Throughout the Advent season we Christians ponder the mystery of God’s great love for us which became so evident nearly two thousand years ago through the Incarnation of His Son, Jesus Christ. Every Christmas gift we purchase is hopefully a message of love, first shared by God in the gift of His Son which we now extend to precious others. But love is not a word unique to Christians. Two months ago a group of Muslim religious leaders reminded the world that they too embrace love as a common word and sentiment for all of us.
On the occasion of the Eid al-Fitr al-Mubarak 1428 A.H./October 13, 2007, 138 Muslim leaders and teachers from all over the world sent an open letter to Christian leaders, with Pope Benedict XVI heading the list. These Muslim signatories come from numerous countries of every continent. Their religious affiliations demonstrate a great variety. The letter was addressed to a host of leaders of different Christian churches, 28 of whom were named explicitly.
The document quotes the Qur’an and the sayings of Muhammad. Entitled “A Common Word Between Us and You,” the case is made for love of the One God and love of neighbor as fundamental principles for peace and mutual understanding. The document asserts that “Muslims, Christians and Jews should be free to follow what God commanded them.” The document is in no way polemical like the arguments and debates between Muslims and Christians from time immemorial. But it serves as a response to the urgent need for a united voice from Muslims concerning the essentials of their faith in an effort to counteract voices of extremists and those who preach violence and hatred.
During our bishops’ meeting in Baltimore last month, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, our Apostolic Nuncio, led a group of bishops at a workshop focused specifically on this open letter and call from the Muslim religious leaders. He felt that this document was particularly important because it is in many ways the first widely represented theological response by Muslims to Christian invitations to dialogue at the end of the Second Vatican Council back in 1965. The Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, describes the document as indicative of the relationship for which we yearn in all parts of the world. Bishop Mark Hanson, whom I came to know in Minnesota and now serving as President of the Lutheran World Federation, encouraged reading the many beautiful passages in the document and studying the vision of fidelity and fellowship.
Cardinal Angelo Scola, Patriarch of Venice, sees the document as an encouraging sign. He regards it not simply as a media event because it represents the consensus on the part of a host of significant Muslim leaders. For Islam, consensus is a source of theology and law since there is no central authority such as we have in the Bishop of Rome. The core message of the document is quite realistic, namely, “If Muslims and Christians are not at peace, the world cannot be at peace.” The authors go out of their way to make it clear to Christians that as Muslims they are not against us nor is Islam against us – so long as we do not wage war against Muslims on account of their religion.
The letter takes up the great themes of love of God and love of neighbor. It shows how Jewish, Christian and Muslim Scriptures teach “complete and total devotion to God.” We Christians often assert that our love of God is meaningless without generous love of our neighbor. The Muslim teachers point out that in their Qur’an they are instructed “without giving the neighbor what we ourselves love, we do not truly love God or the neighbor.” All of this resonates very well with the first encyclical letter of Pope Benedict XVI, “God is Love.”
The letter also offers two compelling reasons why we Christians and Muslims should work together. First of all with the terrible weaponry of the modern world, with Muslims and Christians intertwined everywhere as never before, no side is able to win a conflict unilaterally when more than half of the world’s inhabitants are involved. Our common future is clearly at stake. But the more serious reminder comes when the Muslim teachers assert that “our very eternal souls are also at stake if we fail to sincerely make every effort to make peace and come together in harmony.” These assertions are compelling enough to encourage broad dialogue between peoples of all faiths, races and cultures in an effort to take up the challenges and the hopes expressed in this important “Common Word.”
Countless responses have come forth from a host of Christian leaders, one of whom is Cardinal Jean Louis Tauran, President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, with offices at the Vatican. The Cardinal reminded us that Pope Benedict XVI has already asserted that dialogue with Islam is not an option. It is a vital necessity upon which our very future depends. But certainly parameters which avoid religious syncretism must be avoided. The success of any dialogue requires that participants be solidly grounded in their own faith. Christians need to show clearly in whom we believe, Jesus Christ. He pointed out that the themes for reflection with non-Christian religions necessarily include the sacred character of life and the cultivation of fundamental values, for example, the family and the place of religion in education.
The Cardinal went on to assert that “the situation of Christians living in Muslim-majority countries is very different depending on the physiognomy of the country. The Christian living in Indonesia is not in the same situation as the one living in Morocco and Lebanon. There are different ways of incarnating Islam, and we should have this diversity in mind in our dialogue.” Furthermore the Cardinal also addressed the problem which results when Muslims are permitted to build mosques in Europe while many Islamic states limit or ban church building. In his own words, “In a dialogue among believers, it is fundamental to say what is good for one is good for the other.”
Even though the “Common Word” letter was widely regarded as a hopeful sign, particularly among those of us who are eager to promote whatever it takes to lead our people along the road to world peace, some express their reservations. One distinguished scholar of Islamic studies wondered whether the conflicts and oppressions in today’s world really could be reduced if Muslims and Christians understood each other’s theologies a little better. In the real world of society and politics, concerns about religious freedom, the reality of terrorism, Christianity’s amnesia about its own violent history, the rise of fundamentalism in Christianity and other related matters raise questions in some quarters about whether or not this can be a landmark document through which we will have a greater understanding of peace.
The document is indeed only the prelude to serious theological dialogue. But, like the hopeful message of our own Scriptures proclaimed in our churches during these Advent days, this open letter and call from Muslim religious leaders clearly strengthen our hope and renew our conviction to work and pray for peace, not only at Christmas, but every day. The two-fold law of love, proclaimed by Christians and Muslims alike, provides us with a sound basis for peace and conflict resolution in today’s world. May the Prince of Peace whose coming we celebrate this month be with us all as we work and pray for peace.