Zealots fan tensions between Christians, Muslims

Vienna, Austria - Overzealous missionaries are fanning tensions between Christians and Muslims and within their faiths, creating potential conflicts that religious leaders must defuse urgently, a leading Catholic cardinal said on Wednesday.

Vienna Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn said the world's two largest religions were missionary faiths that have in the past been intolerant in spreading their beliefs around the globe.

But in today's pluralist world, many people reject religion because they see this mission work as potentially divisive and intolerant, he told a conference on Islam. Religious leaders must find a way to spread their beliefs more peacefully.

"Missionary work is a sign of the vitality of these religions, but it contains a large potential for conflict," said Schoenborn, a close associate of Pope Benedict who often speaks out on major issues facing the Roman Catholic Church.

"The mission issue plays an unspoken but decisive role" in relations between Christianity and Islam, he said.

"Will we be able to combine the dynamics of mission, a fundamental part of our religions, with respect for others' beliefs, for religious freedom and for tolerance?"

Syrian Grand Mufti Ahmad Bader Hassoun also called for a better understanding between Muslims and Christians, arguing they needed to unite to fight violent religious extremists.

"We have 10 years ahead of us to achieve spiritual peace," he said. "If we don't, I fear we will experience Marx and Lenin again. They would close our churches, mosques and synagogues and say they created peace, not us."

Schoenborn and Hassoun spoke at the end of the conference sponsored by Austria in preparation for the six-monthly

European Union presidency it takes over in January. Vienna has been the main EU critic of mostly Muslim Turkey's bid to join the bloc.


Missionary zeal has led to highly controversial chapters in both religions' histories. Critics accuse Christians of supporting imperialism when they went to evangelize during the colonial age and Islam of spreading its faith by the sword.

Schoenborn later told Reuters the Church had no specific plans for a dialogue about missionaries soon with Islamic leaders but said: "This is an issue we must discuss."

The cardinal said Islam's rapid spread in Africa, which has sometimes led to conflicts, worried many Christians.

Missionary zeal also fanned tension within religions: "In Latin America, the Catholic Church is deeply concerned about the rapid progress of fundamentalist Christian groups, especially from the United States, in wooing away millions of Catholics."

Proselytism, or wooing believers from one denomination to another within a religion, caused strains in both faiths.

In Islam, "so-called fundamentalists change and radicalize the religious and social situation," Schoenborn said, noting the way radical Islamists were proselytizing in Indonesia.

Catholic and Orthodox Christians regularly accuse each other of trying to lure away the others' members.

While neither religion could give up its calling to spread the faith, "we have to realize that our religions' missionary dynamism is a reason for many people to reject religions.

"They see in them too much potential for intolerance and conflict," the cardinal said.