A Historic Call And The Pope May Miss It

On Oct. 11, a historic letter was sent out to the world’s Christian community. The letter was signed by 138 leading Muslim scholars and academics across the world. Titled “A Common Word Between Us and You,” it was addressed to Christian leaders of various denominations including Pope Benedict XVI, Greek Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I, Archbishop of Canterbury Dr. Rowan Williams, Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and President of the Lutheran World Federation Mark S. Hanson, World Methodist Council General Secretary Rev. George H. Freeman, Baptist World Alliance President Rev. David Coffey, World Alliance of Reformed Churches General Secretary Rev. Setri Nyomi and other Christian figures in leadership positions. The letter was also addressed to all Christians of the world. The full text of the letter, the list of signatories, recipients, responses and media reports can be found on the official Web site www.acommonword.com

Making a universal call for peace and understanding between Muslims and Christians, the letter is centered on the two key beliefs of the Islamic and Christian traditions: love of God and love of one’s neighbor. While acknowledging that there are historical and theological differences between the two religions, the letter emphasizes the common grounds that unite rather than divide Muslims and Christians. In an unprecedented way, the letter quotes both from the Bible and the Quran and reads like a call for a meeting of minds as well as hearts.

The Common Word letter is a major initiative to bring about a lasting peace between the Islamic and Christian worlds. The signatories stress the fact that world peace is incumbent upon establishing peace between the two communities. The letter begins with the following statement: “Muslims and Christians together make up well over half of the world’s population. Without peace and justice between these two religious communities, there can be no meaningful peace in the world. The future of the world depends on peace between Muslims and Christians. The basis for this peace and understanding already exists. It is part of the very foundational principles of both faiths: love of the One God, and love of the neighbor. These principles are found over and over again in the sacred texts of Islam and Christianity. The Unity of God, the necessity of love for Him, and the necessity of love of the neighbor is thus the common ground between Islam and Christianity.”

This letter is an initiative of historic proportions. This is the first time that such a call has been made from the Muslim world. The letter has gathered 138 leading Muslim scholars, spiritual leaders, academics and intellectuals from practically every country of the Islamic world. In the language of classical Islamic scholarship, this is an ijma, a universal consensus of Muslim scholars.

The response to the letter so far has been overwhelming and extremely positive. A large number of leading Christian figures including Dr. Rowan Williams and Rev. Mark Henson have responded by issuing formal statements, inviting other Christian leaders and communities to join the call. The letter is likely to gather further momentum and lead to new initiatives.

The day on which the letter was made public is of particular significance. It was the first anniversary of the letter of 38 Muslims scholars sent to Pope Benedict XVI as a response to his Regensburg speech made on Oct. 13, 2006. The pope did not respond to that letter. There has been no response to the Common Word so far. The only statement by the Vatican was made by Cardinal Tauran in a radio interview.

Many Muslims see this no-response as a deliberate attempt to ignore the call of Muslims to open dialogue and peace. If the Vatican remains silent on this call, it will send an extremely negative message to the Muslim world. Unlike other Christian leaders, the pope is in the spotlight because of his religious position and because of his past statements about Islam and Muslims.

Apart from being a universal call to all Christians, the Common Word is an opportunity for the pope to make peace with Islam and Muslims. We shall see if he will seize this opportunity.