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Spring 2016 · Vol. 45 No. 1 · pp. 4–21 

Can Christianity and Islam Live Together

Harold Jantz

In the last fifteen years, many world events in which religion played a part have deeply shaken us; they need little recounting. The latest has been the flow of an estimated million refugees into Europe in 2015, many of them from the Middle East. The majority are Muslim, though thousands of Christians can be found among them too. Of the some 60 million refugees around the world, a great many—perhaps most—embrace Islam. With this human tide of people entering into Europe there is a strong sense of the passing of what was once known as “Christendom,” a world order in which entire countries gave the Christian Church an established place.

A reading of the history of Jews, Christians, and Muslims suggests that the three faiths can find ways of living together, even when it is challenging.

Some alarmed European demographers have predicted that with higher birthrates in Muslim families and continuing immigration, it’s just a matter of time until Europe is Islamized. While it is doubtful that {5} this will happen, polls by the Pew Research Center indicate that if current trends continue, Muslims worldwide will outnumber Christians by the end of this century. Part of the reason is the significant difference in fertility rates: 3.1 children per child-bearing Muslim mother compared to 2.3 for mothers of all other groups. 1 One of the ironies is that Europe actually needs the immigrants because birth rates of most countries are not enough to sustain their populations. In Germany, for example, 25 to 30 percent of women have no children at all and the country’s birth rate has fallen to the lowest in the world.

How we respond to the challenge of living together as people of different faiths is at the heart of this essay. As I will expand on later, this is especially critical for those of us who see ourselves as called to be witnesses for Christ, seeking to win others to a saving faith in him. And as we do this we acknowledge that Muslims likewise should, and do want to persuade us to accept their faith in Allah and reverence for Muhammad, his prophet.

Philip Jenkins, author of God’s Continent—Christianity, Islam and Europe’s Religious Crisis, suggests that many secular Europeans hope that with a growing Muslim presence, they will simply become secular like them. Their thinking is that

[Islam] should cease teaching its superiority to other religions since, as rational people are assumed to realize, all religions are equally invalid. And God forbid (so to speak) that it should preach any sort of moral standards, social or sexual. This Islam would in short be a variant of the most pallid and shrinking forms of liberal Christianity, and we might well ask why exponents of any religion might want to see their faith develop in this way. 2

Jenkins suggests this is not likely to happen.

One of Europe’s dilemmas—and to a lesser extent that of the United States and Canada—is the effect of an aging population. It is predicted that by 2050 the median age for all Europe will have risen to fifty-two from the thirty-seven or thirty-eight it is today. On the other hand, a quick overview of the Middle East reveals that the population of young people is large. In Saudi Arabia, for example, the population grew from 16.9 million in 1992 to 27.1 million in 2010, and 37 percent were fourteen and younger. In Canada, by contrast, only 17.6 percent are fourteen or younger. It is forcing the dominant Christian populations to find ways of responding. Just as an evangelical Pentecostal constituency in Brazil forced that nominally Catholic country to adjust to this new reality, so Islam in Europe is forcing changes to practices. The responses so far have ranged widely both in Europe and North America. 3 {6}


That Christianity and Islam stand at a critical juncture hardly needs saying. Virtually all of the major conflict zones around the world today have as their subtext the face-off between the two major religions. Who can forget the impotence of Dutch peacekeepers in the face of the Christian Serb soldiers in July 1995, who within a few days would massacre 8,000 Muslim men and boys? It became the largest genocide on European soil since the Second World War. The legacy of those crimes in the former Yugoslavia lingers to this day.

The magnitude of the destruction of life and cultural treasures raises questions about what Muslims and Christians of good will can do to ease the tensions, and what advice they can give to their governments that might provide some help. Identifying some of the major issues would be one step.

In mid-2011, the Pew Research Center did a large study of opinions within Muslim and Western publics to gauge the tensions between the two. It concluded that “many in the West see Muslims as fanatical and violent, while few say Muslims are tolerant or respectful of women. Meanwhile Muslims in the Middle East and Asia generally see Westerners as selfish, immoral and greedy—as well as violent and fanatical.” Even though the survey found that Westerners’ attitudes toward Muslims had improved somewhat in the previous half decade, Muslims in Muslim-dominant countries felt that relations were as bad as five years earlier. Muslims also “overwhelmingly” blame the West for bad relations, while Americans and Europeans “tend to blame Muslims [though] significant numbers also believe Westerners are responsible.” 4

It is important, too, to recognize how the publics identify themselves. Within Pakistan, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt, Palestinian territories, Indonesia, and Lebanon, only the Palestinian territories and Lebanon place nationality first; the rest identify first by religion. In the United States “seven-in-ten white evangelicals Christians identify first by their religion,” but in the nation as a whole, an equal percentage (46%) identify themselves by nationality as by religion. 5

Mennonites or evangelical Christians should have no difficulty understanding the priority placed on religious identity. Many Mennonites identify themselves first by their faith, but most Canadians and Americans do not. For Muslims, the understanding that Allah is sovereign leads naturally to Allah’s right to set the rules for all of life. He is the one who creates the ummah, the Muslim nation or community. That community is not national but supranational. Furthermore, the world is divided into two: “the House of Islam, where the Muslim law and faith prevail, and the rest, known as the House of Unbelief or the House of War, which {7} it is the duty of Muslims ultimately to bring to Islam.” 6 So, for Muslims to identify first by religion should not be surprising.

