An Oct. 13 letter from 138 Muslim leaders to Pope Benedict XVI and other Christian leaders asking for dialogue got a warm but noncommittal response from the Vatican yesterday, while a similar missive from Protestants apologized for the Crusades.
The Vatican, in a letter dated Nov. 19 but posted yesterday on the Vatican Web site, affirmed the desires of both religions for peace. It then invited Jordanian Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad bin Talal to lead a delegation of Muslim leaders at an unspecified future interfaith meeting in Rome.
The Protestant response, called “Loving God and Neighbor Together,” was crafted by Yale Divinity School academics and signed by 300 evangelical and mainline Protestant theologians and a sprinkling of Catholics, but no Eastern Orthodox. It referred to Muhammad as a prophet and apologized for “sinning against our Muslim neighbors.”
“We want to begin by acknowledging that in the past (e.g. in the Crusades) and in the present (e.g. in excesses of the ‘war on terror’) many Christians have been guilty of sinning against our Muslim neighbors,” said the letter, printed Nov. 18 in a full-page New York Times ad.
“Before we ‘shake your hand’ in responding to your letter,” it continued, “we ask forgiveness of the All-Merciful One and of the Muslim community around the world.”
Two evangelical leaders said they signed the document under duress and were unhappy with its wording.
The Rev. Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), said there were lines in the Christian response “that were not quite what I would write.” In a Nov. 20 post on the NAE site (www.nae.net), he added, “I requested some changes although there were others I might have preferred.”
But other evangelical leaders “told me that signing the statement would be especially helpful to Christians who live and minister in Muslim-majority countries and cultures. In fact, some suggested that not signing could be damaging to these Christian brothers and sisters who live among Muslims.”
Imad Shehadeh, president of the Jordan Evangelical Theological Seminary in Amman, said he signed the letter “with hesitation only because the price of not signing the letter is more than the price of doing so.”
He added, “It is a step to show the love and humility of Christ in spite of our being extremely hurt by Muslims.” The Jordanian government has jailed and deported foreign students who, after taking classes there, converted from Islam to Christianity.
The Rev. Joseph Cumming, an Assemblies of God minister who directs the reconciliation program at the Yale Center for Faith and Culture, helped craft the Protestant letter. A missionary for 15 years in majority-Muslim Mauritania, he said many Muslims were not aware of Pope John Paul II’s apology for the Crusades in March 2000.
Nor did they know of a 1996-99 “reconciliation walk” from Cologne, Germany, to Jerusalem undertaken by 2,000 evangelical Protestants as a way of apologizing on the 900th anniversary of the Crusades.
“If you are a believer in Jesus, what do you do?” he asked. “Well, Jesus said to take the log out of your own eye first. We felt we should take the initiative, not waiting for Muslims to apologize for the things they’ve done wrong.”
Referring to comments about the Protestant letter on www.alarabiya.net and other sites, “Muslims have been deeply moved by the apology,” he continued, “and have said they need to apologize for wrong things they’ve done to the Christians and to the Jews.”