Leading Muslim scholars have addressed warm Christmas greetings to Christians around the world, a message notable both for what it said and the fact that it was sent at all.
The greetings, sent by a group of 138 Sunni, Shi'ite, Sufi and other scholars who recently proposed a dialogue with Christian leaders, called for peace on earth and thanked church leaders who have responded positively to their invitation.
The message, as the dialogue proposal made in October, was unprecedented because there has not been until now such a large group of Islamic scholars that could draft a common letter.
Islam is a decentralised faith, with no pope or archbishop who can speak for believers as a group. While individual Muslim clerics have exchanged holiday greetings with Christians in the past, nothing on this scale has been possible before.
"Al-Salaamu Aleikum, Peace be upon you, Pax Vobiscum," the greetings letter began in Arabic, English and Latin. The text is available on the group's Web site www.acommonword.com.
It noted that Christmas came just after the Muslim haj pilgrimage to Mecca and the Feast of Sacrifice (Eid al Adha) recalling how the Prophet Abraham almost sacrificed his son.
"God's refusal to let Abraham sacrifice his son ... is to this day a divine warrant and a most powerful social lesson for all followers of the Abrahamic faiths, to ever do their utmost to save, uphold and treasure every human life and especially the lives of every single child," it said.
"May the coming year be one in which the sanctity and dignity of human life is upheld by all," it added. "May it be a year of humble repentance before God and mutual forgiveness within and between communities."
Plans for dialogue
The conciliatory tone echoed that of the October appeal, which said Muslims and Christians should hold a serious dialogue on the basis of their shared commandments to love God and love one's neighbour.
The group, linked to an Islamic research institute headed by Jordanian Prince Ghazi bin Mohammed bin Talal, wants a serious dialogue between Christian and Muslim theologians to help bridge a gulf in understanding between the religions.
It began in reaction to Pope Benedict's 2006 Regensburg lecture, taken to imply Islam was violent and irrational. The Muslims first corrected what they said was his misunderstanding of their faith and then proposed a dialogue with all Christian leaders.
Most Christian churches have responded positively. In a letter to the Vatican, Prince Ghazi has proposed sending a few Muslim scholars to Rome in February or March for initial talks with the world's largest Christian church.
The scholars also plan to meet Christian leaders at several conferences coming up next year to launch the long-term dialogue.
Some Catholic officials have expressed scepticism about the idea, saying differences between the two faiths were too great for any real dialogue, but Prince Ghazi urged them to seek agreement where they could for the sake of the common good.
"We, like you, also consider complete theological agreement between Christians and Muslims inherently not possible by definition, but still wish to seek and promote a common stance and cooperation based on what we do agree on," he wrote in the letter made available to Reuters.