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Interfaith Tolerance: A Main Ingredient for Peace?

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops acknowledges a troubled history in Christian-Muslim relations -- a past that includes the crusades and holy wars of the Middle Ages. American bishops point to recent efforts at reconciliation by the Catholic Church, including Pope John Paul II's visit to a Christian and Muslim holy site in Syria in 2001. How will Pope Benedict XVI foster interfaith understanding?

Some Muslim militants liken tensions between Christianity and Islam to religious wars of the past. In a video two years ago, Al-Qaida's Ayman al-Zawahiri compared Pope Benedict XVI to Pope Urban II who launched the crusades in the 11th century.

Some scholars point to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, saying that Muslim-Christian tensions are ever present.

But historian John Voll of the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University says that overall, response to the September 11 attacks has been constructive. According to Voll, "The most remarkable thing was the number of requests that we got not for people who would come and talk about how terroristic Muslims were, but rather for help in organizing Muslim-Christian dialogue in local communities."

Voll says that although violence captures newspaper headlines, many Muslims and Christians around the world are engaged in cooperative activities. "I think that in the 21st century, with Internet, with communication, with globalized transportation, you have a very high frequency of people who happen to be Muslim working together in corporations or in non-governmental organizations with Christians, and their religion does not count," says Voll.

Promoting Interfaith Dialogue

During the past four decades, the Catholic Church has promoted interfaith reconciliation. In 1965, for example, the Second Vatican Council appealed to Christians and Muslims to overcome their differences and to work for peace and understanding.

In 2001, Pope John Paul II was hailed for visiting the revered Ummayad Mosque in Syria and for urging dialogue between what he called "two great religious communities".

In October of last year, some 130 leading Muslim scholars from around the world issued a letter calling for peace and understanding between Islam and Christianity -- saying the survival of the world depends on it.

"I really think that this initiative that has come from Muslims for theological dialogue based upon the principles of love of God and love of neighbor is very positive," says John Borelli, a Georgetown University theologian and National Coordinator for Interreligious Dialogue at the U.S. Jesuit Conference. "The Vatican has responded and what will come out of this will be the largest Muslim dialogue that the Vatican has co-sponsored."

Professor Borelli adds that the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis and the future of Jerusalem are the most contentious issues affecting Muslim-Christian relations.

Borelli says Muslim American leaders will participate in interfaith activities during Pope Benedict's visit to the United States.

Religious Tolerance and World Peace

Nearly two years ago, the pope angered many Muslims around the world when he quoted a 14th century Byzantine emperor who criticized the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad. The pontiff later expressed deep respect for all Muslims.

Parvez Ahmed, Chairman of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, says disparaging Islam in the Christian world is a serious challenge for interfaith tolerance. "Many mainstream religious leaders have said very derogatory things about the Prophet Muhammad, about Islam and about Allah in a way that if it had been said for any other faith or any other group, there would be a major, major backlash on it," says Ahmed. "Unfortunately, these important figures -- religious and political figures -- made these hateful comments about Islam and in some sense they got away with it."

Ahmed says that while Muslims need to follow the teachings of Islam, they should respect other faiths to foster better relations.

Keith Ellison is the first Muslim American to be elected to the United States Congress. Representative Ellison says all it takes for Muslims to have better relations with Christians is to follow the lessons of their faith. "Those lessons that speak to religious tolerance, those lessons that speak to gender equality are the things that we should rely on," says Ellison. "And the world of Islam should never operate on the basis of fear because from fear we get exclusion; from fear we get harsh action, desperate action, and rageful action."

Pope Benedict, who recently has appealed for an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the Middle East and interreligious violence in Africa, says religious and intercultural dialogues are necessary to forge world peace.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.