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Can we talk?

Religion | Muslim "A Common Word" statement and the Christian response spark as much controversy as they hope to resolve

Issue: "Our long war," March 8, 2008

After years, indeed centuries, of hostility, is a new and friendlier era in Muslim-Christian relations emerging?

That seems as improbable as the starting point for such a prospect: Muslim ire over a 2006 lecture by Pope Benedict. His talk provoked an immediate statement of defense from Muslim thinkers, followed last October by a dramatic declaration from a broader Muslim assemblage about improving interfaith harmony. A Christian group then seized the moment, issuing an optimistic November response.

That Christian rejoinder has attracted hundreds of endorsers, not only Catholics and liberal Protestants but such evangelicals as Bill Hybels, John Stott, Rick Warren, Christianity Today's David Neff, and Wheaton College president Duane Litfin. However, some conservatives expressed alarm, and Litfin and others have now withdrawn their endorsements.

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Benedict's speech, at a German university where he once taught, mentioned a 14th-century Byzantine emperor's assertion that Muhammad's innovations were "only evil and inhuman," for example spreading the faith "by the sword." Only later did the pope clarify that he was not affirming such words.

The initial Muslim response informed Benedict that the Quran says "let there be no compulsion in religion" (2:256), so that Islam opposes forced conversions. Under established Muslim morality, these scholars added, "we totally condemn" violence against innocent noncombatants-though without discussing Muslim terror attacks on Sept. 11 and before and since.

Many signers of that statement also joined last October's remarkable letter from 138 Muslim religious authorities and organizational leaders, representing 41 nations and all major schools of thought. They addressed the text to the pope, other world hierarchs, and "leaders of Christian churches, everywhere."

"Never before in modern times has such a 'Who's Who of the Muslim World' signed such a document," J. Dudley Woodberry, a Fuller Theological Seminary expert on Islam and signer of the Christian response, wrote on christianitytoday.com. (The Muslims' "A Common Word Between Us and You" and Christians' "Loving God and Neighbor Together" are posted at acommonword.com.)

The Muslims said the two religions together claim more than half of humanity, so "the very survival of the world itself is perhaps at stake" in peaceful relations. In obedience to the Quran, they asked "Christians to come together with us on the common essentials of our two religions," defined in detail as love of God and love of neighbor. Most surprising, perhaps, the Muslim leaders affirmed that "justice and freedom of religion are a crucial part of love of the neighbor."

The Christians' response, organized by Yale Divinity School's Center for Faith and Culture, agreed with all that and urged ongoing dialogue. It acknowledged that "in the past (e.g. in the Crusades) and in the present (e.g. in excesses of the 'war on terror') many Christians have been guilty of sinning against our Muslim neighbors." The Christians said "God is dishonored" and neighbor-love violated when religious freedom is curtailed.

That seems a promising starting point, but conservative Protestants have raised vigorous objections to the substance of both statements.

Some noted that the Muslims, unlike the Christians, expressed no regret for past or present atrocities. R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, commented that he wouldn't apologize for the Crusades because there was sin on both sides, and he's thankful that Muslims failed to conquer Europe. He also rejected the apology for the "war on terror" because that wrongly identified Christianity with U.S. foreign policy.

Minneapolis pastor John Piper complained that the Christians' approach was "to deceive, to be unclear at best" because they provided no "clear statement about what Christianity really is" and ignored that "the love of God is uniquely expressed through Jesus Christ."

Australian Anglican pastor Mark Durie, among others, observed that the Muslim text repeatedly defined love of God in terms of the central dogma of tawhid, God's unity in absolute monotheism, and rejection of shirk, "association" of God with what is not divine. The cited Quran teachings directly attack Christian belief in Jesus' divinity within the Trinity.

To Durie, the Christian response either implied acceptance of, or overlooked, this Muslim belief, which is "problematic for interfaith harmony." A Focus on the Family article agreed that the statement "appeared to leave the fundamentals of Christianity-especially the deity of Christ-open for discussion."

Conservatives also questioned the Muslims' affirmation of religious liberty, given the faith's history and problems in Islamic countries (regularly monitored by groups like the Barnabas Fund and International Christian Concern). Traditional Muslim law relegates Christians and Jews to second-class status and imposes other restrictions. Saudi Arabia prohibits churches altogether.

Muslims even teach that believers who convert to another religion are "apostates" subject to the death penalty. Durie noted that the "Common Word" website is linked to an archive where one Muslim endorser explains that the death-to-converts demand is implicit in the Quran and explicit in the Hadith, authoritative teachings of Muhammad.


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