FaithWorld

Not your usual Christmas card — Muslim leaders greet Christians

Memon Mosque in Karachi, Pakistan, 9 Oct 2007Christmas greetings of peace on Earth and good will to all — what could be more common during this holiday season? It’s heard so much that it’s practically a cliché. But this familiar tune takes on a new tone when the greetings come from leading Muslim scholars, clerics and intellectuals. The same group of 138 Muslims that invited Christians to a theological dialogue last October has just sent its Christmas greetings to the Christian world (see the text and our news story). What struck me the most about it is that it was even sent at all.

As a decentralised religion with no single leader or leadership group to speak for it, Islam (1.3 billion faithful around the world) has always been “structurally disadvantaged” in comparison to Christianity. The world’s largest religion (2 billion) has one highly centralised church, Roman Catholicism (1.1 billion), led by a highly visible pope. Other large Christian families like the Orthodox (220 million), Anglicans (77 million) and the many different Protestant denominations all have clearly defined leaders who can speak for the faithful. The absence of such figures in Islam has allowed a wide variety of pretenders to claim to speak in the name of Muslims. To put it in terms of the current season, they couldn’t all send a Christmas card to Pope Benedict or Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew or Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams because they had no forum for getting together to do so. Individual sheikhs, muftis, imams or mosque rectors might send their greetings to a friendly local bishop, vicar, preacher or priest they knew personally, but there wasn’t exactly heavy traffic.

Muslim judges at a conference on Sharia law in Amman, 3 Sept. 2007The group of 138 that issued the appeal called A Common Word is changing that. Representing Sunnis, Shi’ites, Sufis and other schools of Islam, they can claim more than anyone else to speak for large numbers of Muslims. Sure, we can’t say how many they represent. Of course, they are a mixed group. Naturally, they don’t all agree on everything. And yes, there may be disputes within the group, maybe defections and additions as it develops. But they are from a broad spectrum of Islam and have organised themselves enough to first send a response to Pope Benedict’s Regensburg lecture (back when they were only 38), then propose a dialogue with the Christian world (which the major churches have accepted) and now send these Christmas greetings. Non-Muslim cynics might scoff that signing a Christmas greeting is not all that difficult. But anyone who knows anything about Islam can see this is a significant new step.

After the publication of the letter in October, the main focus was on what the Vatican would say. Many non-Catholic Christian leaders, Rowan Williams being the first among them, welcomed the dialogue appeal. The Vatican took its time and some officials, especially the man responsible for interreligious relations Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran , expressed doubt that a serious dialogue was even possible. But the Vatican finally answered positively and the path is now open for practical work.

Jordan’s Prince Ghazi bin Mohammad bin Talal at a conference of the Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought, 4 Sept. 2007Jordan’s Prince Ghazi bin Mohammad bin Talal, whose Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought in Amman is behind the dialogue appeal, recently responded to the Vatican’s acceptance with a letter proposing an initial meeting in February or March. Leading members of the group also plan to meet various Christian leaders at conferences planned over the coming year, so a network of Muslim-Christian discussions should develop. In his letter, of which I have obtained a copy, Prince Ghazi urges the Vatican not to want to make the best the enemy of the good. Dialogue is important, he argues,

Rowan’s response to Anglican crisis has something for everyone

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, 25 Feb. 2005Reporters are often accused of “pack journalism” when they essentially write the same story from an event. So what should we call it when they write different reports about the same thing? That happened on Friday when Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams issued his Advent message. This was the long-awaited statement of his views on the crisis tearing away at the Anglican Communion. It turned out to be a grab-bag with something for everyone.

Jim Naughton over at The Lead blog on Episcopal Café noticed the problem and highlighted it in a quick review of the stories about the Advent message. The list shows how the same text can spawn different articles. For example, our story’s lead went for a broad overview, the AP story stressed a U.S. angle and the British papers highlighted details of the Anglican disputes.

