"Christians and Muslims, in general, have badly understood each other, and sometimes in the past we have opposed and even exhausted each other in polemics and wars. I believe that today God invites us to change our old practices. We must respect each other, and also we must stimulate each in good works on the path to God." (Pope John Paul II)
Together, Muslims and Christians comprise 50 percent of the world's population (Muslims 19%, Christians 32%). Islam, like Christianity, has an international membership. In 60 countries Muslims comprise the majority of the population. In another 15 nations, they comprise a substantial minority. In Europe, Islam is already the second largest religious tradition.
Today less than 20 percent of the world's Muslims live in the Middle East. The majority now reside in Africa and Asia, and in the early years of the next century Muslims will surpass Jews as the second largest religious community in North America.
Islam and Christianity share much in common. Both religions see themselves as children of Abraham-the Old Testament is important to both traditions. Both faiths are monotheistic (belief in one God); both honour Mary and venerate Jesus (although Jesus is understood quite differently by each tradition).
Unfortunately these two religions also share a long history of conflict, and some vestiges of this unhappy story still endure. In 1997, for example, violent conflict between Christians and Muslims erupted in Pakistan, Indonesia and Egypt.
But the good news is that in recent decades Muslims and Christians have begun to cooperate with one another for the first time in history. For Catholics, the breakthrough came with the Second Vatican Council; an important breakthrough when one considers that the Muslim and Catholic religions now number one billion followers each.
Fr. Mohammed teaches in the field of interfaith dialogue, specializing in Muslim-Christian relations at Regis College, the Toronto School of Theology.
Dialogue is being carried on between Christians and Muslims at the national and international levels. This usually involves specialists from the two faith communities studying questions of common concern together. In the Catholic Church, the Vatican has insisted that the essential dialogue must be carried out by local churches with local Muslims. What would it mean for the Vatican to have good relations with Muslims in a certain country if relations between Christians and Muslims in that country were strained or unfriendly? However, the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue has been carrying on a series of colloquiums and seminars with a number of international Muslim organizations studying questions such as religious education, the rights of the child, tolerance and co-citizenship in pluralist societies, the role of women in society, and aid to refugees and victims of natural disasters. It draws on an international base of Christian experts while our Muslim partners similarly invite Muslim specialists on these issues.
Thomas Michel S.J. (Fr. Michel works in the office for Islam of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue in Rome.)