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.
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."
Some influential conservative leaders were distressed by the wording of the response. John Piper, pastor of a large Baptist church in Minneapolis, and R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said the letter and any dialogue should speak from the unique Christian standpoint, including the nature of Jesus Christ and the Trinity. Given different understandings of God, "to talk as though the love of God is a common standpoint is wrong," Dr. Piper said in a video that's played on YouTube.
The president of Wheaton College, a prominent evangelical school, initially signed the letter but later withdrew due to concerns within his college community. Numerous influential evangelicals are on board, however, including megachurch pastors Rick Warren and Bill Hybels.
Viewing this discussion among Christians as healthy, Yale has put the questions being raised on its website along with responses. For example, is Allah the same God that Christians worship?
"The point of the Muslim letter was starting with common ground," Mr. Cumming says. "They resisted the temptation to polemicize against [Christian] doctrines, and our response resisted the temptation to polemicize for them."
On the Muslim side, there are those who are reluctant to join a dialogue because of negative statements some Christian leaders have made about Islam, Nakhooda says. But those voices are overshadowed, he says, by "the fact that so many of the most important figures who have street credibility in Muslim capitals are fully behind it."
Plans for the week-long Yale conference include workshops on theology and ethics. Sessions tackling the toughest issues – such as religious freedom, including proselytism and apostasy – are expected to be closed-door.
Georgetown University will host the next US-based conference in March 2009. John Esposito, head of Georgetown's Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, sees these dialogues as different and significant. "This process has an in-built snowball effect: The number of signers on both sides keeps broadening," he says. "When you realize that leading religious leaders have to think of repercussions within their communities, it's really phenomenal."
In April 2009, the plan is to invite all those involved to Amman, Jordan, for a meeting at a site where according to tradition Jesus was baptized. "Muslims and Christians are living in a wounded world," Nakhooda says. "Part of the [effort] ... is to start the process of healing.... It's going to require a lot of open-hearted, sincere discussion."