Oddly perhaps, the influx of millions of Muslims into Europe has eased, not increased, the age-old conflict between the crescent and the cross. As the Rev. Michael Fitzgerald, a member of Rome's Pontifical Institute of Arabic Studies, puts it: "Daily contact between Muslim immigrants and their new environment does create difficulties - but in the end leads to better understanding."
One change in the long history of differences between Islamic and Christian countries was the visit of the late King Faisal of Saudi Arabia to Rome in 1973, which cleared the way for construction of a mosque not far from the Vatican. Another was the decision by many Christian clergymen to champion the economic, social and religious rights of Muslims in Europe. The late Pope Paul VI, for instance, set up a special Vatican commission to care for immigrants, for whom one day each year is set aside in the Roman Catholic calendar.
There are other examples too. On the occasion of Migrant's Day, 1977, the Dutch Episcopal Conference published a pastoral letter calling for urgent action to assure Muslim immigrants their rights in Europe. And, in Vienna, the same year, Roman Catholic bishops from many countries called for education of the Christian community, not only to the undeniable rights of immigrant workers to social security and fair pay, but also to the preservation of their cultural and religious identity.
Backing up words with deeds, the Roman Catholic Church has begun to revise adverse references to Islam in its teachings. Included in The Documents of Vatican II, for example, was a section called "Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions." It read: "Upon the Muslim, too, the Church looks with esteem. They adore one God, living and enduring, merciful and all-powerful, Maker of heaven and earth and Speaker to men... They prize the moral life, and give worship to God especially through prayer, almsgiving, and fasting.
"Although in the course of the centuries many quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Muslims, this most sacred Synod urges all to forget the past and to strive sincerely for mutual understanding."
Since then the Catholic hierarchy has instructed priests throughout Europe to establish direct contacts with Muslims in their parishes. In some cities, as a result, churches have provided meeting places for Muslims who had none of their own, and in France, when the government announced plans to repatriate Muslim workers, French bishops issued a strongly worded statement defending their right to remain.
"We must," says Bishop François Abou Mokh, secretary of the Vatican's Board of Islam, "see to it that Muslims can benefit from the rights and respect due to every human being in Europe." The meeting of the two religions in Europe, he adds, is "a historic opportunity" for Christians and Muslims to get to know each other better, and work together to build a more united world.
The Rome Catholic daily Avvenire also sees the massive Muslim presence in Europe as "an important stage in the history of relations between the Church and Islam."
"These relations," says the newspaper, "have never been good in the past. The Muslim conquests, the Crusades and colonialism have given rise to controversy, conflicts and hatred that have bled for 13 centuries."
But now, the newspaper concludes, the curtain is being rung down on this page of history and Christians and Muslims should forget differences of opinion and hostilities and promote sincere mutual understanding.
One attempt to bridge the differences between the two religions is a booklet written by the Bishop of Guildford, the Rt. Rev David Brown. Entitled A New Threshold, and commended by both Muslims and Christians, it shows the many similarities in Christianity and Islam. Another, in which several Christian denominations participated, involved direct action: after disturbances in Britain's industrial Midlands, local churches worked vigorously among young people of all religions to create better relations.
Surprisingly, they succeeded where other non-religious groups failed - an accomplishment attributed by the Rev Jack Andrews of the United Reformed Church, Walsall, to the fact that, approaching with an interest confined to religion, Christians are "assured of a welcome from the strictest mosque."
"It is a lamentable fact," says Mr. Andrews, "that often it is the Christian, not the Muslim, who is reluctant to enter into dialogue, through deep-seated prejudice and misunderstanding... If both sides dispose of their prejudices and misinformation, large areas of disagreement will of course stand out more starkly. But my Christian friends who have experience in Muslim countries say that the Jesus of the Koran - he is, after all, their second most important prophet - and the Jesus of the Gospels can well deal with each other if brought face to face."
Therefore, concludes Mr. Andrews, the influx of Muslims into Europe could well be a salutary and timely experience for home-based Christians.