In a three-day conference this week, Christian and Muslim leaders from around the world began shaping their own role in reducing tensions and restoring a sense of hope among their followers.With unusual candor and good will, the group of 140 clergy and religious scholars meeting at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., sought common ground between the faiths and touched on some of the most contentious issues."[O]urs is an effort to ensure that religions heal rather than wound, nourish the human soul rather than poison human relations," they said Thursday in a closing conference statement.
The global gathering was the first in response to "A Common Word between Us and You," the open letter from 138 Muslim leaders to all Christian churches urging dialogue on the basis of the shared principles of loving God and loving one's neighbor. But as some reminded them, many of the faithful are far from applying those values in everyday life.
Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad of Jordan, an author of A Common Word, spoke in opening remarks of the large numbers on both sides who admit to prejudice against the other, and of the dehumanization and demonizing that is a regular practice. This is what Hutus and Tutsis did to one another before the genocide in Rwanda, and what was done to Jews before the Holocaust, he warned, suggesting that sparks from another terrorist attack or war could unleash new horrors.
Recognizing that to live together in peace, much less love one another, requires greater understanding between the faiths, the conference focused primarily on theological discussion on "who we are and what we think." As they talked about concepts of God or sacred texts or who is one's neighbor, sheikhs and ayatollahs and pastors and professors (and occasionally rabbis) spoke frankly about commonalities and differences.
Together they "affirmed the unity … of God and God's merciful love as infinite, eternal and embracing all things," as well as the mutual respect and freedom of religion due to all. But in what one participant called "comfortable candor," they differed over such matters as the Christian concepts of the Trinity and original sin, views of Jesus, and why Muslims do not think of God as Father.
They just touched on difficult issues such as proselytizing, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and religious freedom and persecution, but left the in-depth discussion - the real test - for later gatherings.
In a quip that captured the tone of informal and formal sessions, Prince Bola Ajibola of Nigeria praised the group for "dining but not whining together. It's an achievement," he said.
The conferees did commit to practical steps, including setting a week every year when Muslim and Christian clergy would preach about the good in the other tradition, and creating a website for books recommended by Christians on Christianity and Muslims on Islam appropriate for people of different ages. A study guide on frequently asked questions about the two faiths will be published. They also pledged to carry the Common Word message back to their constituents and congregations.
Al Qaeda issued a threat this week against engaging in interfaith activity (saying King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia should be killed for his recent conference in Madrid). The conferees denounced the threat in their statement, saying "dialogue is not a departure from faith; it is … an essential tool in the quest for the common good."
Several speakers confirmed the benefits of interfaith work. Dalia Mogahed of the Gallup organization, who wears a hijab, recalled how her family moved from Cincinnati to Pittsburgh on Sept. 12, 2001. "We were terrified to go out of the house," she said. But when they got the courage to go to Friday prayer at the mosque in their new neighborhood, they found that half the congregation was non-Muslim and had come in solidarity. "It was due to the mosque's decade of interfaith involvement."
Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, told of a retired Christian farmer in the Midwest who frequently railed against Muslims, though he had never met one. When he was invited to visit Jordan for two weeks on an interfaith venture, he accepted. The time spent with families there changed his attitude to one of respect, said the Rev. Mr. Anderson.
One speaker described a Christian bishop in Tanzania who found his prayer life and ministry were transformed when he decided to follow the example of a Muslim friend by getting up at 4:00 each morning to pray.
The most important aspect of interfaith gatherings, many say, is developing relationships. "It's easy for Muslims or Christians to criticize the other, but once you've got a friend, you find what you might say doesn't fit that person," says Dudley Woodberry of Fuller Theological Seminary, an evangelical school in Pasadena, Calif.
Even Evangelicals were surprised by the large number of their group attending the conference. "The response to Common Word has been mixed" in the community, says Don Wagner, who teaches at North Park University in Chicago. Some Evangelicals have been vocal in their antagonism toward Islam, while others simply question the purposes of interfaith dialogue. Dr. Wagner is participating in a smaller Evangelical-Muslim dialogue that is planning its third conference.
Sayeed Syeed, director of interfaith relations for the Islamic Society of North America, has several projects under way with Christians and Jews, and Europeans are visiting to learn from their activities. The Yale conference is part of "a major paradigm shift in Christian-Muslim relations," he says.
Given the challenges of the new millennium, he adds, "everyone is looking for new answers."