Finally, a decade after the 9/11 attacks, the Pew study did not find a single Muslim public in the eight countries surveyed where the majority believed that the attacks on the United States were carried out by Arabs. In Egypt a high of 75 percent didn’t believe it. In Turkey it was 73 percent. In none of those countries did even 30 percent believe it. 7 These numbers are especially troubling, considering how frequently observers and historians have commented on the anger in Muslims publics against the West, particularly against the United States. Bernard Lewis says that what “is truly evil and unacceptable [to vast numbers of Muslims of the Middle East] is the domination of infidels over true believers.” Adds Lewis, “For misbelievers to rule over true believers is blasphemous and unnatural, since it leads to the corruption of religion and morality in society and to the flouting and even the abrogation of God’s law.” He explains this is also why spokesmen for Muslim minorities in Europe and America are asking for legal protections that are no longer given to Christians and were never given to Jews. 8

In a similar vein, columnist Thomas Friedman has written that some “young Muslim men are tempted by a civilization they consider morally inferior; and they are humiliated by the fact that, while having been taught that their faith is supreme, other civilizations seem to be doing much better.” Muslim frustration, says Friedman, “is not about poverty, this is about the poverty of dignity and the rage it can trigger.” 9

Another issue between Muslim and Christian-dominant countries revolves around the promise and perils of democracy in the countries in which Islam dominates. Because Islam envisions so little separation between mosque and state, a free vote holds little promise for minorities. When Egypt had its first free elections, the two Islamist parties, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and the ultra-conservative Salafists, together collected over 60 percent of the popular vote. One of the Salafist’s leaders, Sheik Abdel Moneim Shahat, said in a public debate that the Egypt he envisioned was one with “citizenship restricted by Islamic shariah, freedom restricted by Islamic shariah, equality restricted by Islamic shariah.” 10 This was spoken in a country in which 10 percent of the population, perhaps 8-10 million people, are Christian. Sadly, when the final results came in, Christians filled fewer than 2 percent of the seats in the new parliament. Not only that, the Morsi government soon began pushing through a constitutional Islamist agenda that gravely threatened religious minorities.

The results appeared to confirm the fears of Christian communities. In virtually any of the Muslim-dominant countries with sizable {8} Christian minorities, they have been most secure in countries with powerful military dictatorships, as in Egypt under Mubarak, Iraq under Saddam Hussein, and Syria under the al-Assads, who declared their countries secular even if they favored Muslims. Christians in these countries were fearful of Islamist governments, which explains why Christians have tended to support Bashar al-Assad during Syria’s tragic civil war.


A major 2010 article in Germany’s Der Spiegel visited Mecca, Islam’s holy city, to examine the enormous growth taking place there, catering to the millions of pilgrims who descend on the city annually. It described the explosion of hotel towers, roadways, and commercial enterprises surrounding Islam’s holiest site, the Kaaba. The Intercontinental Hotel Dar al-Tawhid (House of Monotheism) and Makkah Hilton jostle with Hardees and Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets. But access to the city is allowed only to Muslims—a sign outside the city warns all others they are forbidden entrance.

That more than anything else signals Islam’s differences with other religions and the rest of the world. How can it support a culture of protection for all faiths when its own is elevated thus? The outcome, states the Spiegel writer, is that “it is still forbidden to bring a Bible into Saudi Arabia, Christian diplomats are not able to conduct worship services even in their extraterritorial embassies, missionaries are threatened with draconian punishment, and the construction of a church within the kingdom is totally unthinkable.” 11 This, even though there may be well over a million foreign Christian workers in the country. Nationals can’t identify as Christians because it could end in death.

The question the Spiegel article articulates is this: Does Islam have the ability to come to terms with diversity? Significantly, it asks the question not in the first place about other faiths such as Christianity and Judaism, but about its ability to deal with diversity within itself. For the article asserts, “Mecca is the center of a world religion that is in a struggle with itself.” Shia Muslims in Saudi Arabia would almost certainly echo that view, for they are clearly disadvantaged in the presence of a Sunni majority. Indeed, in the Muslim world generally, the dominance of a Sunni majority over a Shia minority represents a constant source of conflict. Population mapping suggests some 87-90 percent of the world’s Muslims are branches of Sunni Islam while 10-13 percent are Shia. One can rightly argue that the struggle in Syria is an expression not merely of a Syrian but of a wider Muslim civil war.

