NEW YORK — Despite difficulties, Christianity, Islam and Judaism can work together for peace, but only by each remaining faithful to its own beliefs.
That’s the view of leaders and scholars from the three religions who shared a podium at a Jan. 17 forum at the United Nations.
“We live in a desert,” amid the growing secularism, religious divisions, and other conflicts that plague the world, said Seyyed Hossein Nasr, author and professor of Islamic studies at George Washington University, one of the panelists. “The words of Jesus Christ, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers,’ were at no time as true as today.”
Religion can help foster that peace, “but only if it continues to be religion,” remaining faithful to its own identity, the Iranian-born Nasr said. “We must not relativize our path to God, but we must accept the validity of other paths.”
Nasr spoke along with Cardinal Angelo Scola, patriarch of Venice, and Rabbi Israel Singer, chairman of the Policy Council of the World Jewish Congress, at a forum sponsored by the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations and the Venice, Italy-based Oasis International Studies and Research Center.
About 200 people filled the United Nations’ Dag Hammarskjöld Library Auditorium for the forum, which was held to introduce the work of the Oasis Center and its publication. Oasis, a bi-annual magazine that deals with issue of Christian, Muslim and other interfaith concerns, is being given a U.S. edition for the first time.
The Jan. 17 forum included the three “Abrahamic” religions — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
Cardinal Scola founded the Oasis Center and its journal to foster dialogue among Christians and Muslims, beginning with Christian communities living in Muslim countries.
In addressing the audience, Cardinal Scola emphasized the need for dialogue beyond scholarly circles to include individuals in their daily lives.
“Listen to the experiences of people,” he urged.
Father James Massa, director of the U.S. Catholic Conference’s Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, who met Cardinal Scola when he was in Washington the previous day, called Oasis a “marvelous instrument” that offers ways to “bridge the divides” between Catholics and Muslims.
Father Massa noted that the name comes from a comment by Pope John Paul II that “the place of prayer is dear to both Christians and Muslims as an oasis in which one meets with the merciful God along the walk toward eternal life and with one’s brothers and sisters in the bonds of religion.”
Carl Anderson, supreme knight of the Knights of Columbus and who works closely with the Oasis Center, moderated the panel.
Nasr noted that “many profound misunderstandings need to be overcome,” especially the mis-association between Islam and violence.
Both Islam and Christianity have, at different times in their history, practiced violence “in the name of religion,” he said. While Judaism has less of a record of violence, “for most of its history it hasn’t had the power” to inflict violence.
“You can’t compare your favorable periods with the unfavorable periods of other religions,” or confuse the influence of religion with the influence of the civilization in which a people of faith live, Nasr said.
In understanding the differences in history and theology of each religion, Nasr said, it is important to allow each religion “the freedom to be oneself,” and not be subject to coercion, whether military or economic.
While recognizing the differences among the three religions, Nasr said, “Look at how much they have in common. They all believe in the same God,” as well as “the beginning and end of human history, the immortality of the soul and responsibility for one’s actions before God.”
“Let us hope and pray that all those who believe in God, in his mercy and his wisdom” Nasr continued, “will be able to speak together as a single family in a world so alienated from the divine.”
Rabbi Singer also shared that hope for all religions. He found encouragement from the closer relationship between the Church and Judaism since the Second Vatican Council’s 1965 document Nostra Aetate, (The Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions).
That document addressed concerns that the Jews had about the Church and committed the Church to better relations with Judaism. Yet dialogue between Jews and Catholics went far beyond what was imagined in Nostra Aetate, Singer said.
He cited the leadership of Pope John Paul II for fostering the healing. Jewish-Catholic dialogue can be a model for reconciliation, he said.
“If Jews and Catholics can get along,” Singer said, “almost anything can happen.”
Singer praised Islamic figures who have denounced violence, in particular Shaykh Ali Gomaa, Grand Mufti in Egypt and one of the highest-ranking clerics in the Sunni Muslim world.
The rabbi read a statement in which Ali Gomaa repudiated violence committed in the name of Islam as “the actions of a misguided criminal minority” who “contradict the central theme of peace in Islam.”
Pete Sheehan is based in
Long Island, New York.