The Vatican responded Friday to the open letter sent at the end of Ramadan by 138 Muslim scholars to Pope Benedict XVI and a wide array of other Christian leaders. The response was somewhat deflating, given the mainstream media’s enthusiasm over the Muslim letter — an enthusiasm which the senders must have anticipated. Noting the Muslim scholars’ declaration that “the future of the world depends on peace between Muslims and Christians,” the Telegraph‘s headline was typical of the coverage: “Muslim scholars’ olive branch to Christians.” Reuters burbled about an “Unprecedented Muslim call for peace with Christians.” But was it really?
This week’s response from Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, the President of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, hardly seemed sporting. Tauran observed that the possibility of serious dialogue between Muslims and Christians was limited by the traditional Islamic understanding of the Muslim holy book: “Muslims,” he said, “do not accept that one can discuss the Koran in depth, because they say it was written by dictation from God. With such an absolute interpretation, it is difficult to discuss the contents of faith.”
Tauran went on to call for reciprocity between the treatment of Christians in Islamic lands and the treatment of Muslims in the West, decrying the fact that Muslims are permitted to build mosques freely in Europe, but Christians face difficulties or outright bans when trying to build churches in Muslim lands. “In a dialogue among believers, it is fundamental to say what is good for one is good for the other.”
But that presumes an equality of religions, and that one can admit the legitimacy of the other. And that is the element missing from the proposed debate.
On the basis of the letter alone, it’s surprising that there has ever been conflict between Muslims and Christians, or Muslims and anyone. The scholars say: “in obedience to the Holy Qur’an, we as Muslims invite Christians to come together with us on the basis of what is common to us, which is also what is most essential to our faith and practice: the Two Commandments of love.” Yet the “Two Commandments of love” were nowhere in evidence last August when an Egyptian convert from Islam to Christianity was sentenced to death by Islamic clerics. “The Two Commandments of love” have not saved Christians in Baghdad, where Islamic gangs knocked on doors in Christian neighborhoods, demanding payment of the jizya tax specified for non-Muslims by the Qur’an (9:29). Nor is Iraq the only problem area: in Egypt, Coptic Christians have suffered discrimination and harassment for centuries, and their plight is increasing. In Pakistan a prominent Catholic priest said in August 2007 that Christians are frequently denied equality of rights with Muslims and subjected to various forms of discrimination.
The persecution of Christians is the primary indication of the letter’s inadequacy as the basis for any real dialogue between Muslims and Christians. Genuine dialogue must focus, or at least be cognizant of, the reality of what separates the two parties. Nothing can be resolved, no genuine peace or harmony attained, except on the basis of confronting those differences.
While saying they want to build on common ground, the Muslim scholars (amid copious Qur’an quotes) never mention Qur’an 5:17, which says that those who believe in the divinity of Christ are unbelievers, or 4:171, which says that Jesus was not crucified, or 9:30, which says that those who believe that Jesus is the Son of God are accursed, or 9:29, which mandates warfare against and the subjugation of Jews and Christians. It seems reasonable to suggest that verses like these would need to be addressed in some way, even if only to give them some benign interpretation, if there is to be any true and honest dialogue.
The media enthusiasm for this letter is, at best, premature. We may hope that Muslim scholars will someday address Muslim persecution of Christians and offer a non-literal interpretation of the Christianophobic passages in the Qur’an. Then there will be a basis for genuine dialogue. But they haven’t done it yet.