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Christians, Muslims move ahead on global talks

Religious leaders plan to meet this year in the US, Britain, and at the Vatican to defuse tensions.

By Jane LampmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 19, 2008

Taking part: In November, Pope Benedict XVI will be a participant in a Catholic-Muslim forum at the Vatican.

Dario Pignatelli/Reuters

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Gatherings of top religious leaders and even some heads of state will take place this year in the United States, at the Vatican, and in Britain, aimed at defusing tensions between the West and the Muslim world.

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The first-of-their-kind dialogues – which will kick off in July – will begin with theological discussions but seek practical results. Yet they're stirring some debate within the faith groups as to the proper way to engage "the other" and whether common ground can be found.

The initiative was sparked last October by "A Common Word Between Us and You," an open letter from 138 Muslim clergy and scholars from more than 40 nations to the leaders of all the world's major Christian churches. Concerned that "the future of the world depends on peace between Muslims and Christians," the Muslim leaders proposed dialogue on the basis of the shared principles of "the love of God, and love of the neighbor."

Most of the churches responded positively, buoyed both by the letter and the authority of those who signed it – representing most schools of Muslim thought.

"The Christian response was overwhelming, and we've been humbled by it," says Sohail Nakhooda, Jordanian editor in chief of Islamica magazine and a member of the Muslim planning team. "This meant we had a lot of serious work ahead!"

Yale University will host the first global conference in July, which will involve a broad spectrum of Christian denominations, as well as Jewish clergy and political leaders. At a Vatican meeting in early March, plans were set for a Catholic-Muslim forum in November, in which the pope will participate. Muslims plan a conference with Anglicans in Britain in October focused on the scriptures, and are talking with the Orthodox churches as well.

"One of the best things that's happened is the opening of an avenue of discussion with denominations where we never thought it possible – with Evangelicals," Mr. Nakhooda adds.

The most in-depth Christian response, a letter authored at Yale Divinity School, included many prominent Evangelicals among the signers. But that response, "Loving God and Neighbor Together," has spurred debate among Evangelicals, whose views on Islam and dialogue with Muslims vary greatly.

"It's mostly been a cordial debate," says Joseph Cumming, director of Yale Divinity School's Reconciliation Program, who is coordinating planning for the July conference. "I think the Evangelical community is trying to think more deeply about how to engage with Muslims."

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