“Reporters had their hands full yesterday trying to figure out how to pull a “lede” out of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s letter about the state of the Anglican Communion,” Naughton wrote. “He dumped cold water on everybody, so how to determine which side was wetter?”

Attenzione! Important Vatican doctrinal document due…

Pope Benedict, 10 Dec. 2007 Attenzione! The Vatican will issue an important doctrinal document on Friday “on some aspects of evangelisation.” Pope Benedict has a long track record of making sharp distinctions between Catholicism and other religions in his doctrinal declarations. Some of these have upset other Christians, others have angered Muslims and been challenged by Islamic scholars. This new text has been written by papal aides, not the pope himself, but it is expected to be a close reflection of his views. What Vatican observers are waiting to see is how clearly it states the Catholic view on converting others and how other religions react.

The document from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, which Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger headed for over two decades before becoming pope in 2005, comes at a time of growing Catholic difficulties with Anglicans, Protestants and evangelical and Pentecostal Christians. Its hesitant reaction to an invitation leading Muslim scholars for a theological dialogue has raised questions about its interest in inter-faith relations. And evangelisation is now a sensitive topic for Christian churches. The Vatican is working with the World Council of Churches, the World Evangelical Alliance and Pentecostal leaders on a code of conduct for missionary work .

The declaration is expected to say that conversion remains a goal of Catholic missionary efforts and that Catholic theologians must not water this down by arguing that other faiths can be paths to salvation. This recalls Dominus Iesus, a document issued in 2000 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) that said the Catholic Church was the only true church of Jesus Christ and others were “gravely deficient.” In fact, the document should be a guide on how to put Dominus Iesus into practice. The CDF began this process with a clarification of the 2000 document last June — a clarification that caused dismay among leading Protestant theologians.Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie (L), the Archbishop of Thyateira and Great Britain Methodios (2L), Pope John Paul II and the Dalai Lama (R) pray for world peace in a service in Assisi October 27, 1986

British media react to Christianophobia debate

Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip in Westminster Abbey, 19 Nov. 2007What a difference a day makes. A post here yesterday noted that British media had all but ignored today’s debate about Christianophobia in parliament and asked whether that term was an appropriate one to use. Well, today several newspapers have taken up the issue, with different angles.

Andrew Brown in the Guardian says “Civilisation is safe” and sees influences from across the Atlantic for the debate: “The American nationalist right – and now an obscure Tory MP – would have us believe that Christian traditions are under threat. I don’t think so.” He also says that a BBC story about the debate was the second most emailed story on the BBC’s website. His post sparked a long list of comments.

A question on the Daily Telegraph site “How should we tackle ‘Christianophobia’ ?” also sparked a lively discussion. The Daily Express ran the blaring headline: “SOON ALL BRITAIN’S CHRISTIAN TRADITIONS MAY BE KILLED OFF.” The Daily Mail spoke of “rising Christianophobia and busybodies who downgrade Christian traditions.”

Burnout on the God beat – second top religion writer calls it quits

Covering religion may be harmful to your faith. Two leading religion journalists — one in Britain, one in the United States — have quit the beat in recent months, saying they had acquired such a close look at such scandalous behaviour by Christians that they lost their faith and had to leave.

Bates article in New HumanistStephen Bates, who recently stepped down as religious affairs writer for the London Guardian, has just published an account of his seven years on the beat in an article entitled “Demob Happy” for the New Humanist magazine. Bates followed the crisis in the Anglican Communion for several years and even wrote a book on it, A Church At War: Anglicans and Homosexuality.

“Now I am moving on,” his article concludes. “It was time to go. What faith I had, I’ve lost, I am afraid – I’ve seen too much, too close. A young Methodist press officer once asked me earnestly whether I saw it as my job to spread the Good News of Jesus. No, I said, that’s the last thing I am here to do.”

Episcopal Church likely to pass over lesbian candidate for bishop

Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts SchoriIs there a straw that will break the Anglican Communion’s back? One move that, like the gay bishop consecration that started the current crisis, can trigger a landslide that finally pushes the Communion into schism? Religion reporters are now watching each and every conference and bishop’s election to see if it will hit the tripwire.

