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Religion and Society

The Christians of Arabia Wonder about the Open Letter

There is no doubt that the "Open Letter and Call from Muslim Religious Leaders" on the occasion of the Eid al-Fitr (October 13th, 2007) must be seen as an historic event. Such a letter or message addressed to all important Christian leaders is without precedent. The 138 signatures of Muslims from almost all over the world are remarkable. As Cardinal Tauran mentioned, it is also the first time that such a document quotes not only the Qur'an or some non-canonical Christian sources, e.g. the Gospel of Barnabas, but the canonically recognized Bible.

 

Muslims invite Christians to a common word on the basis of the two commandments in both religions: the love of God as the first commandment, and the love of neighbour. These two commandments are presented as common ground, found in the Qur'an as well as in the Bible. They should therefore be able to give a mutual basis for the two religions in resolving the most urgent problem and to avoid the "clash" of the two religions with disastrous results for the whole world.

 

There are surely more competent people than I to present an analysis of the text. I refer as examples to Fr. Christian W. Troll, SJ or Fr. Samir Khalil Samir, SJ among many other Christian scholars specialized in Islam. First of all, I should like to express my gratitude to the authors for the letter. Here are Muslims offering a hand that we should take. I think that the "Open Letter" should not be left without a positive answer from the Christian side, although there are many open questions. Every effort to draw closer to a common understanding is welcome, even though it might be a very tiny beginning. Of course, there has to be further clarification about whether "the love of God" and the "love of neighbour" have the same meaning in both religions. Another crucial point might be that Christians cannot simply see Jesus Christ as one among other prophets, but profess him in his divinity as the living Son of God within the belief in One God in three Persons. However, the open letter can be a first important step in discovering a common ground that will later allow also a common word. Will this word also be a clear one, and not only a common one?

 

Living day after day in a Muslim country and being the bishop for the Catholics in six countries of the Arabian Peninsula, including Saudi Arabia, I am particularly happy about the conciliatory language, which reveals the good intention of the authors. Looking at some of the signatories, the question might be raised of whether some of their earlier statements and publications can be interpreted or revised in the light of this letter, or whether its credibility should suffer because of their earlier statements. I am more than happy if the first of these two presumptions is the right one. Actually, we cannot speak about the love of God and love of the neighbour without taking a clear position regarding the human dignity of each individual person and his or her right to live and to grow in freedom. Both religions have to look critically at their own history and each one of them has to come to a clear answer without buts and ifs regarding its concrete applications. For Christians, love goes beyond neighbour to include the enemy too, whether that person belongs to their own religion or not, because our "heavenly Father makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust" (Matthew 5:45). Under no circumstances, therefore, may God be claimed as the instigator of hatred of others and the consequent doing of evil to them, whoever they may be. I therefore fully share the statement of Aref Ali Nayed in his message of thanks for the Vatican's message for the end of Ramadan 2007: "We must all unite in condemning all cruelty against even a single soul of God's creatures, for that is equivalent to attacking all of humanity. We must unite in compassion against all cruelty, wherever it comes from, and whoever happens to practise it."

 

Regarding the love of God and the love of the neighbour, Jews and Christians have literally a common ground, which is explicitly mentioned in the letter of the 138 Muslims. Taking the content and the quotations of the Open Letter I am surprised that it is addressed to Christian leaders only and not also to the Jewish leaders. Is it not a missed opportunity? The lack is the more regrettable as the central importance of the Jews today is crucial because of the political situation in the Middle East, a question requiring an answer which may be found at least partially in the application of the two main commandments by all who are involved. A common word should therefore include also the Jews. Does not the Qur'an already address both Jews and Christians when it speaks about the "people of the book"?

 

It may take a long way and a long time to overcome fears and prejudices on both sides, as well as the wounds in the collective memory of each. After many difficulties the Catholic Church made an important step at the Second Vatican Council in expressing explicitly the respect for non-Christian religions, specifically Jews and Muslims, and in accepting the principle of religious freedom as the basis of a true following of God for the individual person. Both Christians and Muslims are called not only to accept, but also to create, the social and political conditions which allow the human person to follow God according to his or her conscience and to believe in freedom without the threat of violence, wherever it could originate. Is it not an authentic consequence of the two commandments of love? If we can agree about this we may also speak freely, respectfully, and without fear about the differences between our religions. May God, our heavenly Father, bless us and show us the right way!

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