The leader of 70 million Anglican Christians and one of the most prominent leaders of 800 million Sunni Muslims met in London on 30 January and reached what they said was the "first Christian-Muslim accord of modern times." They signed the accord a little more than four months after the 11 September terrorist attacks in the United States. The London signing was deeply symbolic, but both religious leaders hope it will lead to practical results.
Prague, 1 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The Christian archbishop of Canterbury and the Sunni Muslim grand imam of Al-Uzhar began preparations 10 years ago on an agreement to increase understanding between their faiths.
Their efforts turned out to be deeply significant.
They completed the accord's framework on 11 September, the day Muslim extremists turned airliners into terrorist bombs in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania.
Archbishop George Carey and Grand Imam Mohamed Sayed Tantawy, a prominent cleric, met on 30 January in London to sign what they called the "first Christian-Muslim accord of modern times."
Mohammad Shahid Raza, director of the Imams and Mosques Council in the United Kingdom, was there.
"It was, indeed, a very historic and wonderful occasion, which has opened a very important door for dialogue between the two communities -- the Christians and the Muslims," Raza said.
Jonathan Jennings, a spokesman for the archbishop of Canterbury, says both leaders and their staffs had been preparing for the occasion for a long time.
"Well, basically, this signing is the culmination of a number of years' work that had been done by the archbishop and his staff and by the grand imam and his staff at the Al-Azhar University in Cairo," Jennings said.
The archbishop of Canterbury leads the Church of England and the Anglican Communion, a worldwide body of national and autonomous churches including the Episcopal Church in the United States. Sunni Muslims comprise the majority branch of Islam. Sunnis are in the majority in most Muslim nations, with Shiite-majority Iraq and Iran the principal exceptions.
Spokesman Jennings says the new accord is designed to lead the way toward a cooperative effort to build understanding and reconciliation between the two faiths.
"The purpose of the dialogue is set out as follows: 'It is to encourage Anglicans to understand Islam and to encourage Muslims to understand the Christian faith.' The second is 'to share together in solving problems and conflicts that happen sometimes between Muslims and Christians in different parts of the world and to encourage religious leaders to use their influence for the purpose of reconciliation and peacemaking,'" Jennings said. "'Third, to work together against injustice and the abuse of human rights among different nationalities and to spread the good teachings of both Islam and Christianity. Fourth, to encourage institutions on both sides to play a positive role in development.'"
Grand Imam Tantawy traveled from Cairo to London with an entourage of Sunni leaders and scholars for the signing. Archbishop Carey said he considers the initiation of greater dialogue between Christians and Muslims to be "deeply encouraging."
Carey has announced plans to retire as Anglican Church leader in October. It will thus be left to his successor to carry on the initiative. A leading candidate for Carey's position is Michael Nazir-Ali, Pakistan-born bishop of Rochester.
If the Crown Appointments Commission -- made up of clergy, laity, and government appointees -- elects Nazir-Ali, the new archbishop is likely to continue the work enthusiastically. He was outspoken in his positive comments about Islam following the September terrorist attacks.
Speaking for Archbishop Carey, Jennings says the objectives stated in the agreement are a beginning, not a culmination.
"That's the purpose of the agreement. And the practical decisions that follow from that are, first, they are going to establish a joint commission. Second, they are going to meet at least once a year. And third, they are going to try their best to communicate, using a press release at the end of each meeting, so that people know what it is that is being considered and how these things are going to work," Jennings said.
In a telephone interview from London, Imams and Mosques Council Director Raza said tolerance and a respectful attitude toward Christianity are part of the Sunni Muslim tradition: "We have always been saying that we are both god-fearing communities. We believe in god. And we have divine spiritual and moral values on the basis of our divine Scriptures."
Muslims often use the expression "people of the book" to describe a characteristic common to Jews, Christians, and Muslims -- that their religions are based on Scripture considered inspired by God and delivered to mankind through prophets. Raza says the initiative of Grand Imam Tantawy and Archbishop Carey may be a start toward putting to rest the idea that Islam and Christianity are approaching what has been called a "clash of civilizations."
"If there is a clash, it may be the clash of our interests. It may be the clash between our politicians," Raza said. "But as 'people of the book,' we do not believe that we have so much controversy that we need to clash with each other."
The roots of the Anglican Church tradition of Christianity date to the Christian calendar's second century. The Anglican branch became an influential part of the Roman Catholic Church and remained so until the 16th century Reformation, when Anglicans and Roman Catholics separated.
Islam developed early in the seventh century, when Mohammed of Mecca emerged as a prophet. "Islam," meaning "submission," refers to submission to the word of God. Islam, with more than 1.2 billion adherents, is the world's fastest-growing religion.