While all Muslims have the right to come to Mecca on pilgrimage, Islam is in fact deeply divided, to which the frequent sectarian attacks {9} on one another are testimony. In the twentieth century, Wahhabism influenced Saudi Arabia to such an extent that even four schools representing different streams within Sunni Islam can no longer coexist in the holy city of Mecca. All once had their own seminaries there, but no longer. Wahhabism dominates. Writes the Spiegel:

Mecca is itself an amalgam of contradictions. Here Islam and globalization encounter one another, unity and diversity, scholasticism and logic, faith and commercialization. Here will be demonstrated whether the religion and the culture that it has birthed can be brought into harmony with the rest of the world: whether on the one hand its levelling of hierarchies, its posture toward trade and earning wealth, and its profound disinterest in roots and class can serve the advance of Muslims. Or whether its susceptibility to extremism, its unresolved relationship to force and its antiquated view of women will continue to alienate it from the modern world. 12

The relationship of Islam to the use of force is one of the most problematic of the challenges it faces. The issue goes back to the very beginnings of the faith. The prophet Muhammad’s military and political ascendancy were taken as confirmation of the message he brought to the Arabian tribes. It allowed the Prophet in the name of Allah to set the rules for society. A friend of Muslims, the Mennonite David Shenk writes that “Muslims who live in areas that are not under Muslim authority yearn for the completion of their community that is only possible when the Muslim nation has established political control over the territory where they reside.” 13

This also provides a reason why one rarely, if ever, hears Muslims apologizing for their wars of conquest, while Christians, for example, have repeatedly apologized for the Crusades. Conquest is a form of bringing the world into harmony with the Creator, restoring the equilibrium that it lacks as long as parts have not yielded to their divine intention. It is this that provides the context for jihad, the term we’ve come to know as “struggle” or “fight.”

Gordon Nickel has pointed out that the Qur’an contains twelve direct commands to fight and five commands to kill, and “many apparent descriptions of battle situations in which Allah exhorts believers to get behind the war effort.” 14 He also observes that the parts of the Qur’an originating from the time when Muhammad first came to Mecca and wasn’t in power are more conciliatory to other groups than the later Medinan writings, when his political and military position had been established. To this day this creates a problem that was usually resolved by {10} the principle of “abrogation”: where a conflict appears to exist between qur’anic passages from different periods in Muhammad’s life, what was written later takes precedence. Applied to the question of the use of force, however, the more militant passages in the Qur’an prevail. 15

Where Islam has been dominant, minority religious groups have generally had to accept a subservient though not necessarily difficult position. In the past, where they had been conquered, they were known as dhimmis. In acknowledgment of their position, dhimmis in many Muslim-dominant countries were required to pay a special head tax, the jizya. It was a permanent reminder that they occupied an inferior position and believed in an inferior religion.

In past centuries, countries such as Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, Syria, and Palestine have had large Christian populations. Under some Muslim leaders, significant numbers of Jews and Christians were given quite prominent roles. Many will remember Saddam Hussein’s Christian foreign minister, Tariq Aziz. But it was the twentieth century that witnessed the largest Christian decline in these countries. Shenk maintains that it was political turmoil in the last hundred years—much of which he blames on the West—that brought this about. The breakup of the Ottoman Empire in particular had tragic consequences for Christians. In Turkey, a country where 24 percent of the population was Christian in 1914 (today it is about 1.5 percent), the breakup contributed to the genocide of the Armenian Christians, led to huge losses of life, and forced many others to flee the country. It is estimated that today only 5 percent of the population of all the Middle East is Christian. 16

So, the question at the heart of the relationship of Islam to other faiths revolves around whether it can open itself to granting to other faiths the rights and privileges it asks for itself. Can the Qur’an or Muslim history be interpreted so that this can happen? Fundamentally, this is a question people of every faith must address. In North America and Europe, Christians are the ones who must ask it of themselves. On the surface, at least, the laws in these regions clearly state that religious freedom exists for all, regardless of the persuasion. This is what makes the governments of Western nations “secular.”

