Sign of Hope: The Deepening Christian-Muslim Dialogue
Each year, the Advent and Christmas seasons, along with the beginning of a new year, are marked by the motifs of hope and renewal. Where are the signs of hope at this time that there is movement and progress towards God’s dream for the human family?
One clear sign is an emerging spirit of dialogue among the world’s two largest religions, Christianity and Islam, who together make up well over half of the world's population. Without peace and justice between these two religious communities, there can be no meaningful peace in the world.
In October 2007, in A Common Word Between Us and You, 138 Muslim scholars, clerics and intellectuals unanimously came together for the first time since the days of the Prophet Mohammed to declare the common ground between Christianity and Islam. The signatories to this message came from every denomination and school of thought in Islam. Every major Islamic country or region in the world is represented in this message, which is addressed to the leaders of all the world's churches and to all Christians everywhere.
The main message of their text is that the most fundamental common ground between Islam and Christianity, and the best basis for future dialogue and understanding, is the love of God and the love of the neighbor.
Never before have Muslims delivered this kind of definitive consensus statement on Christianity. The signatories have adopted the position of respecting the Christian scripture and calling Christians to be more, not less, faithful to it.
A Common Word Between Us not only gave a starting point for cooperation, but did so on the most solid theological ground possible: the commandments described by Jesus Christ in the Bible, and the teachings of the Qu'ran and the Prophet. Despite their differences, Islam and Christianity not only share the same Divine Origin and the same Abrahamic heritage, but the same two greatest commandments.
A Ecumenical Forum for Christian Reflection
In response to "A Common Word," the World Council of Churches launched a process. It organized a consultation with representatives from a number of Christian World Communions, the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) and the Roman Catholic Church, aimed at developing an ecumenical Christian theological understanding of dialogue with Islam.
The goal of the consultation, which took place 18-20 October 2008 in Switzerland, was to provide a space for churches and communions of churches to share their initiatives and theological resources for engaging with Muslims, and to identify substantial issues for Christian theology in relation to Christian-Muslim dialogue.
Participants agreed: Christianity teaches to love the neighbor regardless of race, gender or religion. Even more, they said, Christian self-understanding is challenged and deepened through relationships with Muslims, while Christians themselves are renewed by entering into dialogue with them.
The consultation identified a number of issues to be addressed in further dialogue with Muslims, among others: human rights, conversion, concepts of secularism, pluralism, and citizenship, as well as the use of religious symbols for political ideologies and religiously motivated violence. Participants also recommended further Christian-Muslim collaboration on issues such as social and economic justice, climate change, peace and healing of memories.
The Catholic – Muslim Forum
Two weeks later the Catholic-Muslim Forum, formed by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and a delegation from the 138 Muslim signatories of A Common Word, held its first Seminar in Rome November 4-6. Twenty-four participants and five advisors from each religion took part in the meeting. The theme of the Seminar was "Love of God, Love of Neighbor".
At the end of the meeting, the Forum issued a Final Declaration with 15 points that spell out some of the practical implications of the common ground theme: “Genuine love of neighbor implies respect of the person and her or his choices in matters of conscience and religion. It includes the right of individuals and communities to practice their religion in private and public."
Another point said “Human life is a most precious gift of God to each person. It should therefore be preserved and honored in all its stages.”
Towards the end of the Declaration, participants said “We profess that Catholics and Muslims are called to be instruments of love and harmony among believers, and for humanity as a whole, renouncing any oppression, aggressive violence and terrorism, especially that committed in the name of religion, and upholding the principle of justice for all.”
They agreed to explore the possibility of establishing a permanent Catholic-Muslim committee to coordinate responses to conflicts and other emergency situations and of organizing a second seminar in a Muslim-majority country yet to be determined.
Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and the World Islamic Call Society
Then, the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and the World Islamic Call Society (WICS) met in Rome from 15-17 December and agreed on the following:
1) The first and most important responsibility of religious leaders is one of a religious nature, according to their respective religious traditions, to faithfully fulfill them through teaching, good deeds and example, and thus serve their communities for the glory of God.
2) Considering the role religions can and should have in society, religious leaders also have a cultural and social role to play in promoting fundamental ethical values, such as justice, solidarity, peace, social harmony and the common good of society as a whole, especially the needy, the weak, migrants and the oppressed.
3) Religious leaders have a special responsibility towards youth, who require particular attention so that they do not fall victim to religious fanaticism and radicalism, receiving rather, a sound education thereby helping them to become bridge builders and peace makers.
4) Taking into consideration that crises of diverse nature, including in interreligious relations, are possible, on a national or international level, religious leaders should learn to prevent, cope with and remedy these particular situations, avoiding their degeneration into confessional violence. This requires a mutual respect and reciprocal knowledge, both cherishing personal relations and building confidence and mutual trust, so as to be able to confront together crises when they occur.
As we begin a new year in both the liturgical and secular calendars, these events and common Declarations are signs of promise that the Spirit of God is at work in our world nudging us towards fulfillment of God’s hope for humanity.
Both the A Common Word letter, along with responses to it, and the Declaration can be read at www.acommonword.org
Thomas Ryan, CSP, directs the Paulist North American Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations in Washington, DC