Al-Salamu 'alaykum

The fallout from Pope Benedict’s words calls for a more personal interfaith conversation.

THOUGH THE FIRESTORM SPARKED BY POPE BENEDICT'S remarks at the University of Regensburg on September 12 seem to have died down, the lingering effects of those difficult weeks remain. It may take a while to forget masses of Muslims throughout the world denouncing the pope in mostly peaceful rallies, longer to forgive the few burning effigies and damaged churches. And despite her order’s protestations to the contrary, many will continue to see the murder of Italian Consolata missionary Sister Leonella Sgorbati in Somalia as a violent reaction the words of a medieval Byzantine emperor presiding over the last days of a dying empire.

Like the political situation between the West and the Muslim world, relations between Catholics and Muslims remain cool. But no matter whether one agrees with the pope’s choice of sources, it’s hard to blame him alone for the situation. After all, he didn’t speak in a vacuum but against the backdrop of the (Christian) U.S.’s continuing wars in (Muslim) Iraq and Afghanistan. Southern Lebanon remains a smoldering ruin that many blame on the silence of Western (Christian) nations when (Jewish) Israel invaded its neighbor. Add for good measure the terrifying violence committed by a small minority of Muslims and magnified by intense media coverage, and it’s easy to see why the obscure words of an obscurer monarch set the world on edge.

But why, we people of faith must ask, is it still so easy five years since September 11 to think in terms of “us” and “them”? One might have hoped that we Christians would have made at least some progress in understanding of and dialogue with Muslims. Yet how many of us still do not know that jihad is not one of the five pillars of Islam? (They are faith in the one God, prayer five times daily, almsgiving, fasting, and the once-in-a-lifetime hajj to Mecca.) How many of us even know how many Muslims there are in the world? (There are 1.3 billion Muslims, nearly 200 million of whom live in Indonesia, quite a distance from the Middle East.) We may know the basic difference between Sunni and Shi’a, but we are far from understanding Islam’s many incarnations in countries as varied as Nigeria and Turkey, Malaysia and India, much less the riches of the Sufi mystical tradition of Islam, which produced some of the world’s most popular poetry along with the prayer-dance of the whirling dervishes.

I’ve little doubt that this ignorance cuts both ways. When traveling to Turkey courtesy of a Muslim organization promoting inter-religious dialogue, I was shocked to find one evening that, as far as the professionals with whom I was eating were concerned, Christians are Christians. To them President Bush, a born-again Methodist, and I, a cradle Catholic, are basically the same. Though I was at pains to explain the many different Christian approaches to the Bible, to other religions, and to war and peace, I realized that I was only one voice, despite the goodwill and openness of my hosts.

The tragedy of our mutual ignorance is compounded on our side by the fact Catholicism provides us so much freedom to approach other religions in friendship. Vatican II’s Nostra Aetate, the Catholic Magna Carta of inter-religious dialogue, not only expresses “high regard” for Islam but also acknowledges the painful history of Muslim-Christian interaction. And unlike some of evangelical Christians, we Catholics are not burdened by the charge to “convert” Muslims but can approach them confident that, in the words of Lumen Gentium, “the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, first among whom” are Muslims.

“BLESSED ARE THE PEACEMAKERS” JESUS SAYS IN MATTHEW’S gospel (5:9). St. Paul tells us that God has given us a “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18). And Pope Benedict in his first outing to Germany reminded us that Christian-Muslim dialogue is not “an optional extra” but “is, in fact, a vital necessity, on which in large measure our future depends.” Building this dialogue will, of course, take more than getting our facts straight about Islam. What it will take are personal relationships between Muslims and Catholics like those that are slowly bringing reconciliation between Catholics and Jews. Nor can we be content to leave that effort to university classrooms and the appropriate Vatican dicastery. Indeed, it is the duty of the entire people of God, and each of us personally, to seek out the ways to fulfill this charge upon which our future depends.

Bryan Cones is associate editor of U.S. Catholic . This article will appear in the December 2006 (Volume 71, Number 12; page 50) issue of U.S. Catholic.

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