January 28, 2004

Coming Together
as Brothers and Sisters
in the Faith of Abraham

by Friar Jack Wintz, O.F.M.


A Change of Attitude Toward Other Religions
A Truer Expression of Islam
Building a More Peaceful World

Is it possible to take a break from all the death and interreligious discord we experience in our world today, especially in Iraq, the Middle East and similar places of conflict? Yes, I believe it is possible—and much needed! Such a break recently took place at the Vatican on January 17, in the form of a "Concert for Reconciliation." The concert, which was a real sign of hope, brought together Christians, Muslims and Jews in an atmosphere of peace, harmony and mutual respect, with performers and spectators from the three faiths.

Gilbert Levine conducted the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and a massive chorus with participants from Pittsburgh; London; Ankara, Turkey; and Krakow, Poland. The program started off with the world premiere of "Abraham," a motet commissioned for the occasion. Seated on either side of Pope John Paul II were a prominent rabbi and an imam, both of Rome. Also present from various foreign nations were other leaders and representatives of the three faiths.

At the end of the concert, John Paul II urged that all of us who trace our faith back to Abraham "must find within ourselves the courage for peace....Jews, Christians and Muslims," the pope added, "cannot accept that the earth be afflicted by hatred, [or] that humanity would remain involved in wars without end....Today one feels a pressing need for a sincere reconciliation among believers in one God. " The pope also said to those present: "The hope we express is that people will be purified of the hatred and evil that continually threaten peace and that they will learn to reach out to each other with hands that know no violence but are ready to offer aid and comfort to those in need."

A Change of Attitude Toward Other Religions

This was by no means the pope's first time to recognize the family-like bonds that exist among Muslims and Christians and Jews. Already in 1985 the pope was in the habit of saying, at gatherings of Christians and Muslims and Jews, that "Your God and ours is one and the same, and we are brothers and sisters in the faith of Abraham."

Some 20 years earlier, the pope (Bishop Karol Wojtyla then) was an active participant in the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), which was teaching new, more open and respectful attitudes toward other religions. This new outlook was especially expressed in the Council's Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate). "Upon the Muslims, too," this document affirmed, "the Church looks with great esteem. They adore one God, living and enduring, merciful and all-powerful, Maker of heaven and earth and Speaker to all men. They strive to submit whole-heartedly even to His inscrutable decrees, just as did Abraham, with whom the Islamic faith is pleased to associate itself" (Nostra Aetate #4). A similarly open and respectful approach was taken toward Judaism and other world religions.

The world would be a better place if people of all faiths and persuasions could grow in this spirit of mutual respect, understanding and tolerance. It is important, for example, to realize that the form of Islam (known as Wahhabism) which fuels and funds terrorists like Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaeda network is a very extreme expression of Islam. It does not represent the broader, more tolerant world of Islam. Certainly, the Muslims participating in the "Concert of Reconciliation" sponsored by the Vatican would not be extremists or terrorists. Rather, they would be widely considered as the more authentic representatives of the religion of Islam.

A Truer Expression of Islam

In 1995, I was with a small group of journalists traveling through Jordan and Israel. Outside the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, one of world's great Muslim shrines, I happened to enter a conversation with Ali Salamin, a Palestinian Muslim born in the West Bank. A teacher of Islam, he knew the religion well, had visited Mecca at least three times and lived in Saudi Arabia for over 10 years. He held Muslim prayer beads as we talked.

I asked him if the God, revealed in the Koran, was a God who wants peace or a God who wants war. He responded that, according to the Koran, God wants "people to seek peace and harmony and to understand each other and to have good relationships. Even when we have disagreements with others," he said, "we must have respect for them and seek peaceful relations."

He also explained that, according to Islam, human beings have a right to defend themselves—if attacked—and to fight for their rights and justice, but no one may ever take innocent life, he added. "To kill innocent people—whether they be Christian, Jew or Muslim or anyone—is against the spirit of the Koran and is condemned by the Koran." He also contended that terrorist acts like suicide bombings that destroy innocent people go against the true teachings of the Koran. He suggested that Muslims who promote terrorism are not true Muslims. "Not everyone who claims to follow Islam is necessarily following God's will and the authentic Spirit of the Koran," he said.

Building a More Peaceful World

Just as there are Muslim extremists who do not represent their religion well, so also there are Christians who do not represent Christianity well. Among these are Christian extremists who make false, biased and unenlightened statements against Islam. A year or two ago, I read about a well known Christian TV evangelist who called Islam "a very wicked and evil religion." Such statements do not convey a God-like compassion or the kind of love and respect Jesus showed to other believers. Nor do they contribute to the building of a more peaceful world.

Combating one form of extremism with another only leads to an endless cycle of warfare. Evil isn't just something "out there" in the enemy, as Catholic writers like Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen have pointed out. Evil is also something we all have to struggle with and try to eliminate in our own hearts. Evil is present in our common human capacity for violence, hatred, pride, greed, arrogance, intolerance, fear, jealousy. These are the common enemies we all struggle with inside our hearts.

In my opinion, if the haste and zeal with which our national leaders sent our sons and daughters on a military mission into Iraq had been replaced by a similar haste and zeal to work for interreligious and international understanding, the world would be better off today. May the God of Abraham, whom so many of us revere and love, lead us to that peace and reconciliation which the world, of itself, cannot give!

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