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 possibleand 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
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."
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
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 themselvesif attackedand
to fight for their rights and justice, but no one may ever take
innocent life, he added. "To kill innocent peoplewhether
they be Christian, Jew or Muslim or anyoneis 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.
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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