Most Christians believe they can live at peace with such secular governments, and this essay would support that position. The Bible does not argue for a privileged place for the Christian church within the state. Jesus did not aspire to military or political power. Despite failures, a good case can be made that Muslims in the West enjoy protections and privileges that are nowhere to be found for Christians in Muslim-dominant countries. {11}

In such a context, however, as the two faiths most committed to evangelizing for their faith and winning converts, Christians and Muslims have to come to terms with the question of the freedom to convert and the attitude toward those who do. To do so, they have to search their teachings and history, writes Anglican bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, to find the tools to make the shifts that will enable them to live together in peace within one world. 17

Journalist and poet Eliza Griswold spent seven years travelling through that region of the world where Islam and Christianity experience their most dramatic encounter—at the tenth parallel. Out of it emerged a book, The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line between Christianity and Islam. 18 She told an interviewer for Christianity Today that Christian mission “terrifies” Muslims. “Even the most conservative Christian evangelists,” she said, “understand that preaching to others, whether it’s me or a Muslim, is giving that person who’s hearing the message a choice. It’s not about forcible conversion. That message does not reach the Muslim world at all. Muslims understand conversion to be linked to imperialism.” 19

Nonetheless, there are other dynamics at work as well. Islam and Christianity have very different responses to those who turn away from the faith. In the case of Christians, someone who abandons the faith for another or who declares he or she simply no longer believes, would likely be mourned, possibly be warned that they had placed their soul in eternal jeopardy, but would have no fear of anything else from believers.

Muslims who turn away from Islam, however, are considered apostates and face a quite different response. Patrick Sookhdeo, a former Muslim, says that “Islam, the second largest religion in the world with around 1.4 billion adherents, stands alone among world religions in officially prescribing a range of severe punishments for any of its adherents who choose to leave their faith, punishments that include the death sentence.” 20

Indeed, leaving Islam for another faith is fraught with great difficulty and often danger. Though death sentences are rarely carried out, Afghanistan, Comoros, Iran, Mauritania, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Yemen all declare apostasy to be punishable by death. And in a number of other countries it is illegal. In fact, according to a 2007 survey cited by The Daily Telegraph, 36 percent of young British Muslims believe that those who leave Islam should be killed. 21

Similar distance exists between how disparaging remarks, criticism, or mistreatment and mocking displays of the Qur’an or of the Prophet Muhammad might be regarded and how Christians in Western countries might respond to such mistreatment or to mockery of the Bible or Jesus. {12} Virtually anywhere within Muslim-dominant countries, the charge of blasphemy can become a very serious issue. In Pakistan it may often be one Muslim charging another with blasphemy, usually someone from a majority Muslim group against someone from a minority group. The charge can result in a death sentence, proportionately more often if the person charged is a Christian. The most likely outcome is that the accused will not be executed judicially, but rather attacked some other way, even if eventually released by the courts. Both Pakistan’s national Minorities Minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, and the governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, were assassinated in the same year, after urging changes to the country’s blasphemy laws. A member of the Pakistani human rights group, Life For All, wrote in 2011 that “some 40 blasphemy accused [had] been killed extra judicially since 1986.” 22 Of these, sixteen were known to be Christian, fourteen Muslim, five Ahmadi, and two Hindu.


How can the distances be overcome? Perhaps, more importantly, how can Christians and Muslims learn to provide genuinely equal room to the other? It may not be possible, but should it not nonetheless be attempted?

Griswold tells the story of a pastor and imam from northern Nigeria, each strongly conservative in his faith, “each believing the other is going to hell,” yet able to work together for fifteen years to end religious violence in Kaduna, their hometown. The Christian pastor, James Movel Wuye, lost an arm when Christians and Muslims fought one another over control of their market. Both the imam, Muhammad Nurayn Ashafa, along with the pastor, had understood themselves to be soldiers for God. But both men came to have a profound “faith experience,” says Griswold. Wuye realized “he couldn’t talk to people who were different unless he came to love them,” while the imam had already approached the Christian to stop fighting. The two began working together. “They were able to overcome their personal differences to work for mutual existence.” They could do this even though the Christian was producing a Christian television show in Hausa to convert Muslims, and the imam was taking Christian orphans into his home, hoping to convert them. 23

A reading of the history of Jews, Christians, and Muslims suggests that the three faiths can find ways of living together, even when it is challenging. The story of peaceful harmony between Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Andalusian Spain during the ninth and tenth centuries is probably a myth, 24 but there are other true and inspiring stories. One involves Muhammad sending a number of his early followers to the Christian kingdom of Ethiopia to be kept in safety and peace. This is {13} the first hijra or migration in Muslim history. Later, when Muhammad fled Mecca for Medina, in the second hijra, he proclaimed a Covenant of Medina that created a single ummah or community in which Muslims, Jews, and non-believers, were, as Nazir-Ali says, “bound together in . . . a solemn social contract, under the terms of which all are treated equally.” Nazir-Ali says the contract did not endure, “but . . . it is a most remarkable document and ought to have greater influence in the development of Islamic polity than it does.” 25

The missionary calling felt by both Islam and Christianity is clearly a core issue that the two faiths need to face head-on, says Nazir-Ali. “These two are now the missionary faiths in the global arena.” That will inevitably create tension, but if “conflict is to be prevented, it is important for each faith to acknowledge the missionary character of the other.” He cites examples from Pakistan and Nigeria where this has happened and “conversation and co-operation about what is good for the community” took place. 26

