Muslim Scholars Send Christmas Greetings, Accept Dialogue Invitation

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — An international group of Muslim scholars has accepted an invitation from Pope Benedict XVI for a major dialogue session at the Vatican.

Meanwhile, the group has issued a message of Christmas greeting to “our Christian neighbors all over the world.”

A letter from Jordan’s Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad bin Talal, architect of the Muslim scholars’ project, said the group planned to send representatives to the Vatican in February or March to work out details of the dialogue.

The letter, dated Dec. 12 and addressed to Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Vatican secretary of state, thanked the pope for inviting the Muslim experts to meet with him and for the pontiff’s personal encouragement of the dialogue initiative.

The letter also raised a delicate issue when it spoke of “some recent pronouncement emerging from the Vatican and from Vatican advisers … as regards the very principle of theological dialogue with Muslims.”

Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, the new president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, said in October that he was not sure theological dialogue was possible with Muslims. That view also has been voiced by some other Catholics experts.

The prince’s letter said that although the Muslim scholars think that complete theological agreement between Christians and Muslims is impossible by definition, they do wish to seek a common stand based on areas of agreement — “whether we wish to call this kind of dialogue ‘theological’ or ‘spiritual’ or something else.”

The Muslim response was the latest in a series of cooperative steps that began in October, when 138 Muslim scholars addressed a letter to the pope and other Christian leaders. The letter called for new efforts at Christian-Muslim dialogue based on the shared belief in the existence of one God, in God’s love for humanity and in people’s obligation to love one another.

In November, the pope responded by inviting a group of the Muslim scholars to meet with him and with the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. The Vatican expressed the pope’s appreciation for the “positive spirit” of the Muslim text.

Talal, president of the Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought in Amman, said in his latest letter that the Muslim scholars foresee a dialogue with two dimensions.

The intrinsic dimension refers to “our own souls,” he said, and would be based on the shared affirmation of one God and the twofold commandment to love him and one’s neighbor.

An extrinsic dimension, more connected to the world and society, would use the pope’s “excellent idea” of the Ten Commandments as the basis of dialogue among Jews, Christians and Muslims, he said.

On this basis, the prince said, the Muslim scholars would approach the three specific areas of dialogue mentioned by the Vatican: respect for human dignity, objective knowledge about the religion of other believers, and promotion of mutual respect among younger generations of Christians and Muslims.

Talal’s letter said the Muslim scholars’ motive for dialogue is essentially “wanting to seek good will and justice” in order to practice what Muslims call “rahmah” and what Christians call “caritas” — love and mercy.

The message of Christmas greetings began by citing the Quran: “Peace be upon Jesus Christ who says: Peace is upon me the day I was born, the day I die, and the day I am resurrected.” Then it thanked Christians for the “beautiful and gracious responses” to the Muslims’ dialogue initiative.

The message noted the recent close of the Muslim feast of the hajj or pilgrimage, which commemorates the faith of the Prophet Abraham. It said God’s refusal of the sacrifice of Abraham’s son reminds all followers of the Abrahamic faiths to “do their utmost to save, uphold and treasure every single human life and especially the lives of every single child.”

It pointed out that Muslim scholars recently issued a declaration affirming “the sanctity of human life — of every human life — as an essential and foundational teaching in Islam that all Muslim scholars are in unanimous agreement upon.”

The Christmas greeting offered a prayer that the new year may bring “healing and peace to our suffering world” and “mutual forgiveness within and between communities.”