By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Speaking yesterday to a meeting of the College of Cardinals with Pope Benedict XVI, French Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, said that the Vatican will respond to a recent letter from 138 Muslim scholars to the pope and a cross-section of other Christian leaders.
Tauran mentioned the letter as well as the recent visit of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to Benedict XVI as positive developments in Catholic/Muslim dialogue. The Nov. 6 encounter between Benedict and Abdullah was the first meeting between a pope and a reigning Saudi monarch. (Abdullah met Pope John Paul II while he was still the Saudi crown prince.)
Addressed to Benedict XVI and 25 other Christian leaders, including the Patriarch of Constantinople and the Archbishop of Canterbury, the 28-page letter from Muslim scholars was released Oct. 11. Signatories include well-known figures from the Sunni, Shi’ite, Salafi and Sufi branches of Islam, representing more than 40 countries, including Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Egypt and Pakistan.
The document argues that the twin commands of love of God and love of neighbor provide common ground between 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 … a link between the Qur’an, the Torah and the New Testament,” it said.
On that basis, the Muslim leaders said, there is no necessary antagonism between the two faiths.
“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 initiative came on the one-year anniversary of a similar letter to Benedict XVI by 38 Muslim scholars after his Sept. 12, 2006, lecture at 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.”
John Esposito, director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, described the letter in early October as an “historic event,” saying it is the first time a cross-section of authoritative Islamic figures had issued a collective theological statement to Christians.
At the time, Tauran called the letter “an eloquent example of a dialogue among spiritualities” in comments to Vatican Radio.
“This represents a very encouraging sign, because it shows that good will and dialogue are capable of overcoming prejudices,” Tauran said.
At the same time, however, Tauran expressed caution about where such dialogue might lead.
Inter-religious dialogue can take place “with some religions,” he said in a mid-October interview with the French daily La Croix, “but with Islam, not at this time.”
“Muslims do not accept discussion about the Koran, because they say it was written under the dictates of God,” Tauran said. “With such an absolutist interpretation, it's difficult to discuss the contents of the faith.”