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NEW YORK (CNS): Despite its brevity, In Our Time (Nostra Aetate), or the Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions of the Second Vatican Council marks a starting point for dialogue among Christians, Muslims and Jews that must be continued into the future.

Speakers at a forum held on November 11 at Fordham University in New York pointed out that Vatican II’s declaration on the Catholic Church’s relations with non-Christian religions is the shortest of the 16 documents promulgated by Pope Paul VI in 1965, just 50 years ago.

Father Patrick Ryan examined its history and impact in the annual autumn McGinley Lecture.

He said In Our Time was primarily intended as a statement on the Catholic Church’s relation with Jews, but ultimately included “a relatively brief passage about Muslims and a vaguer paragraph about Hindus and Buddhists, and the adherents of other religious traditions.”

Father Ryan gave a bit of background on the birth of the document, saying that Pope John XXIII, who convened the council in 1962, was inspired and encouraged by the French Jewish historian, Jules Isaac, whose family perished in Auschwitz, the Nazi concentration camp in Poland.

Father Ryan said that Isaac had asked the pope in 1960 to issue an authoritative rejection of Christian and Catholic anti-Semitic thought.

In shaping the statement, Isaac collaborated with Augustin Cardinal Bea, a German Jesuit, and what was then the Secretariat for the Promotion of Christian Unity, which was established in June 1960.

Father Ryan described In Our Time as a theological document written for Catholics by people who understood it would be examined by Jews “to see how it treats them and their faith.”

He described it as echoing another Vatican II document, The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium), which recognises the historical understanding of the unique priority of the Jews over the Gentiles in faith.

Father Ryan said that In Our Time considers Islam as a post-Jewish, post-Christian phenomenon that does not have the same organic relationship with Christianity that Judaism does.

Nonetheless, the relationship among the three is genuine, long-standing, not always peaceful, not always hostile and includes some of the same “ancestors in faith, even if their understandings of those ancestors may sometimes differ”.

He pointed out that the seemingly bland statement in the document that “the Church regards with esteem also the Muslims,” is a dramatic reversal from earlier liturgical prayers that considered Islam a religion of idolatry.

But despite many differences, the common expectation of Christians and Muslims for the rising of the dead on a day of judgment serves as a link between Christian and Islamic teaching.

Father Ryan said that although there have been times of peaceful coexistence, there is a long history of tension between Christians and Muslims.

It has sometimes involved Jews, especially since the creation of the state of Israel, but there are also examples of places where Muslims and Christians have lived together for a long time in peace.

In Our Time, especially its section on the faith of Muslims, marks a starting point for the process of dialogue between Christians and Muslims—perhaps even among Jews, Christians and Muslims—that must be continued today and tomorrow for the sake of humankind and for the glory of God,” Father Ryan concluded.