The global effort to build a "culture of peace" among Christians and Muslims and other faiths is gaining some momentum this month, both symbolically and substantively.
After a groundbreaking meeting between Roman Catholic and Muslim religious leaders last week, world political leaders this week are meeting to heighten the visibility and broaden the commitment to interfaith dialogue. On Nov. 12 and 13 at the United Nations, President Bush gathers with a dozen heads of state and other leaders to lend political backing to interfaith initiatives. The prime minister of Britain, leaders of several Muslim nations, and the presidents of Israel, Lebanon, and Palestine are among those participating.
"The idea is to send a unified clear message that the world community is in consensus in promoting interfaith dialogue and speaking against extremism, intolerance, and terrorism," says Rayed Krimly, special envoy of Saudi Arabia, whose king, Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz, was the driving force behind this week's meeting. Heading a nation that has restricted other religions, King Abdullah "felt very strongly he needs to put his moral and political authority on the line." The king began calling for interfaith dialogue at a Muslim summit in Mecca in June and organized a multifaith conference in Madrid in July.
Human Rights Watch called Tuesday for world leaders to press Saudi Arabia to end religious discrimination at home.
The meeting follows a separate interfaith initiative – the first Catholic-Muslim forum at the Vatican – hosted by Pope Benedict XVI. The talks on Nov. 4-6 led to a 15-point declaration that leaders of both faiths say exceeded their expectations (see www.acommonword.com).
"We've turned an important page in the whole history of Christian-Muslim relations," says Fr. James Massa, head of interreligious affairs for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. "What this conference has done is make the connection so clearly between core commitments of faith and respect for religious freedom and other human rights, and this is a remarkable achievement."
Among their commitments, the top leaders agreed on: the right of individuals to choose in matters of conscience and to practice their religion in private and public; that religious minorities are to be respected and are entitled to their own places of worship; that human dignity and respect should be extended on an equal basis to both men and women.
They agreed to hold a second forum in a Muslim-majority country and to explore "establishing a permanent Catholic-Muslim committee to coordinate responses to conflicts and other emergency situations."
Such a crisis-management effort could help deal with events like the Danish cartoon crisis or the recent attacks against Christian communities in Iraq, says Ibrahim Kalin, spokesman for the Muslim delegation and director of SETA Foundation in Ankara, Turkey.
The Rome forum constitutes the third phase of meetings growing out of "A Common Word," the invitation to dialogue sent to all Christian churches in October 2007 by top clergy from across the Muslim world. The Muslims urged that dialogues be based on the shared principles of "love of God and love of one's neighbor."
Protestants met with Muslim leaders at Yale University in July. Anglicans hosted sessions at Cambridge University in Britain in October during which the participants read sacred texts together. Next spring, religious and political leaders will meet in Washington to consider political and social actions that might follow from the three dialogues.
The Catholic-Muslim interaction seemed most problematical. Two years ago, the pope's speech at Regensburg, Germany – in which he seemed to suggest Islam was a violent and irrational faith – shocked the Muslim world. Though his subsequent visit to Turkey quieted concerns to some degree, the Vatican was slowest to respond to the Muslim invitation to dialogue.
Under Pope Benedict, the Vatican had pulled back from the idea of theological discussion with Islam and emphasized "reciprocity," seeing that Christian churches got the same rights in Muslim countries as Muslims had in the West. Some Muslims worried the forum might be difficult. But participants were more than satisfied.
"The pope's reception was very warm," says Dr. Kalin. "The consensus was we don't have to have uniformity [in theology] in order to develop common strategies to deal with problems of the world. Overall, it was a very successful event."
[Editor's note: The original headline didn't express the full scope of the gathering.]