It is true that there have always been relations between Muslims and Christians. At different periods and in different places the relationship has been one of cooperation or conflict. Certain factors had rendered relations more difficult. To think of a religious factor, Christians will admit that they did not really have an adequate theological basis for an open relationship with Muslims. Islam tended to be looked upon as a sort of a geopolitical force and not as an approach to God and locus of divine activity in human lives. Thanks be to God, this is not the way the Catholic Church now teaches Catholics to approach Islam.
This year is the Golden Jubilee, fifty years of Nostra Aetate, a short declaration which was approved by the world body of Catholic Bishops and promulgated by Pope Paul VI on 28 October 1965. From the point of view of human beings, this was an unexpected outcome. However, it was planned by God through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The purpose of the declaration, Nostra Aetate, was to examine with greater care the relation which the Catholic Church has to religions which exist in the world. The Bishops at the Council wished to reflect on what people of all religions have in common and what tends to promote fellowship among them. This is what was declared at the very outset of Nostra Aetate:
All men form but one community. This is so because all stem from one stock which God created to people the entire earth (Acts 17:26) and also because all share a common destiny, namely God. His providence, evident goodness and saving designs extend to all men (Wis 8:1, Acts 14:17, Rom 2:6-7, 1 Tim 2:4) against the day when the elect are gathered together in the holy city which is illumined by the glory of God, and in whose splendor all peoples will walk (Ap 21:23-24).
Recognizing the fundamental religious nature of the human being the Bishops spoke positively about all religions in general and confirmed in particular the Catholic Church’s high regard for the Muslims who worship God, who is one, living and subsistent, merciful and almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth who has also spoken to men.
Peace is a central theme in all religions. For us Christians, Jesus Christ, in whom God is revealed completely, is referred to as the “Prince of Peace”. After his resurrection from the dead, the first gift Jesus imparts to his disciples is the “gift of Peace”, not as the world gives but as God himself gives it. For our brothers and sisters of Islamic tradition, the term “salam” constitutes one of the glorious divine names. The Muslim prayer concludes with a greeting of peace towards the community. In fact, all people aspire for peace but because of the selfishness of the human being, conflicts between peoples never stop and are often sustained by easy access to various types of arms. Society is becoming more and more sensitive to the problems of ecological balance, but the radical change of attitude that is required of people never takes place. Health and happiness are becoming higher goals of human life, but paradoxically they are in danger because of our selfish living. The sense of common responsibility about the future of humanity is often forgotten by the desire for immediate gratification.
Laying aside past conflicts, the Second Vatican Council’s Nostra Aetate calls Muslims and Christians to work together for peace. “Over the centuries many quarrels and dissensions have arisen between Christians and Muslims. The sacred Council now pleads with all to forget the past, and urges that a sincere effort be made to achieve mutual understanding; for the benefit of all men (and women), let them together preserve and promote peace, liberty, social justice and moral values” (NA, 3).
Peace is not so much a superficial balance between diverse material interests; rather, we must look at it as essential good, in fact, God’s gift which is entrusted to us. Peace is the fruit of morality and virtue. Search for peace and efforts to build peace must begin with God. Peace in this sense is our responsibility. The divine gift of peace must become for us, Muslims and Christians, a human project. We must also take with us believers of all religious traditions to cultivate peace in society. For, either we all peace or none of us individually lives in peace.
The edifice of peace stands on many pillars: prayer, love, justice, solidarity, respect, forgiveness, development, etc. The problems of our world – drought, disease, the equitable use of the earth’s resources, poverty, displacement of person(s) – do not respect a religious divide. They affect people of all religions, including Christians and Muslims. There are fields here open for Christian-Muslim cooperation. There are other domains too where Christians and Muslims are joining hands, but more could be done: defense of life, care for drug addicts, care of the handicapped, for the aged and the dying. Where human beings are in need there is a call for joint efforts to respond to these needs. In such cases trust has to be built up. Yet, joint action is important, for it shows that our respective religions are not out for self-aggrandisement at the expense of others’ sufferings, that they are not profiting by people’s weaknesses, but that they are truly serving their brothers and sisters for love of God. (the Open Letter, Common word, Love of God and Love of Neighbour”, on October 13, 2007 by 138 eminent Muslim scholars and intellectuals addressed to all the leaders of Christian churches, has proved the most outstanding dialogue-initiative of our times and which has won wide acceptance by the religious leaders of various traditions).
