Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor on Christian-Muslim Relations


The Archbishop of Westminster is currently in the news for urging the British Health Secretary to review the 1967 Abortion Act. Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor stated, “I welcome what appears to be a moral awakening, especially among women, to the reality that abortion is the deliberate ending of a human life.”

On May 16 (I’m behind with many things), the Cardinal delivered a lecture at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies on a different subject, Christian-Muslim relations. As we will see, it can remind us of an earlier speech on “Spiritual Humanism” that he gave at the Sant’Egidio conference at Lyons. Needless to say, the relationship between Christians and Muslims is very important, but it has been rather ambiguous. Even in Indonesia, it is hard to discern a “uniform picture of Christian-Muslim relations” over the last forty years, as an Indonesian Jesuit claims in the current Eureka Street. Greg Soetomo, SJ, writes:

Most Indonesian Muslims say, ‘We don’t live like Middle Easterners. Jamaah Islamiah – an Indonesian extremist group – does not represent the majority of Muslims in our country.’ This is largely true. But the relationship in Indonesia between Christianity and Islam, which some have described as love-hate, has continued to be marked by tension.

At Oxford, Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor described the grounds for a positive relationship between Christians and Muslims:

This is the foundation for our dialogue: our common ancestry in a single God, and the rejection by Abraham of idols. This opens the possibility – indeed the obligation – of a bond between human beings whatever their beliefs. I was very glad to be present at the meeting of world’s religious leaders last year in Lyon, organised by the Community of Sant’Egidio each year since that first meeting in Assisi in 1986. The meetings have developed what the Community calls a ”spiritual humanism of peace” which stresses that we are all divinely-created human beings, sons and daughters of a common Father. We need to keep returning to this common ancestry in the same father. More religion of the true sort means human beings becoming closer to God, and therefore to each other.

There are threats to this dialogue. Some would deny the “profound differences” between Christian and Muslim beliefs in the name of a convenient but sterile uniformity. On the other hand, “Dialogue will be impossible as long as minds are closed, as long as adherents of either faith believe that we have nothing to learn from the other, or that the Spirit of God is not active in the whole of God’s Creation.” But the greatest present threat to dialogue, which presupposes the freedom to witness, is the denial of religious freedom in certain Muslim countries. Without “sacred hospitality,” there cannot be a Christian-Muslim relationship at all, as there is no room for mutual witness, the sharing of convictions, or any conceivable “standing together.”

The Cardinal writes about this “vital principle of sacred hospitality”:

… Where Christians are being denied their rights, or are subject to sharia law, that is not a matter on which Muslims in Britain should remain silent. Where religious rights of minorities are disrespected in the name of Islam, the face of Islam is tarnished elswhere in the world.

Sacred hospitality demands that we speak up for each other. And it impels our communities to take common action together, especially in response to social issues or in response to disasters and emergencies. One of my happier moments this past year was during a New Year’s visit to Sri Lanka. I went to commemorate the anniversary of the tsunami of Boxing Day 2004 in the company of the Catholic aid agency Cafod, which has been rebuilding houses and communities there. I was on the east coast of the island, where there is a patchwork of villages of different beliefs: some Hindu, some Muslim, some Christian. It was a visit of great joy as well as witnessing great suffering. In one Hindu village they were not too sure how to explain what a Cardinal was and introduced me to the village as, “A member of the Roman Catholic High Command”! But what struck me very forcibly was the practical ‘dialogue of life’ between the different faiths, as they tried to rebuild their lives. In one Muslim village the leader told me that “many came and went, promising things. But only the Catholics stayed, and built us new houses.” The Catholic aid workers who had helped those villagers did not engage in theological dialogue; they were not there as missionaries, to try to persuade anyone to convert. But by their actions, and by the villagers’ welcome of them and of me, there was a moving example of the mutual solidarity – and dare I say it, love – which stirred in me the desire to see such love characterise Catholic-Muslim relations in the world.

Last year there were two memorable examples when I stood with Muslim leaders in a common witness. The first was at Edinburgh, during the Make Poverty History march which sought to put pressure on the G8 summit to fulfill the Millennium Development Goals; and shortly afterwards, in the wake of the 7 July bombings. On both occasions, Christian, Muslim, Jewish and other religious leaders appeared together, in a very public way, to demonstrate our friendship and to show that we shared a belief in a God of justice and of peace; and that any other versions of God were blasphemous.

I remember, in particular the witness and words of the mother of one of the victims of the 7 July bombings, Marie Fatayi-Williams. She is a devout Catholic and standing with her Muslim husband a few days after that tragedy she echoed both their sentiments:

“Throughout history, those people who have changed the world have done so without violence, they have [won] people to their cause through peaceful protest. ……What inspiration can senseless slaughter provide? Death and destruction of young people in their prime as well as old and helpless can never be the foundations for building society……My son Anthony is my first son, my only son, the head of my family…..I will fight till I die to protect him. To protect his values and to protect his memory….Innocent blood will always cry to God Almighty for reparation. How much blood must be spilled? How many tears shall we cry? How many mothers’ hearts must be maimed? ….”

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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