Such peacekeeping or peacemaking must involve a sense of reciprocity between the two faiths—despite the obvious huge hurdles. For example, in 2009, when the Swiss people voted nearly 58 percent against allowing mosques with minarets, it generated a huge outcry within many Muslim-dominant countries (even though Switzerland already had close to a hundred mosques or Islamic Cultural centers). For example, Turkey’s prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, even called the vote a “sign of an increasingly racist and fascist stance in Europe.” Yet, as Turkish journalist Serkan Ocak pointed out, it is virtually impossible to build a new church in Turkey, 27 and the nation refuses to recognize the genocide of the Armenian Christians early in the twentieth century. In Switzerland, the leaders of the main Christian communities—Catholic, Orthodox, and Evangelical—all went on record to argue for allowing the minarets.

The adamant refusal of Saudi Arabia to allow any sort of public Christian worship in the kingdom despite the presence of as many as a million Christians, ought to be an offence to both Christians and Muslims. In 2007 King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia met Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican, the first time ever for an audience of a Saudi monarch with the Pope. Interestingly, the King is known as the Keeper of the Two Holy Mosques in Mecca and Medina. He could visit the Pope in the Vatican, but he wasn’t able to issue a visa for the Pope to visit Islam’s holy sites. Nor has he yet honored the Pope’s request for permission to build a church for Catholics in Saudi Arabia. 28 Reciprocity is absent.

Quite the opposite: shortly before Christmas 2011, for example, a group of Ethiopian Christians were arrested in Jeddah for “illicit {14} mingling,” after religious police (Mutaween) found them together in a private prayer meeting in one of their homes. The women were taken to Buraiman prison, strip-searched, and sexually abused. Officers kicked and beat the men. “Illicit mingling” means that unmarried persons of the opposite sex are found together unlawfully, though the HRW says the charge is not defined in any Saudi law. All faced deportation. 29

Unwillingness, thus far, to consider genuinely reciprocal rights forms one of the greatest barriers between countries in which Christians dominate and those in which Muslims dominate. While there hasn’t been a great deal of progress addressing that question, there almost certainly are many Muslim leaders who recognize the need for change.


The aftermath of a famous speech by Pope Benedict XVI at Regensburg University in 2006 may have given the occasion for efforts at just such change. At Regensburg the Pope used an illustration from the fourteenth century of Muslims employing violence to force persons to convert. It ignited a sharp reaction throughout Islam. Street protests erupted in a number of countries and the Pope apologized for the offense. Not long after the speech a company of thirty-eight Muslim scholars wrote to the pope challenging what they viewed as his contention that Islam is coercive and irrational. It did not receive a reply. 30

A year later a much more significant letter from the Royal Aal Al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought in Jordan—an institute sponsored by the Jordanian royal family—was sent to Pope Benedict XVI and other world Christian leaders. Called A Common Word Between Us and You and signed by 138 leading Muslim intellectuals and scholars, it sought to build a bridge to Christians by inviting them to join in a discussion about how to foster peace and harmony between the two communities “in the spirit of the shared doctrine of love of God and love of neighbour.” 31

This time the Pope responded by agreeing to host a first Catholic-Muslim forum in Rome in November 2008. Human rights, reasoned faith, freedom to convert and relationship to secularism were among the issues on the table in frank exchanges between the two communities. It wasn’t long before a small group of evangelicals at the Yale Center for Faith and Culture responded to A Common Word with a letter they called Loving God and Neighbor Together: A Christian Response to A Common Word Between Us and You. The letter was signed by more than three hundred Christian leaders, and in it they said they “were deeply encouraged and challenged” by the letter from the Muslim scholars, and that they received it “as a Muslim hand of conviviality and cooperation extended to Christians world-wide.” 32 A Common Word had stated that “Muslims and Christians together make up well over half of the world’s {15} population. Without peace and justice between these two religious communities, there can be no meaningful peace in the world.” Replied the Yale Center writers, “We share the sentiment of the Muslim signatories,” and added that they applauded the “deep insight and courage with which they have identified the common ground between the Muslim and Christian religious communities.” The common ground is the “dual command of love: love of God and love of neighbor.” 33

The exchange contained in the two letters might not have explicitly identified underlying differences, but certainly pointed to them. Because Islam emerged centuries after Christianity, Muslims see the Qur’an as the superior and supreme revelation and a correction of “corrupted” Jewish and Christian scriptures. It has many references to Jews and Christians. While Christians view the Old Testament (in Jewish terminology, the Hebrew Scriptures) as being completed or fulfilled in the New Testament, Muslims are taught that the Qur’an corrects both. And when the Qur’an teaches there can be no “partner” to God, Muslims will read that as saying that Jesus Christ may be viewed as a prophet, but not as God. The Yale letter did not address the clearly implied rejection of Jesus Christ as God in A Common Word. Nor did it respond specifically to a portion of its text that carried within it a somewhat threatening tone, namely, “we are not against [Christians] so long as they do not wage war against Muslims,” 34 though it did reply that Jesus Christ says “our love must extend . . . even [to] enemies.” 35

