In response to Pope Benedict XVI’s well publicised 2006 Regensburg address in which some mildly critical observations were offered in relation to Islam, 138 Muslim religious and political leaders at the end of Ramadan last year sent out a remarkable open letter, entitled A Common Word between Us and You. The letter was addressed to the Pope, 20 Orthodox Patriarchs and Leaders of all the main Protestant groupings. According to those knowledgeable, while some of the signatories are known for their moderation and peaceful intentions, others are Wahhabists, Deobandists and members of the Muslim brotherhood.
The following month, a rather enthusiastic response from 300, mainly Protestant, leaders both liberal and evangelical, took the form of a full page advertisement in The New York Times entitled “Loving God and Neighbour Together”.
A Common Word begins by stating that since Muslims and Christians account for more than half the world’s population, “the future of the world depends on peace between Muslims and Christians”. The letter then draws attention to what is said to be held in common between Christians and Muslims - the Unity of God and the necessity of love for Him and neighbour, all of which is supported by quotations drawn from the Koran and the Bible. These three matters are said to serve as the basis for their invitation to Christians “to come together with us on the basis of what is common to us”.
From the responses to date it is clear that, during the course of 2008 and beyond, there will be discussions between groups of Muslims and Christians. Thus the Vatican’s response has been to invite representatives of the 138 Muslim scholars to a meeting with the Pope but is otherwise subdued, noting as a fact that differences between Christians and Muslims cannot be “ignored or downplayed”.
This caution on the part of the Vatican is appropriate for it is quite clear that the Muslim’s explication of the Unity of God and the Koranic texts selected to illustrate the doctrine can be read as a classic example of Islamic mission (da’wa) - in this case addressed to the topmost echelons of the world wide Church of Jesus Christ!
In other words, the letter from the 138 Muslim scholars and leaders is an invitation to the Church’s leaders to become Muslims, and will be read as such by knowledgeable Muslims generally. No one should be in any doubt on this point, least of all those proposing to meet with these scholars. The lack of response of the Orthodox Patriarchs to A Common Word, because of the long and bitter experience of the Eastern Church living under militant Islam, rather underscores this understanding of the Muslims’ letter.
However, it is still good that Christian leaders should, with open eyes, accept the letter at face value, as a genuine call to dialogue with a view at the very least to reducing tensions between Christians and Muslims. This certainly is owed to those moderate Muslims who have signed A Common Word, and who are unlikely to press the call for submission.
In the second place, Christian leaders for their part, out of loyalty to Christ and His Church must make clear their own adherence to the far richer revelation of the triune God given through Scripture and in the person of our Lord Jesus Christ. To do otherwise would be a betrayal.
Then too, importantly, there will be opportunity to press issues such as the right of both Muslims and Christians anywhere to worship freely and to proselytise, even the right to proselytise persons of each other’s faith, the right of non Muslim minorities together with their religious institutions to share fully in an unhindered way, in the life of their respective nations as well as the right of persons to change their religion without fear of interference, persecution, or death at the hands of the State or other persons, including family members.
This is an issue of reciprocity since Muslims living in the West already enjoy these rights.
But how easy will such discussions be?
Quite apart from the issue of getting some uniformity of agreement from internally disparate groupings of Muslims and Christians, itself a major issue, the difficulties at the Muslim Christian divide are considerable.
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