Archbishop Sako, how Christian-Muslim relations have changed in Iraq
Interreligious dialogue and peace in Iraq at the center of the meeting last week in Austria. The archbishop of Kirkuk, Louis Sako, reiterates the "role of Christians in the development of the Arab world". Fr Samir Khalil Samir recalls the pope's appeal for "courageous and sincere" dialogue.

Salzburg (AsiaNews) - Promoting "religious dialogue" on the basis of diverse identities - whether cultural, historical, or social - and through these, establishing a relationship of "mutual understanding", capable of bringing "peace in two areas in which tensions are still high among the faithful of the various religions". Under the slogan "Christianity and Islam: a new life together?", on September 22 and 23 the Austrian foundation Initiative Christlicher Orient - ICO, created in support of the churches of the East - organized in Salzburg an international conference attended by more than 100 professors and experts of the Arab and Christian world.

The four speakers at the conference were asked to illustrate the unique features of the two great monotheistic religions, and to outline the steps that should be taken to promote the dialogue that, in the footsteps of Pope Benedict XVI and his lectio magistralis in Regensburg, could set aside "hatred and fanaticism" and clearly reject "the logic of violence" in favor of reciprocal "constructive criticism".

The archbishop of Kirkuk, Louis Sako, explained the relationship between Christians and Muslims in the Iraq " of yesterday and today", and the contribution made "by the Christian community to the development of Islamic culture", thanks to the construction of schools, hospitals, and monasteries in Baghdad and in Najaf, Kerbala, and Mosul, cities sacred to the Shiite Muslim tradition. "The Koran calls Christians and Jews 'People of the Book'", the prelate emphasized, "and says that they must be respected. But there are other verses in which it is permitted to subject them, demanding a tax - the Jizia - to guarantee their protection".

Despite its ups and downs, the relationship between Christianity and Islam over the centuries has always been founded on mutual respect and collaboration. Archbishop Sako cites as an example the Abbasid caliphate, the dynasty that governed the Muslim world from Baghdad (and, for a few decades, from Samara) between 750 and 1258 A.D. Numerous Christian intellectuals, philosophers, astronomers, engineers, writers, and translators worked in close contact with the caliphs, making a significant contribution to the "development of Arab culture".

The tragedy of September 11 and the following war in Iraq conducted by the United States have contributed to "worsening" relations between the two religions, and to transforming the country into a "breeding ground for terrorism". The fundamentalists, most of whom come from outside of the country, have infiltrated Iraq with the purpose of transforming it into an "Islamic state" based on sharia, sowing death and destruction and contributing to the emigration of thousands of Christians. "They exalt jihad, the holy war", the archbishop of Kirkuk continued, "taking aim at the Christian community with kidnappings, torture, and murder". For this reason, he calls upon "moderate Muslims, who are in the majority", to work together with Christians to promote "harmony and tolerance" and to show the "nonviolent" face of Islam, which does not tolerate the sacrifice of "innocent victims".

Fr Samir Khalil Samir, a Jesuit and an expert on the Arab world, focused attention on the controversy that arose following Benedict XVI's lecture in Regensburg, in September of 2007: he recalls the pope's appeal for a "courageous and sincere" dialogue, and for a "profound rethinking" of the Islamic tradition, which must begin precisely "from within the Muslim world", which is called to "isolate the fringe groups that promote terrorism and fundamentalism". The response was the letter of the 138 Muslim scholars, the visit to the Vatican by Saudi king Abdullah, the pope's homage to the most important mosque in Istanbul, and the Christian-Muslim summit in Madrid. "Islam", Fr Samir recalls, "maintains that the Koran was directly dictated by God, that Mohammed is the last and greatest prophet, and that Islam is an indissoluble combination of religion and government; this approach is profoundly different with respect to Christianity, the figure of Jesus Christ, and the historical reinterpretation of the sacred Scriptures".

In their remarks, professors Karl Prenner and Heinz Nussbaumer illustrated the "status of non-Muslims in the Koran, analyzing the differences between the suras (the "chapters" of the sacred book of Muslims) of Mecca and Medina", which demonstrate the "politicization of Islam" and the future development of "relations between East and West".