Patrick Sookhdeo, who has carefully critiqued A Common Word, says the letter implies that Christians are to blame for all the wars in which Christians and Muslims were involved. “There is no sense of sorrow or remorse for the wrongs inflicted by Muslims on Christians historically, or indeed currently in many Muslim lands. There is no recognition that in many places things may be the opposite, with Muslims oppressing Christians and driving them from their homes (for example, in Iraq, Sudan, Nigeria, Indonesia, or Pakistan).” 36

Surely this is not a small thing. To name only one setting among many: in Nigeria, a leader of the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria (Ekklesiyar Yan’uwa a Nigeria) reported that Boko Haram militants had kidnapped 1,350 women and children, killed over ten thousand of their members, and burned or destroyed over 1,600 churches. It was a school of this church, at Chibok, where two hundred girls were kidnapped, most of whom have not yet been found. 37

Several years after A Common Word was first issued, it had generated thousands of responses, many of them favorable, but on the wider scene it would be hard to claim that people of the two faiths have come closer. Nonetheless, it almost certainly reflected a sincere desire to reduce the barriers between Christians and a segment of the Muslim ummah. {16}


As far back as the 1966, a group of Christian theologians met in Lebanon to reflect on relations with Muslims. Christian-Muslim dialogue encounters began in 1969, mostly within churches connected to the World Council of Churches. More recently, consultations that included the World Council of Churches, the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, and the World Evangelical Alliance drafted a document entitled “Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World: Recommendations for Conduct.” While asserting that “proclaiming the word of God and witnessing to the world is essential for every Christian,” they added, “it is necessary to do so according to gospel principles, with full respect and love for all human beings.” 38

The six-page document is a remarkable effort at advising Christian missions about what is or is not appropriate Christian witness. While acknowledging interreligious tensions, it urges “acting in God’s love [and] imitating Jesus Christ,” engaging in “acts of service and justice” while recognizing that “exploitation of situations of poverty has no place in Christian outreach.” It calls on Christians “to reject all forms of violence, even psychological or social, including the abuse of power.” It speaks for the right to “profess . . . and change one’s religion.” “Christians,” the document states, “are called to commit themselves to work with all people in mutual respect.” It urges “building interreligious relationships of respect and trust . . . so as to facilitate deeper mutual understanding, reconciliation and cooperation for the common good.” 39

The essence of Christian witness, of course, revolves about the meaning of Jesus Christ, his identity as the Son within the Godhead, his self-giving love, his death on the cross and the meaning of his resurrection. “Just as the Father sent the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit, so believers are sent in mission to witness in word and action to the love of the triune God,” the document says. Christians cannot remain faithful to the Scriptures and allow the witness to a triune God to be diluted. It is not incidental that God incarnate in Jesus Christ is understood by Christians as the one through and upon whom the salvation of the entire creation rests.

Without backing away from the call to engage in mission, “Christian Witness” ends with six recommendations: study of the issues; building “relationships of respect and trust”; encouraging Christians to “strengthen their own religious identity and faith”; “cooperating with other religious communities”; calling on “governments to ensure that freedom of religion is respected”; and simply that Christians “pray for their neighbours and their well-being.” 40 {17}


Will Christians and Muslims find a way of living at peace with one another? In this final section, I would like to offer several suggestions. The first concerns what we might say to our governments and to Muslim organizations within our national communities. In October 2007, “Christians and Muslims in Norway signed a joint declaration affirming the right to convert from one faith to another without fear of harassment or violence.” This was the “first time,” wrote Patrick Sookhdeo “that a church and a representative national Muslim organization had publicly acknowledged the right to convert.” 41 Is it possible to hope that this is the olive branch that is the sign of what is yet to come? I believe we ought to argue for this to our government or to Muslim organizations where we have the opportunity.

Behind such a position is the belief that if we are to live peaceably with one another, we must give one another the room that we wish for ourselves. Persons ought to have the freedom to voluntarily embrace the faith they believe in. They should not face punishment for choosing thus. We ought to call on one another and others of other faiths, Muslims included, to speak for and work toward such a position.

Nonetheless, we ought not to be naïve about the realities many Christians are facing and, sadly, too frequently in settings where Islam is dominant. The 2015 Global Christian Forum conference (under the theme “Discrimination, Persecution, Martyrdom: Following Christ Together”) conveyed the simple message that suffering is likely unavoidable. The Forum recognized that Christians are not the only ones suffering. Muslims too suffer greatly amid an “Islamic war,” said the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch and All the East. 42

But for the Christians suffering, the Forum had more to say. Above all else, they should not be forgotten, Dr. Ronald Boyd-MacMillan of Open Doors said. “In my interaction with persecuted Christians, the greatest fear they have is that they are suffering alone,” he said. That’s an important message to Christians of Europe and America. Yamini Ravindran, representing the National Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka, added that the suffering church is often a broken church and that standing in solidarity with it often meant working with it despite its imperfections. 43 That too is important to hear.

