When I returned to Canada in 1994 after having spent the final four years of my graduate studies in sacred scripture in Jerusalem, I was certain of one thing: Islam was becoming a growing, global concern and a great pastoral challenge for the Catholic church.
Though my biblical studies were at the well-known French Dominican-run Ecole Biblique de Jerusalem and at the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus, I lived in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City. Many of my neighbors and friends were Muslims. I learned Arabic, studied the Koran, and delighted in the Middle Eastern hospitality that the Palestinian people offered so graciously.
In my visits to the neighbouring Arab lands of Jordan, the Sinai and Egypt, I was very struck by the image of believers in Allah who, without caring about time or place, fell to their knees in prayer several times each day. I did not see such scenes in the great Christian cathedrals of Europe, which in many cases had become museums for throngs of tourists. I learned that Islam has a total organization of life that is completely different from the Catholic one -- it embraces everything.
Those years included the first Palestinian Intifada and the first Persian Gulf War. I heard incredible stories of poverty, injustice, and anger from my Palestinian friends. I experienced Ramadan with my neighbors, heard about "jihad," the reality of suicide bombers, the growing phenomenon of false martyrdom, and witnessed the tremendous power that Muslim clerics had over their congregations. Some of this was very frightening to witness.
The recent arrests of alleged terrorists in Toronto and the fallout thereafter have brought back the memories of my Middle East experience. Let me speak as a Christian, a Catholic priest and teacher. Dialogue between our religions must combine both an awareness of what we have in common -- and what profoundly distinguishes our traditions.
Islam is not a uniform thing. In fact, there is no single authority for all Muslims, and for this reason dialogue with Islam is always dialogue with various groups. No one can speak for Islam as a whole; it has no commonly regarded orthodoxy. This is not necessarily a strength.
Muslims believe that the Koran comes directly from God. This makes it difficult for the Koran to be subjected to the same sort of critical analysis and reflection that has taken place among Christians over the Bible.
There is a noble Islam -- embodied, for example, by the Kings of Morocco and Jordan -- and there is also the extremist, terrorist Islam, which we must not identify with Islam as a whole; this would be a grave injustice. We must distinguish between true religion and the twisted religion used to justify hatred and violence. True religion leads us to healing and peace.
An underlying problem in dealing with Islamic nations is the lack of separation between religion and the state. Part of the dialogue with Islamic religious and political authorities should be aimed at helping to develop such a separation.
Last August, Pope Benedict XVI met with representatives of some Muslim communities. His words need to be heard again: "Terrorist activity is continually recurring in various parts of the world, plunging people into grief and despair. Those who instigate and plan these attacks evidently wish to poison our relations and destroy trust, making use of all means, including religion, to oppose every attempt to build a peaceful and serene life together."
"If together we can succeed in eliminating from hearts any trace of rancour, in resisting every form of intolerance and in opposing every manifestation of violence, we will turn back the wave of cruel fanaticism that endangers the lives of so many people and hinders progress towards world peace."