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Let Islam Speak for Islam
The Pope"s summit in January will provide a world audience
by Raymond J. de Souza - November 28, 2001
Pope John Paul II has invited leaders of the world"s religions to come to Assisi, the birthplace of St. Francis, to pray for peace on Jan. 24. It will be the third time the Pope has convoked such an extraordinary gathering, the last time being in 1993 to pray for peace in the Balkans.

Given the current world situation, who represents the Islamic world and what they say at this meeting will be of utmost importance for the future of Christian-Muslim relations. The Assisi meeting will provide a world audience -- guaranteed by the presence of the Pope -- to which Islamic leaders can say what needs to be said about their relationship with Christians.

It has been repeatedly stated that the war in Afghanistan is not a war against Islam. That is true, and needs to be said. Having said it, however, the religious dimension of the war cannot be ignored, if only because the terrorists of Sept. 11 were motivated by what they held to be religious reasons -- and they are not alone. It has been widely accepted that those reasons were a perversion of Islam"s true teaching, a claim made most emphatically, it must be noted, by the Christian leaders of the Western countries. What is necessary now is for Islamic religious leaders -- respected scholars and clerics from within the Islamic world itself -- to offer a sustained response to the issues raised by Sept. 11.

The principal issue that needs to be addressed, not to put too fine a point on it, is what authentic Islam teaches about the systematic, widespread and sometimes brutal persecution of Christians found in many parts of the Islamic world today. A clarification by Islamic leaders of what is and what is not permitted by Islam offers the historic opportunity to reconfigure Christian-Muslim relations for the better in the 21st century.

"One will find together, in particular, Christians and Muslims, to proclaim before the world that religion must never become a reason for conflict, hate and violence," John Paul said regarding the purpose of the January meeting. "Whoever truly receives within himself the word of God, good and merciful, must exclude from his heart every form of rancour and enmity. In this historic moment, humanity needs to see gestures of peace and to listen to words of hope."

Such gestures and words are necessary from both sides of the tangled and tortured history of Christian-Muslim relations. One of the strangest aspects of the current world crisis is that it has been Christians who have been pressured to make assurances that another "crusade" is not being launched. John Paul, speaking as de facto leader of the Christian world, has made historic requests for forgiveness for the indiscipline and depredations of the Crusades. Christian leaders generally refrain from even mentioning that the Crusades themselves were part of a centuries-long struggle to reverse the Islamic conquest of the biblical lands. But more important is the situation that prevails today.

In recent years, hundreds of thousands of Christians have been forced into slavery or killed by the regime of Khartoum. In Nigeria, a brutal civil war has resulted in atrocities against Christians. Christian religious liberty is non-existent in Saudi Arabia. In the other Gulf States, Christian practice is dependent on the local emirs, only some of whom allow Christian churches -- which are often harassed by neighbouring mosques. In East Timor, a Catholic enclave in otherwise Muslim Indonesia, the local population has been subjugated, at times brutally, for more than 25 years.

That is the daily reality to which more spectacular episodes must be added, such as the 1996 throat-slitting of seven Trappist monks in Algeria, or the 1998 machine-gun killing of three of Mother Teresa"s nuns in Yemen. Most recently, on Oct. 28, at St. Dominic"s Catholic Church in Bahawalpur, Pakistan, 15 Christians were massacred while singing hymns. In every case, an "extreme interpretation" of Islam has been identified as a key factor. Alas, for too many Christians in the world, this extreme interpretation is frighteningly common.

In Assisi in January, Islamic leaders will be afforded an opportunity to say what is perverse and what is authentic, to counter erroneous theological arguments, and to condemn those who, in the words of John Paul II, "defame the holiness of God" by killing in his name.

There is no Islamic equivalent of the Pope. But senior figures in the clergy, academy and politics can speak for some of the many spheres of Islam, and they need to say what has not yet been said loudly enough. At Assisi, it will be necessary to hear that the persecution of Christians is inconsistent with the Islamic faith, that it is an offence against Allah, and that it is, in a word, sinful.

While John Paul has been muted in speaking directly about persecutions, the Holy See, in a pair of muscular interventions at the United Nations this month made the claim that if the persecutions do not end, no lasting peace can be expected.

"It is common knowledge that there are nations in which individuals, families and entire groups are still being discriminated against and marginalized because of their religious beliefs," Archbishop Renato Martino, the Holy See"s UN representative, said, adding later that "meaningful dialogue between civilizations cannot take place in the absence of religious freedom."

It is a tragic fact that, aside from communist holdovers China, Cuba and Vietnam, the only systematic persecution of Christians today is from fellow believers in the God of Abraham, namely Muslims. Assisi may well provide a moment of clarity -- whether Christians can live in peace in Islamic societies with the co-operation of their fellow believers, or whether this war is only one battle in a long fight against religious persecution.

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