But Andrea Riccardi, founder of the Community of Sant’Egidio, went further. He cited the example of many Christians who had suffered to the point of death in the twentieth century, in large numbers under the Communists and the Nazis, and more recently under Muslims as well. Quoting Pope Benedict, Riccardi called them “martyrs, [who] may seem humanly to be the losers of history.” 44 But, said Riccardi, “the disciples {18} of the cross believe there is a force of love and salvation among the losers.” 45

The paradox at the heart of Christianity is “Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection,” said Riccardi. “The martyrs, humiliated and defeated show the strength of the meek and weak Christianity. . . . This is the power of Christianity: ‘when I am weak, then I am strong’ ”(2 Cor 12:10). Russian Christians “won over totalitarianism in their country, they won with their faith, with their prayers, with the suffering of their confessors and martyrs,” said Riccardi. 46

Whatever we may want to accomplish in urging reconciliation at a state or institutional level, the Global Christian Forum offered this most challenging perspective: “Despite [their] weakness or minority status, without using any armed force, the Christian is in fact a meek alternative to the prevailing ideology or power. . . . Christianity continues in the 21st century to produce people who are generous and faithful in the service of others in a disarmed way. These people are obstacles to evil . . . the resources of humanity.” 47 Gordon Nickel, following Kenneth Cragg, points to this path when he observes, “When humans use violence to serve God, they open themselves to many temptations which bring out the worst in human nature. . . . [U]sing force in matters of faith breeds hypocrisy in those coerced. . . . Only suffering love can create a situation in which people are free to respond to God in love and obedience.” 48

David Shenk has emphasized understanding what Muslims believe and becoming friends and treating neighbors with love and respect. The Canadian evangelical leader, Brian Stiller, whose travels have brought him into many Muslim settings, advises that we try to see the world as Muslims might see it and avoid partisan thinking. Instead, he urges that we assume the Spirit is at work in ways we cannot see or understand, that we make friends of Muslims and pray for the broken situations in our world. Others may do what Jay Smith does—the Brethren in Christ missionary in London, England, carries on friendly, open debates with Muslims. Or we can engage in exchanges such as Canadian Mennonite University’s Harry Huebner and colleagues have done with Shia Muslim counterparts from Iran. All of these approaches can and should be embraced by followers of Christ.

The twenty-first century began with a forceful reminder that we live in a time of very difficult religious tensions. These should encourage us to look for ways of living together in a spirit of genuine fairness and respect, even when our beliefs might move us apart. To do so will require both honest mutual engagement and a willingness to yield to one another what we want for ourselves. If it has done nothing else, recent history has amply shown how much that is needed. {19}


