Free love, not war

In a letter addressed to Pope Benedict XVI and other Christian leaders 138 prominent Muslim scholars from every sect of Islam urged them “to come together with us on the common essentials of our two religions”, spelling out the similarities between passages of the Bible and the Qur’an.

“If Muslims and Christians are not at peace, the world cannot be at peace. With the terrible weaponry of the modern world, with Muslims and Christians intertwined everywhere as never before, no side can unilaterally win a conflict between more than half of the world’s inhabitants. Our common future is at stake,” the letter said. “The very survival of the world is perhaps at stake.”

Scholars used quotations from the Bible and the Qur’an to illus-trate similarities between the two faiths, such as the requirement to worship one God and to love one’s neighbour.

The letter, A Common Word Between Us and You, also referred to wars in Muslim-majority countries by urging Western governments not to persecute Muslims.

“As Muslims, we say to Christians that we are not against them and that Islam is not against them — so long as they do not wage war against Muslims on account of their religion, oppress them and drive them out of their homes.”

The letter was issued by Jordan’s Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought, following its annual convention last month in Amman. Many signatories are grand muftis who each has tens of millions of followers. At the United Kingdom launch, Aref Ali Nayed, one of the British signatories, warned people not to get “too hung up” on expecting an answer from the pope.

Nayed, a senior adviser to the interfaith programme at Cambridge University, said: “Every person who extends his hand … would like something in return, but we’re offering this as free love. It’s not a competition. It’s not about reciprocity.”

It is the second open letter from the institute to the Vatican. The first was sent after the pope’s Regensburg address last year, which angered Muslims by quoting a Byzantine emperor who spoke of the Prophet Muhammad’s “command to spread by the sword the faith he preached”.

The authors’ approach can be expected to appeal to Pope Benedict, whose papacy has seen a shift in the Vatican’s attitude to dialogue with the Islamic world. The pope views contact with Muslims as urgent and essential.

But he also signalled his impatience with the polite exchanges between theologians that have characterised the dialogue. Instead, what he privately suggested is an “ethical dialogue”, the aim of which would be to single out principles both sides share and to try to build on those.

There are two main items on the pope’s agenda: the use of religion in the Muslim world to justify violence and “reciprocity”, a codeword for granting Christians in Muslim countries the freedoms Muslims enjoy in the West.

The situation in this respect has been getting more critical. Christian Arabs are leaving Palestine, Iraq and other Muslim countries in growing numbers. At the same time, anti-conversion laws are being enforced from Egypt to Pakistan.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has welcomed the commitment to further dialogue between the faiths.

“The theological basis of the letter and its call to respect one another, be fair, just and kind to one another are indicative of the kind of relationship for which we yearn in all parts of the world, especially where Christians and Muslims live together,” Williams said.

“It is particularly important in underlining the need for respect towards minorities in contexts where either Islam or Christianity is the majority presence.”

The common scriptural foundations for Jews, Christians and Muslims would be the basis for justice and peace in the world, he said.

“The call should now be taken up by Christians and Muslims at all levels and in all countries and I shall endeavour … to do my part in working for the righteousness which this letter proclaims as our common goal.” — Â

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