Working as a chaplain with the National Guard in Afghanistan in 2003, John Betlyon reached out to local mullahs, also known as Islamic clerics, who had negative views of Americans.
Betlyon, lecturer in Jewish and religious studies, said the meetings helped to build bridges between the two cultures, and he still describes the situation as “amazing.”
“They had heard all kinds of lies about us and we had heard things about them,” he said.
“We sat down together and shared meals and prayed together. Small steps were taken to break down the walls of prejudice and ignorance that divided us.”
A recent letter signed by 138 Muslim leaders from around the world and addressed to Christian leaders also aims to break down the barriers dividing the religions by underscoring two common principles they share: love of one God and love of one’s neighbor.
“Without peace and justice between these two religious communities, there can be no meaningful peace in the world,” the letter states.
These two principles are also common in Judaism, which the letter briefly mentions.
According to Newsweek, a letter from Muslim leaders to Jewish leaders is currently in progress.
Mansoor Aleidi, president of the Muslim Student Association, said it is important for people to understand the common beliefs the three religions share.
“[There is] conflict between religions in many areas of the world, so it is up to their religious leader to spread peace and dialogue between the religions, and the only way to do this is by interfaith dialogue,” he said.
Some Penn State professors agree this is a step forward to opening dialogue with Muslims.
Rabbi David Ostrich, lecturer of Jewish studies, said the three religions have a long history of interfaith relations.
“A lot of work and a lot of good progress has been made over the years, so they can learn to agree on some things, even though they may disagree on others,” he said.
A. Daniel Frankforter, professor of history at Penn State Erie, said the letter seeks to stress the common bonds of the world’s three major religions.
“What they’re trying to do is remind the world that Judaism, Christianity and Islam are branches of one tradition,” he said.
All three religions trace their ancestry back to Abraham, a figure who appears in the Quran, the Old Testament and the Tanach, the Hebrew Bible. Jews and Christians consider themselves descendants of Abraham through his son, Isaac, whereas Muslims trace their origins through Abraham’s other son, Ishmael, Betlyon said.
The three religions are considered monotheistic and worship the same God, although Betlyon said some Muslims would argue otherwise because of Christians’ belief in the Holy Trinity.
Despite this common heritage, Jews and Arabs fight each other today, Frankforter said.
“It is a little ironic that the Jews and Arabs have such a rocky relationship today,” Frankforter said. “It makes a lot of sense to try and heal the gulfs that have developed between these peoples by expressing their cultural heritage.”
Christians and Muslims continue to suffer strained relationships since the Crusades were fought starting in the late 11th century and continuing for several hundred years, Frankforter said.
“Most Europeans and Americans have shoved them into the background as history over and done with, but much of the history of the Crusades is still alive in the Middle East,” he said.
“In the Middle East, there is a long tradition of a hostile Europe, a hostile West, which is very much the background of the diplomatic and military problem we face in that region now.”
Betlyon recalled how the children in Afghanistan would run throughout the village without any shoes on in the winter.
In order to help, he said that he would help deliver boxes of clothes to the local mosque that would help people stay warm.
It was there that he said he learned of a conversation between a mullah and an Islamic elder.
“The elder asked the mullah, ‘why are you dealing with the Americans? They’re evil,’ ” Betylon said.
“The mullah responded, ‘no, they’re not evil; they’re children of God, just like us.’ “