  1. Michael Lipka and Conrad Hackett, “Why Muslims are the World’s Fastest-growing Religious Group,” Pew Research Center, April 23, 2015,
  2. Philip Jenkins, God’s Continent (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 260.
  3. Ibid., 8.
  4. “Muslim-Western Tensions Persist,” Pew Global Attitudes Project, Survey Reports, July 21, 2011,
  5. Ibid., 7.
  6. Bernard Lewis, “The Roots of Muslim Rage,” The Atlantic Monthly (September 1990): 47–60,
  7. Pew Global Attitudes Project, 8.
  8. Lewis, “Roots.”
  9. Thomas Friedman, “Islam Suffers Poverty of Dignity,” Winnipeg Free Press, July 18, 2005.
  10. Quoted by David D. Kirkpatrick, “Egypt’s Vote puts Emphasis on Split over Religious Rule,” The New York Times, December 3, 2011,
  11. Bernhard von Zand, “Der Marktplatz der Muslime,” Der Spiegel 51 (2010): 88–97, Author translation.
  12. Ibid. Author translation.
  13. David Shenk, Journeys of the Muslim Nation and the Christian Church (Waterloo, ON: Herald, 2003), 23–24. Shenk’s book provides a very respectful treatment of the fundamental commonalities and divergences between Islam and Christianity.
  14. Gordon Nickel, “Scholarship and Islamic Sourcebooks: Telling the Truth about Islam,” Direction 36, no. 2 (2007): 221.
  15. Ibid., 227.
  16. Shenk, 35–39.
  17. Michael Nazir-Ali, Conviction and Conflict: Islam, Christianity and World Order (London: Continuum, 2006), 56–57. Nazir-Ali has written extensively on the question of the relationship between Christians and Muslims out of a long and very personal involvement with it. His writing is both irenic and direct.
  18. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2010.
  19. Eliza Griswold, interviewed by Mark Galli in “The Line where Religions Collide,” Christianity Today 54, no. 12 (2010): 30–33.
  20. Patrick Sookhdeo, Freedom to Believe: Challenging Islam’s Apostasy Law (McLean, VA: Isaac Publishing, 2009), as quoted by David Virtue in his online review of the book, March 5, 2010,
  21. “Muslim Apostates Threatened over Christianity,” The Daily Telegraph, {20} December 11, 2007.
  22. Life For All news release dated January 6, 2011. In 2011, Life For All sent out a series of releases highlighting human rights abuses in Pakistan, especially in relation to charges of blasphemy. Among those suffering is Aasia Bibi, who was given a twenty-five-year prison sentence in 2009 for making derogatory remarks about Islam in an altercation with other women after she used a utensil which the women said she had no right to use because she was a Christian. Bibi is still in prison despite worldwide calls for her release.
  23. Related by Eliza Griswold in her Christianity Today interview, 33.
  24. Darío Fernández-Morera, The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise: Muslims, Christians, and Jews under Islamic Rule in Medieval Spain (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2016). The older, more encouraging view is reflected in Maria Rosa Menocal’s Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Climate of Tolerance in Medieval Spain (Boston: Little Brown, 2002).
  25. Nazir-Ali, Conviction and Conflict, 61.
  26. Ibid., 57.
  27. “Switzerland may have acted badly, but is the Church truly free in Turkey, Turkish journalist asks.”, 12 March, 2009. Serkan Ocak is one of several Turkish journalists who have bravely challenged the record of their own government toward Christians. Another is Orhan Kemal Cengiz.
  28. Philip Pullella, “Tolerate Christians, Saudis told,” National Post, 6 November 2007.
  29. “Ethiopian Christians arrested at prayer facing deportation from Saudi Arabia,” Barnabas Fund report, 2 February 2012.
  30. Full disclosure: I wrote a column for the Winnipeg Free Pess (21 September 2006), defending the point I felt the Pope was trying to make in his Regensburg speech.
  31. The letter can be read online at The statement also appeared in the New York Times, 13 October 2007.
  32. Loving God and Neighbor Together was published on November 18, 2007. The text can be found at
  33. Ibid.
  34. A Common Word, 14.
  35. Loving God and Neighbor, 5.
  36. Barnabas Fund statement by Patrick Sookhdeo (November 28, 2007), “Response to Open Letter and call from Muslim religious leaders to Christian leaders, 13 October 2007.”
  37. Frances Townsend, “Brethren show Solidarity with Suffering Church in Nigeria,” Mennonite World Review, 31 August 2015, 1, 2.
  38. Preamble to “Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World: Recommendations for Conduct.” The document is available online at the World Evangelical Alliance website, “Christian Witness” grew out of a five-year consultation process between {21} the World Council of Churches, the Pontifical Council of Interreligious Affairs, and the World Evangelical Alliance, concluding with a consultation in Bangkok, Thailand in January 2011. It is significant that a wide spectrum of Christian groups could embrace it.
  39. “Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World,” 4.
  40. Ibid., 5.
  41. Patrick Sookhdeo, “Muslim Converts to Christianity in the West,” pull-out supplement to Barnabas Aid (March/April 2009): 4.
  42. From reports from the Global Christian Forum consultation in Tirana, Albania, November 1–5, 2015. Among the 145 delegates were representatives of all the main streams of Christianity: Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, Reformed, Baptist, and Evangelical.
  43. “Churches Suffering from Persecution Are Not Alone,” Tirana Consultation news report posted on the Global Christian Forum website, accessed March 2016,
  44. The quote is from Pope Benedict’s “Memory of the Witnesses to the Faith Who Died During the 20th Century,” a homily delivered at the Basilica of St Bartholomew on Tiber Island, Rome, Monday, 7 April 2008. The message can be accessed at Riccardi’s comment is quoted by Julia Bicknell, “ ‘Why are Christians Still Dying in the 21st Century?’ Founder of Sant’Egidio’s keynote,” Tirana Consultation news report posted on the Global Christian Forum website, accessed March 2016,
  45. Bicknell, “Why are Christians Still Dying in the 21st Century?”
  46. Ibid.
  47. Ibid.
  48. Nickel, “Scholarship and Islamic Sourcebooks,” 226.
Before retirement, Harold Jantz was the longtime editor of the Mennonite Brethren Herald and later the founding editor of ChristianWeek, a Canadian national evangelical newspaper. He has had a long interest in the encounter between Islam and Christianity and in 1998 did much of the legwork for a national conference on Faith and the Media, which aimed at helping Canadian media recognize the role that faith plays in directing people’s lives and choices. It gave Muslims a prominent platform and served to demonstrate how Canada can create a civic culture that treats all religious faiths fairly. Harold and his wife Neoma live in Winnipeg.

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