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In letter, Muslim clerics reach out to Christians

WASHINGTON - A group of Muslim clerics and scholars worldwide called on Christian leaders yesterday to recognize similarities between Islam and Christianity as a way of fostering mutual understanding and respect between the two religions.

In an open letter to major international Christian patriarchs, including Pope Benedict XVI, 138 Muslim clerics, theologians, and academics said they hoped fundamental theological ties between Islam and Christianity could foster peace among their believers.

"It's hoped that the recognition of this common ground will provide the followers of both faiths a shared understanding that will serve to diffuse tensions around the world," said John L. Esposito, director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University. Esposito and other scholars discussed the letter, titled "A Common Word Between Us and You," at the National Press Club.

Delivered two days before the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, the letter said followers of Islam and Christianity share a commitment to love one God and to love their neighbors, which include members of different religions.

"There is no one who does not accept these two principles as being essential to the Christian way of life," said Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a professor of Islamic studies at George Washington University, who signed the letter.

Nasr said violent actions often overshadow the principles of compassion held by a majority of Muslims. Conversely, he said, many Muslims remember the violent history of the Crusades and fail to recognize that Christian teachings include principles of love.

"The demonization is from both sides," Nasr said.

Some scholars called the letter unprecedented. "This is really the first time in history that we've had an initiative where Muslims have collectively come together and agreed to what binds them theologically with Christians," Esposito said. "And it's a group of Muslims that run across the spectrum."

The letter, which quotes from both the Bible and the Koran, gives "compelling reasons why Muslims and Christians should work together," said Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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