An unprecedented outreach from top Islamic leaders to Christians is meeting a positive response. This budding dialogue has the potential to correct misunderstandings and foster trust among each faith's followers – which the world sorely needs.
The overture began in October with a letter from 138 Muslim clerics and scholars addressed to Roman Catholic Pope Benedict XVI and other Christian leaders. "The future of the world depends on peace between Muslims and Christians," it stated, and called for dialogue among the leaders of faiths that together account for more than half of the world's population.
The letter (available at www.acommonword.com) is remarkable for its depth and message. Its signers represent all major schools of Islamic thought. It quotes from religious texts of Muslims, Christians, and Jews to show two shared, fundamental beliefs: love of one God, and love of neighbor.
Last week, the pope responded by praising the "positive spirit" behind the letter and inviting a delegation of its signers to the Vatican for talks. Just a year ago he angered many Muslims with a speech that linked Islam to violence. In the United States, the Muslim letter has prompted Yale Divinity School to lead an effort toward interfaith conferences and workshops in the US, Britain, and the Middle East.
Certainly the world needs these endeavors. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, opened a wide rift between Christians and Muslims. Many Muslims now mistakenly believe the "war on terrorism" to be the West's war against Islam. In Europe, tensions between Muslims and Christians have increased – over cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad, over discrimination of Muslims, and over fear of more terrorist attacks such as the London and Madrid bombings.
But the stirrings of dialogue among the world's Muslim and Christian leaders must be ongoing and reach down to their followers. It will take a flood of mutual understanding to make the religious soil hospitable for tolerance and inhospitable for terrorism.
And the interfaith coming together must not supplant the vast work that still must be done within Islam itself – healing the Sunni-Shiite divide and rejecting extremism that finds glory in suicide bombings.
It's encouraging that the Muslims behind the letter preceded their work with a push in 2005 to build tolerance within Islam. This week's intervention of British Muslims to win a pardon for an English schoolteacher in Sudan shows that intrafaith efforts can have a moderating effect. (The teacher was sentenced last week to 15 days in prison for "insulting Islam" by allowing the class teddy bear to be named Muhammad.)
Lastly, if the purpose of interfaith dialogue is peace, it must include Jews. That was recognized in Washington last week when Christians and Jews for the first time publicly welcomed a fatwa issued by the Fiqh Council, the highest Muslim judicial body in North America. The council's ruling condemned terrorism and said it was the duty of Muslims to report threats to law enforcement.
"Let us respect each other, be fair, just and kind to another," the Muslim letter concludes. May those words take root in thoughts and deeds, far away and at home.