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Religious Leaders Should Reconcile, Not Divide

From the crusades to terrorist attacks, from Ireland to the Middle East, religious conflicts have been a part of human history. But analysts say most holy scriptures teach love and understanding among nations.

Christian, Jewish and Muslim holy books tell a similar story of creation. God made the world and all life on it, including the first human being. Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, California notes that all three religions teach that God created man in his own image.

“First of all, all of us believe that God created the individual in his own image, regardless of race or gender or religion. We are invested with an inviolability, with a divine potentiality. We all come from Adam. And Adam, we must remember, was not a Jew. He was not a Christian. He was not a member of Islam.”

Rabbi Harold also says that according to the Bible, God loves all the people. He quotes Chapter 19, verses 22-25, of the book of Isaiah. “’Blessed be Egypt my people and Assyria the work of may hands and Israel my heritage.’ Each one is loved by God. And I think it is important that we, who are the children of God, treat each other as brothers and sisters. To love God, but to hate his creation, is not only a contradiction, it is the uttermost blasphemy.”

But brothers and sisters often bicker. Jewish prophets also speak out on behalf of Israel's God, against the gods of Babylon. Muslims almost invariably learn that all religions except for Islam are false. And Christian history includes the Crusades and the Inquisition.

James Wiseman, a Benedictine monk and Professor of Theology at The Catholic University of America, says there is something in human nature that tends to separate “us” from “them.” But, he adds, religions also evolve with time. In a Vatican II declaration in the 1960’s, the Catholic Church for the first time commended non-Christian religions for searching for answers to such basic questions as the origin of the universe, the purpose of life and how individuals are supposed to act.

“The Catholic church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions. The church has a high regard for the manner of life and conduct, the precepts and doctrines which, although different in many ways from her own teaching, nevertheless often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all people.”

Father Wiseman says the same Vatican II document urges Catholics to enter “with prudence and charity into discussion and collaboration with members of other religions.”

Khaled Abou El Fadl, Professor of Law at the University of California and a renowned Muslim scholar, says the Koran has always encouraged Muslims to try to understand members of other religious groups.

“[The Koran says] God has created you diverse people, different tribes and different nations to – and the word is ‘ta’arafu’ – to come to know one another. And to come to know one another in Arabic is a word that means sincere or true knowledge. And true knowledge cannot be achieved except through full empathy with the other.”

Professor Fadl says only through the understanding of human race in all its diversity can people gain true understanding of the Creator. He notes many people are inclined to follow blindly their religious leaders instead of making the effort to understand the Koran and act according to their own conscience.

“The Koran is very explicit about the individual accountability of each person, fully and completely, for their own actions and that they will not be allowed to say in the final day that ‘this person told me’ or ‘that person convinced me.’ That message of individual responsibility and individual accountability is critical.”

Professor Fadl says the Koran also forbids making any promises in the name of the Almighty, something religious leaders often do. Rabbi Harold Schulweis acknowledges there are many interpretations of the Holy Scriptures and even leading authorities do not agree on them all. He says individuals must strive on their own to understand God’s message and follow their conscience.

There’s near universal agreement among scholars that while most world religions share common ethics, their rituals and traditions vary from decorating Christmas trees, lighting Chanukah candles, wearing headscarves or yarmulke, for example. These outward demonstrations of diversity often provoke tensions between religious groups. But analysts say this is where teachers have a role to play. They should explain and reconcile, not divide. Rabbi Schulweis compares religious diversity to world’s languages.

“Catholicism is a language. Judaism is a language. Islam is a language. They have to be respected. They bring something unique and important, but they have to meet in a way in which they can converse with each other as if there was a kind of a ‘spiritual Esperanto.’ And I can speak to my peers and speak a common language, at the same time recognizing that the particular language has to be respected. So I have to overcome the ‘either/or’ notion and speak in term of the ‘both/and’ notion.”

Rabbi Schulweis says God created the world and the humankind, but people created religions. The more they learn about one another, he says, the better they will understand God.

This program was broadcast as part of VOA's Focus series. To hear more Focus stories, please click here.