem of co-existence of the different faiths cannot be delayed.”

One other development in recent days also may point to new horizons for Christian/Muslim relations. Meeting in Sierra Leone on Oct. 16, the Catholic bishops of West Africa declared their commitment to seek improved ties to Muslims. Specifically, the bishops called for collaboration on a host of social and political challenges: “the fight against corruption, unemployment, crime, protection of the environment and the provision of social services, especially for the poor.”

The Association of Episcopal Conferences of Anglophone West Africa includes Nigeria, which has the largest population of Christians and Muslims living side-by-side anywhere in the world. The relationship between the two communities has often been tense. Controversies over shariah in several northern Nigerian states, for example, triggered violence that left an estimated 10,000 people dead in 2000-2001.

In that light, the bishops’ declaration may represent a new chapter in relations in Africa, the continent where both Christianity and Islam are posting their most rapid gains.

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