ROME (UCAN) — The Vatican on Nov. 29 released its much-awaited response to the letter of 138 Muslim scholars concerning the need for Christians and Muslims to come to a “common word” on essential matters of faith.
The Muslims’ letter of Oct. 13 stressed the centrality of the twin duties of love of God and love of neighbor as being at the heart of what the two religions are about.
The response of many Christian leaders was immediate and very positive. Archbishop Rowan Williams of Canterbury, head of the Anglican Communion, replied the same day he received a copy of the letter, addressed to Pope Benedict, the archbishop and other major Christian leaders by name as well as to all Christian leaders in general.
“There is much here to study and to build on. The letter’s understanding of the unity of God provides an opportunity for Christians and Muslims to explore together their distinctive understandings and the ways in which these mould and shape our lives,” the Anglican prelate wrote.
Similarly, Reverend Samuel Kobia, secretary general of the World Council of Churches, also praised the letter. “It is significant,” he said, “in that it is signed by such a large group of Muslim leaders and scholars from around the world, which makes it unprecedented. Such a rare unity of purpose gives a lot of hope as to what people of faith can achieve together.”
Among Catholics, some bishops including Cardinal George Pell of Sydney, Australia, and Cardinal Angelo Scola, patriarch of Venice, Italy, gave thoughtful and encouraging responses to the letter.
Nonetheless, Muslims were waiting with great interest to hear the response of Pope Benedict XVI. Apparently, the pope wanted to give thought and prayer to the letter before he drafted a reply.
That response has now come in a letter written by Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Vatican secretary of state, in the pope’s name. The letter was addressed to Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad bin Talal at the Royal Palace in Amman.
Cardinal Bertone wrote that Pope Benedict had personally asked him to express his gratitude for the letter and “also wishes to express his deep appreciation for this gesture, for the positive spirit which inspired the text and for the call for a common commitment to promoting peace in the world.”
The cardinal notes that the twin themes of love of God and neighbor highlighted by the Muslim scholars corresponds with the topic of the pope’s encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (God is love). The letter suggests that the common ground the Muslim scholars are calling for “allows us to base dialogue on effective respect for the dignity of every human person, on objective knowledge of the religion of the other, on the sharing of religious experience and, finally, on common commitment to promoting mutual respect and acceptance among the younger generation.”
The letter concludes with an invitation for Prince Ghazi and a group of other signatories chosen by the prince to visit the pope as a next step in dialogue. Pope Benedict also encourages further joint study of the common bases of Christian and Islamic faith by Muslim scholars and pontifical institutes in Rome.
Father Tom Michel, member of the Jesuits’ Indonesian province, was head of the Office for Islam of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue for 13 years, from 1981 to 1994. The office was formerly called the Secretariat for Non-Christians. Currently the Jesuits’ secretary for interreligious dialogue, he was for several years executive secretary of the Office of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences.