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This week, a global bid to connect Muslims and Christians

Faith leaders' quest for understanding, commonality begins Tuesday at Yale.

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The 150 leaders participating include Evangelical and mainline Protestants (i.e., president of the National Association of Evangelicals), Muslims from several continents (Sunni, Sufi, and Shiite, including ayatollahs from Iran), and a few Jewish leaders.

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While exploring concepts of God and the two commandments, discussions are expected to touch also on current issues, such as the implications for how Muslims and Christians speak about each other.

The Yale conference is starting "an intensive conversation between Christian and Muslim communities," not only globally but also nationally and locally in the US, says Antonios Kireopoulos, director of interfaith relations with the National Council of Churches (NCC).

After receiving the Muslims' letter last fall, the 35 member denominations of the NCC embarked on a theological study of the document and have prepared a response, which will be ready in September, he says. They intend to disseminate the Muslim and Christian documents to their churches so congregations can initiate dialogues with local mosques.

The materials will highlight commonalities and differences between the faiths. "It's important to highlight those, too, and to learn that though we have differences, that doesn't mean we can't talk to one another," Dr. Kireopoulos says.

In February the NCC also formalized dialogue with the Islamic Society of North America. The two plan to meet twice a year to foster education about the other faith and to address any issues that arise, such as hostile rhetoric or hate crime.

Jordan's lead role

The Common Word initiative has been spearheaded by Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad of Jordan, who heads the Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought. Jordan has also reached out to major Christian churches by inviting them to build houses of worship at the site along the Jordan River where John the Baptist is said to have baptized Jesus. Several are under construction.

"The dedication of the site scheduled for next spring, which will be a global religious event, symbolizes in another way Muslim outreach and leadership," says Dr. Esposito of Georgetown.

The long-term impact of the Saudi-sponsored Madrid conference seems less certain, tied to whether follow-up events materialize. But given the king's stature as custodian of the Muslim holy sites, "the conference will likely have ripple effects throughout the Muslim community and other communities," says Shanta Premawardhana, who represented the World Council of Churches. "It gives legitimation to Muslims around the world to do similar things."

Others say these developments should encourage those in the West who still wonder what Islam is really like and whether there's a real chance for dialogue.

"Our hope and expectation is that there will be more lines of communication opening and a trickle-down effect as Christian and Muslim leaders ... speak to their constituencies and [foster] more understanding and respect," Dr. Kalin says.