Let us not forget that peace is born in the heart of a person. One can hardly bring peace in society, in the world, if there is no peace within oneself. Cultivation of inner peace is indispensable if there is to be peace around. Perseverance in the life of prayer bears fruit of peace in one’s heart. Let us remember St John Paul II who said in Assisi in 1986: “…there exists another dimension of peace, another way of promoting it…it is the result of prayer, which, in the diversity of religions, expresses a relationship with a supreme power that surpasses our human capacities alone (Opening Address at the World Day of Prayer for Peace, Assisi 27 October 1986).
Obviously, to pray is not to escape from history and the problems which it presents. On the contrary, it is to choose to face reality not on our own, but with the strength that comes from on high, the strength of truth and love which have their ultimate source in God. Faced with treachery of evil, religious people can count on God, who absolutely wills what is good. They can pray to have courage to face even the greatest difficulties with a sense of personal responsibilities, never yielding to fatalism or impulsive reactions.
Development is the new name for peace. Can true peace exist when men, women and children cannot live in full human dignity? Can there be a lasting peace in a world ruled by relations – social, economic and political – that favour one group or nation at the expense of another? Can genuine peace be established without an effective recognition of that wonderful truth that we are all equal in dignity, equal because we have been formed in the image of God who is our Father? Integral development of the whole person and of all peoples is the necessary condition for peace. Unless we seek the good of one and all, peace is placed in jeopardy. Respect for the rights of every person is the foundation of peace. Of course, there are always rights and duties, flowing directly and simultaneously from the human person’s very nature. It is upon correct anthropological foundation of these rights and duties, and upon their intrinsic correlation, that the true bulwark of peace rests.
Phenomenon of globalization is being imposed on people, especially the poor, without respect to solidarity among all people. Is everyone able to take advantage of a global market? Will everyone at last have a chance to enjoy peace? Will relations between States become more equitable, or will economic competition and rivalries between peoples and nations lead humanity towards situation of even greater instability? The challenge before us is to ensure a globalization in solidarity, a globalization without marginalization.
People are subjects of true development and they are also the aim of true development. The integral development of people is the goal and measure of all development projects. How about promoting values that truly benefit individuals and society? It is not enough to reach out and help those in need. We must help them to discover the values which enable them to build a new life and to take their rightful place in society with dignity and justice. The solidarity that fosters integral development is that which protects and defends the legitimate freedom of every person and the rightful security of every nation. Development ultimately becomes a question of peace, because it helps to achieve what is good for others and for the human community as a whole.
Religions have an important role to play in establishing lasting peace in society. Religious leaders need to motivate their respective co-religionists in understanding the tenets of their own religious tradition. Religious believers are “messengers and artisans of peace”. The human longing for peace is expressed by every religion. If that longing is fundamental and essential to being human, then believers of every religion should support it, whether they be politicians, leaders of international organizations, businessmen and workers, associations and private citizens. Once again, I want to recall the words of St John Paul II. He said: “Work for peace, above all by the personal example of your own right interior attitude, which shows outwardly in consistent action and behavior. Serenity, balance, self-control, and acts of understanding, forgiveness and generosity have a peace-making influence on people’s surroundings and on the religious and civil community”.
Friendship among Christians and Muslims must continue if peace is to reign in many, if not all parts of the world. “In the climate of increased tensions in several parts of the world dialogue will be especially important in establishing a sound basis for peace and warding off the dread spectre of those wars which have so often bloodied human history. The name of one God must become increasingly what it is : a name of peace and a summons to peace!” (John Paul II, NMI, 2000)
All this may sound very idealistic. We have to take people as they are. Nevertheless we have to keep ideals before us, we have to maintain a vision, otherwise we shall just resign ourselves to constant conflict. However much fighting Christians have been, and are, engaged in, Christianity and Islam are both in themselves religions of peace. Christians and Muslims we worship the God of peace. We have the duty to work for peace, to work together for peace.