The next flashpoint in the Anglican Communion’s struggle with gay issues looked like it could come from Chicago, where the Episcopal (U.S. Anglican) diocese on November 10 will pick a new bishop from among eight candidates, one of them an openly gay woman. The Episcopal Church promised last month to “exercise restraint” in naming further homosexual prelates. In an interview this month, its Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori (in picture at right) stressed there would be “no outcasts in this Church.

Judging from how things look now, the lesbian Rev. Tracey Lind, who is now the dean of Cleveland’s Trinity Cathedral, may not be among the favorites vying for the post, Chicago Tribune religion reporter Manya Brachear reported on Monday.

Muslim scholars press Pope Benedict to go public

The 138 Muslims scholars who recently invited Christian leaders to a high-level inter-faith dialogue feel their unprecedented step of uniting so many different Islamic representatives has created a momentum that must not be lost. The responses from Christian churches have shown varying levels of urgency in taking up the challenge. muslimspray2.jpgMany denominations, most notably the Anglicans and Lutherans, responded promptly and positively to their appeal “A Common Word Between Us And You.” The Roman Catholic Church has been more cautious, and its provisional response has gone from vaguely positive to cautiously critical.

The Muslim scholars have responded with a direct appeal to the Pope to speak publicly about their initiative. Sheikh Izzeldin Ibrahim, a signatory who is a cultural adviser to the United Arab Emirates government, made a verbal appeal to that effect to Benedict when they lunched together in Naples on Sunday at the Sant’Egidio community’s annual inter-faith meeting. He told him the Muslim scholars were disappointed not only at what they saw as the Vatican’s hesitant response to their appeal but also to the lack of a Catholic response to the letter of 38 scholars last year to his controversial Regensburg speech. And, as signatory Aref Ali Nayed of the Cambridge Interfaith Program in Britain told Reuters, they made it official with a letter handed to Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, head of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams told Vatican Radio on Monday that he has been discussing with other Christian leaders in Naples what the churches should do next. “I’d like to start exploring what kind of common Christian response there might be to the ‘Common Word’ document that’s come from the Muslim leaders,” he said. Christian leaders were “looking at various theoretical possibilities” and would like to have “proper face-to-face discussions with some of these people. But how to do that is quite a logistical challenge,” he said.

Ball in Vatican’s court after Muslim dialogue appeal

Pope Benedict prays with Muslim clerics in IstanbulAn unprecedented call from 138 Muslim scholars for better Christian-Muslim understanding had a Warholesque 15-minutes-of- fame in most media last week. Their letter to world Christian leaders got covered widely in English-speaking media (including by Reuters) and much less so in many European countries, possibly because the news conferences presenting it were in London and Washington. Some reactions from Christian leaders were included in the reporting that day. The following day, the reaction from the Vatican — the main addressee of the letter that represents more than half of Christianity — made for another story (here is our report and the original Vatican Radio report in Italian).

The story has now faded from the headlines but it’s one of those developments that cry out for a next step. The Muslim scholars invited their Christian counterparts to a dialogue, so the ball is in the Christians’ court. More specifically, it’s in the Vatican’s court. The Roman Catholic Church is the largest and most centralised branch of the Christian family. The Muslims also have a bone to pick with Pope Benedict, who just over a year ago gave his famous Regensburg speech that implied Islam was violent and irrational. That sparked off violent protests in the Muslim world and, in turn, inspired 38 Muslim scholars to write a first letter in October 2006 that denounced that violence, asked for a dialogue (which Benedict had suggested in Regensburg) and questioned his understanding of Islam.

The latest letter is a follow-up, with a far larger group of signatories and the more ambitious goal of engaging in a theological dialogue with Christians. The wealth of Koran and Bible quotes cited and the argument that Islam agrees with the heart of Christian teaching — to love God and neighbour — showed these scholars want a long and serious theological discussion with Christianity.