Barney Zwartz on the peace letter

Common beliefs key to uniting old religious foes
Barney Zwartz, October 19, 2007, the Age

A letter from Muslim leaders to Christian ones can be a start for dialogue, writes Barney Zwartz.

AT THE core of both Christianity and Islam is the double command to love God and neighbour. Last week 138 Islamic leaders wrote to the Pope and "leaders of Christian churches everywhere" saying world peace depended on recognising that.

The letter, which some scholars hailed as unprecedented, was signed by Grand Muftis, theologians and academics from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Europe and the US, representing Islam's Sunni, Shiite and Sufi traditions — and scores of millions of followers.

Written to build bridges and defuse tensions, the letter was sent at a highly symbolic time, the Eid festival that celebrated the end of Ramadan last weekend. Titled A Common Word Between Us and You, it says: "Muslims and Christians together make up well over half of the world's population. Without peace and justice between these two religious communities, there can be no meaningful peace in the world ...

I think suspicion is misguided; the letter should be warmly welcomed. This sort of initiative is exactly what critics in the West have been demanding Muslims do. Why not take it at face value, as a genuine attempt by a broad cross-section of very senior Muslims to improve relations? Why assume implicit threats or a hidden agenda — what could such an agenda achieve? Why rebuff such an overture? The letter doesn't propose any particular action; it's simply a proactive gesture of goodwill. The sheer labour involved in getting 138 leaders from around the globe who disagree on all sorts of issues to agree to this statement shows how seriously they mean it.

A discussion between religious leaders and theologians might seem peripheral to sceptics, but it's a good start. It might reduce antagonism at the grassroots level, and could lead to more fruitful interaction between policy-makers and politicians. And it's much better than the alternatives.