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Religion and Society

The Ways of Mission

A letter from Vienna

In 2001 I was a guest of the religious authorities of Iran. Amongst other things I gave a paper at the Islamic University 'Imam Sadiq' of Teheran. This was during the 'Year of Dialogue between Cultures', an initiative of the United Nations supported by President Khatami. I also took this subject of dialogue for my paper. I began with the most difficult question, which I would like to pose today, at the beginning of this small contribution of mine.


Can dialogue take place between missionary religions? Dialogue is often seen as the opposite of mission: either mission or dialogue. Now, both Christianity and Islam are missionary religions. The whole of history demonstrates this, their present does so, and above all so too does the history of their origins. Given that I am neither a politician nor a diplomat, I believe that I should address this subject, which is certainly one of the thorniest, but which belongs to the heart of the self-understanding of our respective religions.


In the Christian Bible, at the end of the Gospel According to St. Matthew, we find the universal missionary charge that Jesus, before his Ascension, gave to the Apostles and thus to Christians. Jesus said: 'All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing themteaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age' (Mt 28, 18-20).


And indeed from the outset Christians have tried to carried out this task that was entrusted to them by Jesus; they continue to do so today and if they were not to do it they would be unfaithful to the mandate of their founder.


But Islam also understands itself as a missionary religion: in the revelation of the Koran, Muslims maintain, is indicated the way that God has intended for all men. All men must know that way and thus must be able to decide for the true way. Indeed, Islam, too, from the first moment, has been missionary, and it is so today. And if it were not, it would betray itself.



How, therefore, can a dialogue between our religions grow? Will it not always be a strategic move with a view to a global mission? Will it not always be seen by the zealous representatives of both religions only as a 'soft solution' and thus despised? Will there not always be, amongst the most open representatives of our two religions, as well, the secret aspiration to convince others? Will this dialogue not always conceal the secret or explicitly declared hope that in the end men, or at least many of them, will recognise the beauty, the truth, and the goodness of one's own religion and thus will convert to Islam or to Christianity? Is it so amazing for us to assume that our religion represents the definitive revelation of the will of God in relation to men and thus has value for everyone?


Indeed, the question of mission plays an often unconfessed but decisive role, and it cannot be absent from this conference as well. How should we approach this delicate and essential question? Possibly in a realistic way. Because realism is a good basis for dialogue.



Neither Christianity nor Islam are monolithic. Christianity, like Islam, lives in a multiplicity of directions which at times have violently fought each other and which always continue to fight each other. Everyone agrees on the basic belief that mission is a part of one's own religion. The differences relate on both sides to the method, the way of mission: whether mission can only pursue the way of the personal persuasion of the other or whether one can also use instruments of political, military and economic pressure. To this, Christianity and Islam, during their history which has been so full of conflicts but also of contacts, have given very different answers. We do not have much of which to rebuke the other if we really address our respective missionary histories. In truth, those histories have not always been the quintessence of tolerance and dialogue.


Today, will things go differently? I believe that the question of mission also represents today one of the key questions of dialogue between religions. Will it be possible to conjoin the missionary dynamic, which belongs to the essence of our religions, with the basic principles of respect for the conscience of the other, religious freedom, and tolerance?



I would like to refer to certain examples that awaken our worry and concern, on various fronts, and bring out doubts about the success of dialogue. The powerful advances of Islamic mission in Africa are viewed by many Christians with concern. In India, the radicalisation of certain Hindu groups that are growing strongly worries many Muslims and Christians as well. The Buddhists (and also the Christians) in Sri Lanka are worried about the progress of Islamic mission. One could easily give further examples. To this are added the concerns about the missionary activities of certain groups within our religious communities. In Latin America the Catholic Church is very concerned about the rapid advance of Christian groups that are in part fundamentalist, above all from the United States of America, which are attracting millions of Catholics, with political consequences as well. I believe that similar concerns are also to be found within Islam, whose so-termed fundamentalists modify and radicalise the religious and social situation.


These few indications are sufficient to recall that the question of mission, both within our religious communities and between them, should appear at the top of the agenda of our dialogue. Mission is a sign of the vitality of religions, but it also harbours a great potential for conflict.



What can we do to treat the missionary mandate inherent in our missions in such a way that we are not unfaithful to it but at same time in such a way as to demonstrate and promote its compatibility with the requirements of a pluralistic and democratic society?


I would like to formulate three tasks for this important agenda:


1. within Christianity and Islam (and other religious communities) we need an enlightening dialogue about the question of the meaning of our constitutive missionary task. What is mission according to Jesus, according to the Koran? How should mission be, how can mission be? How is it to be located in relation to freedom of conscience and religion?


2. Within our respective religious communities there is an urgent need for dialogue and clarification about the question of 'proselytism'. Christians rebuke other Christians for 'missionising' each other and trying to take the faithful from each other. This is a recurrent issue between the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church. I believe that it is a great issue in global Islamic society. A few days ago what I heard personally from Muslim leaders in Indonesia at the beginning of 2005 was confirmed once again: concern about the 'proselytism' of radical or fundamentalist groups in Indonesian Islam.


3. We need inter-religious dialogue about the question of mission, a dialogue that considers our history (our histories) of missions (which thank God does not only have dark pages but also great pages, which are creative and rich in positive effects), which openly expresses our mutual concerns, which openly cites the dangers of intolerance, of attacks on religious freedom, and which makes them the subject of common efforts of correction.



These three points belong to the agenda of the next years, which is urgent and cannot be postponed. But there is a fourth point, which can probably help us more than all the rest of this agenda: as religions with a missionary mandate we are and I am convinced of this responsible before God and the world to look for the points in common of our missionary mandates and to practice them together: has not perhaps the Almighty given to all of us through revelation and the voice of conscience the holy task of working everywhere for justice, to alleviate misery, to fight poverty, to promote education, to strengthen the virtues of living together and thus to contribute to a more human world? One day we will be called before God to provide an account of whether we have carried out together our mission. And we will be called to provide an account of whether we have given to the many men who do not believe in God a credible witness to faith in God or whether our conflicts have increased atheism.


May our dialogue makes us aware of this responsibility!