Church Leaders' Call for Understanding at Major Int'l Conference on Islam

A major international conference on Islam closed in Austria Wednesday with a strong appeal from some church leaders for deeper understanding between Christians and Muslims.

A major international conference on Islam closed in Austria Wednesday with a strong appeal from some church leaders for deeper understanding between Christians and Muslims.

The three-day conference "Islam in a Pluralist World" at Vienna, which began on Monday, Nov. 14, was sponsored by Austria. The line-up of prominent church leaders, scholars and politicians discussed on ways for Islam to adopt to globalized commerce and culture, according to Associated Press (AP).

In the wake of the so-called "clash of civilizations" between the two major religious movements – Christianity and Islam – across the world, Christian leaders urged for "serious and open inter-religious dialogue" in order to ease out prejudice and hatred, which are the root of extremism, AP reported.

Top Roman Catholic Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn from Vienna addressed the conference Wednesday, underlining that both Christian churches and Islamic leaders face responsibility for the tension formed in the history.

"We must put our mutual records on the table," said Schoenborn, according to AP.

Since the two religions are "missionary faiths" that always aim to spread their belief to the entire world, the vital "missionary work" contains "a large potential for conflict", explained Schoenborn, according to Reuters.

He supported his argument by citing some issues in the history of how "missionary zeal," despite its positive motive, sometimes had led to controversy. Examples included the medieval Crusades and Europe's colonial expansion in Muslim lands, Reuters reported.

Schoenborn also warned of "so-called fundamentalists" who "change and radicalize the religious and social situation," according to AP. He noted the urgency for Muslim leaders to challenge them.

"Every time religion has been used for inciting anything, it has been a case of taking advantage of the ignorance of the masses and leading them into actions of intolerance and fanaticism and even terrorism," he commented.

"This is an issue we must discuss," emphasized Schoenborn when speaking to Reuters. "Will we be able to combine the dynamics of mission, a fundamental part of our religions, with respect for others' beliefs, for religious freedom and for tolerance?"

The spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, also echoed the need for Christian-Muslim dialogue on the Wednesday conference.

According to Reuters, Schoenborn is a close associate of Pope Benedict XVI and often speaks out on major issues facing the Roman Catholic Church. Under the leadership of Benedict XVI, the Vatican has showed intent to expand its outreach to Muslims, following the effort of the late John Paul II. John Paul II was first pope to visit a mosque during a visit to Syria in 2001.

U.N Secretary General Kofi Annan, who was not able to attend the conference, presented his statement through his special advisor Lakhdar Brahimi, according to Agence France Presse (AFP). Annan called for "continuing dialogue among the great religions" to fight extremism, which is "on the rise not only in Islam but among adherents of many faiths."

Other prominent figures presented on the conference included former moderate Iranian President Mohamed Khatami, Iran's Nobel Peace Prize winning author Shirin Abadi, Afghanistan President Hamid Kharzai, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and Secretary-General of the Organization of the Islamic Conferences Professor Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu from Turkey, sources say.

"Religions should listen to each other and focus on what brings them together to save the world from chemical and nuclear weapons," Khatami said to AFP.

In the light of the growing Islamic influence in Europe as well as the pending entry of the largely Muslim Turkey to the European Union (EU), the conference is one of the preparations for Austria’s six-monthly EU presidency starting from Jan. 1, 2006.

Austria, along with France and the Netherlands, has taken hard-line stance towards the full EU membership for Turkey, ahead of a decisive talk on Oct. 3. They mainly criticized Turkey’s poor human rights records. But they are also worried that the mostly Christian 25-nation bloc is not ready to absorb the predominantly Muslim country.