Muslims Further Interfaith Dialogue

More than 130 Muslim scholars and religious leaders will issue a Christmas message of thanks and greetings to the Christian world this weekend as part of a growing movement to strengthen mainstream Islam against violent extremism and to promote inter-faith dialogue.

The message, hailed as unique and historic by theologians on both sides, follows a letter by the same group to Pope Benedict XVI, accepting his invitation to the Vatican and proposing outlines of an agenda focusing on theological, social and moral issues.

Stressing the sanctity of every individual life and calling for healing and peace in a suffering world, the 138 signatories ask for repentance before God and forgiveness between communities.

“Mainstream Islam has regained its voice once again,” said Aref Ali Nayed, one of the signatories and co-ordinators. “Some minority voices, because of their extreme and violent nature, managed to capture media attention. This has resulted in a very skewed and distorted picture of Islam.”

He said individual Muslim thinkers had greeted their Christian counterparts at Christmas throughout history. “However, this is the first time a large group of Muslim scholars from across the schools greet their Christian neighbours,” he added.

The Muslim world’s internal struggle was highlighted this month when Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s number two, accused King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia of insulting Islam by becoming the first custodian of its two holiest sites to meet the Pope. Some Islamist websites say it is forbidden for Muslims to send a Christmas greeting to a Christian.

The Christmas letter, to be published on Sunday, thanks the prominent Christians who responded positively to the group’s first letter – published on October 11 – calling for dialogue with the Christian world. That letter, entitled “A Common Word”, gave warning of those who “relish conflict and destruction”. It said: “The very survival of the world itself is perhaps at stake.”

The 138 include senior figures from across the Muslim world. The grand muftis of Egypt, Russia, Bosnia and Kosovo, two ayatollahs from Iran, and European and US scholars have signed. The October appeal for dialogue was welcomed by Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and other leading Christian figures, culminating in a letter bearing 300 signatures and published in the New York Times on November 18.

Miroslav Volf, a Yale University theologian involved in this letter, welcomed the Christmas message, saying it was important that the historic initiative of the Muslim intellectuals “contains every affirmation of sanctity of every single human life”.

The Pope replied to “A Common Word” in late November, expressing “deep appreciation” and inviting representatives of the 138 to the Vatican.

He has expressed regret since his speech in 2006 in which he deeply offended Muslims by quoting a 14th century Byzantine emperor saying the Prophet Mohammed brought “things only evil and inhuman”, such as “his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached”.

However, the time he took in answering the October message, and the framework he offered for dialogue – with an emphasis on social rather than theological issues – raised concerns.

Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad of Jordan, chairman of the Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought, diplomatically addressed those concerns in his recent reply.

Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, head of the pope’s council for inter-religious dialogue, told the Financial Times last night that events were moving positively and that a preparatory meeting would take place in the spring. But it was too early to talk of an agenda.

Prof Nayed, who has taught at the Vatican’s Gregorian University, says he has “lamented the negativity being fed into the Pope’s perspective on Islam by some of his closest advisers. This negativity is very dangerous and leads the Vatican to make some truly dangerous mistakes”.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007