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Pope Benedict XVI and the Letter of the 138 Muslims

ICC Note: This article examines the Christian response to the letter from 138 Muslim leaders, urging a cautious approach towards dialogue due to the fact that Muslim scholars do not want to talk about religious freedom for others in Muslim countries.

By Sandro Magister
11/27/2007 Islam (Catholic Online/Chiesa [chiesa.espresso.repubblica.it]) – The letter from the 138 Muslims addressed last month to Benedict XVI and to the heads of the other Christian churches received a spectacular collective reply in a message signed by 300 scholars and published in “The New York Times” on November 18.

The message originated in the Divinity School of Yale University, specifically through the initiative of its dean, Harold W. Attridge, a professor of New Testament exegesis.

The message lavishes praise upon the letter of the 138. It endorses the letter’s contents, or the indication of the love of God and neighbor as the “common word” between Muslims and Christians, at the center of both the Qur’an and the Bible. And it prefaces everything with a request for forgiveness to “the All-Merciful One and the Muslim community around the world.”

Benedict XVI and the directors of the Holy See appear more cautious and reserved toward this flurry of dialogue.

The Holy See immediately replied to the letter of the 138 Muslims with polite statements of appreciation. But it put off until later a more fully elaborated response.

Not even “L’Osservatore Romano” mentioned it. The only reference made so far to the letter of the 138 in the newspaper of the Holy See was within a note announcing and commenting on the November 6 meeting between King Abdallah of Saudi Arabia and Benedict XVI. “L’Osservatore” did not even give coverage to the commentaries on the letter of the 138 by two scholars of Islam highly respected by pope Joseph Ratzinger, the Jesuits Samir Khalil Samir, from Egypt, and Christian W. Troll, from Germany.

But it is precisely from reading these commentaries – and that of Troll in particular – that one understands the reason for the caution of the Church of Rome.

Troll notes that the letter of the 138 Muslims, with its insistence on the commandments of the love of God and neighbor as the “common word” of both the Qur’an and the Bible, seems intended to bring dialogue onto the sole terrain of doctrine and theology.

But – Troll objects – there is a gaping distinction between the one God of the Muslims and the Trinitarian God of the Christians, with the Son who becomes man. This cannot be minimized, much less negotiated. The true “common word” must be sought elsewhere: in “putting into effect these commandments in the concrete, here-and-now reality of plural societies.” It must be sought in the defense of human rights, of religious freedom, of equality between man and woman, of the distinction between religious and political powers. The letter of the 138 is elusive or silent on all of this… [Go To Full Story]