Monday, December 1, 2003

Catholics — as well as other Christians — need to know a lot more about Islam, say two authors of a book of 100 questions and answers on the topic. However, the outlook on Muslims from “Inside Islam: A Guide for Catholics” is hardly favorable.

One of the authors, Daniel Ali of Burke, the founder of Christian-Islamic Forum, is a Kurdish convert from Islam to Christianity. Co-author Robert Spencer is a Catholic researcher who also wrote “Onward Muslim Soldiers,” a history of jihad.

“We wanted Catholics to become informed about Islam because not only is Islam the church’s chief rival in terms of religion but Islam is a serious threat to the peace and well-being of the Western world in general,” Mr. Spencer said.

Islam and the Roman Catholic Church each number about 1 billion adherents, although Islam, he says, is growing faster because of proselytizing.

“There’s an unwillingness by Muslims to coexist as equals with other religions, and they conduct a very energetic worldwide missions campaign,” he said. “Instead of Europe being Catholic as it was in the Middle Ages, in terms of demographic trends, it’s set to be come Muslim Europe.”

In an essay published yesterday, Paul Marshall, a fellow with the Center for Religious Freedom, said reporters mistakenly termed the Nov. 8 bombing in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, as an attack on Muslims. He wrote that it actually was aimed at Maronite Catholic and Greek Orthodox residents in a Lebanese Christian neighborhood. Of the seven publicly identified Lebanese victims, six were Christian.

The Catholic Church’s first pioneer in Catholic-Muslim relations was St. Francis of Assisi, who in 1219 sailed to Palestine to try to convert the Saracens.

Muslims point to the Crusades and to their expulsion from Spain in 1492 — along with Spanish Jews — by the Catholic King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella as examples of persecution by Catholics. However, the pope’s March 12, 2000, apology for the sins of Catholics throughout the ages mollified some Muslims.

“Muslim-Catholic relations are complex and riddled with religious strife,” Muslim Public Affairs Council director Salam Al-Marayati wrote for, a pluralistic religious Web site. “This apology is a small, albeit important, step in the process of reconciliation and cooperation.”

Muslims and Catholics have joined forces a few times in recent years, such as in fall 1998 when both protested “Corpus Christi,” a New York play that portrayed Jesus Christ as a homosexual. The Vatican and several Muslim countries presented a united front against abortion at U.N. conferences in Cairo (1994) and Beijing (1995).

“Nostra Aetate,” a Vatican II document issued in 1965 on how the church should relate to non-Christian religions, lists a few common elements with Islam: worship of one God, an esteem for the Virgin Mary, a reverence for Jesus Christ, a belief in a day of divine judgment, fasting, charity and prayer.

“That marked the dawn of a new era for Catholic-Muslim relations,” said Scott Alexander, director of Catholic-Muslim relations at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. The Vatican and the Muslim faculty at Al Azhar University in Cairo have had interreligious dialogues since 1998, he said, and Pope John Paul II has made numerous efforts to reach out to Muslims, including a May 2002 visit to the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, Syria.

However, “Particularly since Vatican II, Catholics think evangelization is a thing of the past,” Mr. Spencer said. “They think it’s more of a responsibility to take part in dialogue. However, that has not been reciprocated by the Muslim side nor any renunciation on large scale of Muslim doctrines that teach [that] Christians and Jews are renegades and inferior to Islam.”

In recent years, Muslims have been criticized by human rights groups for persecuting Catholics in Sudan, Pakistan and Indonesia.

In Bosnia-Herzegovina, relations are also tense.

“Our Catholic schools get insulting inscriptions written on their walls,” said Monsignor Mato Zogich, vicar-general for the Diocese of Sarajevo, “and young Muslim missionaries bring in hostile literature. Muslim leaders tell us they’re not doing it. Well, who is?”

Mr. Ali, who grew up in Kurdish Iraq with Christian neighbors, has made it his life’s work to familiarize himself with theology of both religions. His library — one of three bedrooms in a Northern Virginia condo — is crammed with Islamic commentaries by Ibn Kathir, an eighth-century Syrian scholar; histories by ninth-century Islamic historian Jafar al-Tabari; several English and Arabic dictionaries; seven translations of the Koran; and works by various Jewish rabbis and Catholic theologians.

“When you have the theology right,” he said, “you can shatter [opponents]. If not, they can monkey around with you.”

One of his chief beefs with his former religion is what is known as the “nullification theory,” a Koranic doctrine whereby Allah can cancel verses and substitute new revelations for old ones. Early Muslims developed the theory because of contradictions in Muhammad’s messages, he said. It makes it impossible for Christians to point out discrepancies in the Koran.

“The Koran says, ‘Let there be no compulsion in religion’ — Sura 2:256,” he said, “but what about Muhammad’s wars? Are those of no value? There’s not a single Islamic state in 1,400 years that has lived at peace with its neighbors.

“How can that be if Islam is a ‘peaceful religion’ and Muslims are a ‘peaceful people’?”

Converted to Christianity in 1995, Mr. Ali says he was a political activist starting with his university student days in Sulaymania, in northeastern Iraq. He then worked with the Kurdish opposition to Saddam Hussein and has landed in jail eight times in his 44 years.

He met his wife, Sara, a charismatic Christian, in 1993 when she traveled to Iraq to visit a Kurdish friend. Mr. Ali, who volunteered to be her translator, quickly asked her to marry him.

“When we got married,” she said, “he told me not to convert him to my religion. I said OK.”

But two years later, her husband converted to Christianity through the testimony of a Christian dentist.

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