NEW HAVEN, CONNECTICUT // When Jordan’s Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad strode out of Yale University at the climax of weeklong talks between Muslim and Christian scholars, he was met with a standing ovation.
More than 150 religious leaders unanimously agreed to sign a resolution on similarities of faith, to respect “one another’s sacred symbols” and preach a message of commonality to “congregations, neighbours and friends” around the world.
But after the ovation died down, there lingered a nagging sense of doubt over whether the so-called process of interfaith dialogue could ever yield results in a world that is polarised not only by religion, but also by politics.
Prince Ghazi opened the conference by warning of major clashes between Muslims and Christians and claiming mutual mistrust was driven by US foreign policy, the occupation of Palestinian territory, fundamentalism and terrorism.
When proceedings wrapped up on Thursday – and Protestants, Sunnis, evangelists and Shiites returned to homes from the Midwest to the Middle East – the United States was still posturing against the Islamic republic and Israelis continued to build settlements on Arab soil.
The orgaizers were all too aware of al Qa’eda’s recent threats towards Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah for his recent championing of the interfaith cause.
Yale security posted armed police around the leafy, Ivy League campus and its oak-panelled conference theatre was combed by bomb-sniffing dogs.
Evidence of the continuing gulf between the two faiths, which together represent about half the world’s population, was always discernible. Statistics from the recently published Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think were cited by scholars from both sides.
Prince Ghazi, who is alo the president of the Royal Aal al Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought, warned delegates that “60 per cent of Christians harbour prejudice against Muslims, and 30 per cent of Muslims reciprocate”.
John DeGioia, Georgetown University’s Catholic president, noted that US residents were poor advocates of “loving thy neighbour”, with “nearly one-quarter saying they would not want a Muslim” living next door.
The conference was itself spawned from a saga of interfaith antipathy that began in Sept 2006, when Pope Benedict XVI quoted a historical passage that described Islam unfavourably during a speech at Regensburg University.
Prince Ghazi responded by orchestrating an unprecedented union of Muslims from all branches of a faith that traditionally operates without central authority. It saw 138 scholars from 40 countries address a letter to Christian leaders in October called A Common Word Between Us and You.
The document sought to foster peace by defining two shared principles between faiths: love of God and love of neighbour. More than 300 Christians signed Yale’s welcoming response the next month, which ran as a full-page advertisement in The New York Times.
Yale marked the first in a series of face-to-face meetings designed to build on those principles, a process that will continue in Cambridge in October, the Vatican in November and Georgetown in March – culminating in a summit in Jordan in Dec 2009.
To some pundits, this inaugural meeting was a roaring success. When Prince Ghazi asked a packed auditorium whether anybody dissented from the final communiqué, a brief silence in which nobody raised their hand was followed by rapturous applause and a warm glow of consensus.
But the spirit of inclusiveness felt at Yale did little to hide the challenge of co-ordinating theologians with vastly contrasting views, a predicament outlined by the event’s host, Prof Miroslav Volf, the director of Yale’s Center for Faith and Culture.
“We looked each other in the eye and said what we saw to be the case, even if it seemed unpleasant and unacceptable to the other side,” said Prof Volf, a Croatian-born Protestant who will co-teach a Yale course with Britain’s former prime minister, Tony Blair, in September.
“The debate has been characterised by frank and honest exchanges,” he added.
Featuring a number of prominent evangelists – a branch of Christianity often characterised as hostile to Islam – the event was obviously going to have its more sensitive moments. Delegates spent hours grappling with the thorny issue of converting Muslims, which is seen as a duty by some Christian evangelicals though anathema in Islam.
Sessions also became more stormy when Christians were asked to defend their doctrine of the Holy Trinity, the tripartite deity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, claimed by some Muslims as indicative of polytheism.
Underpinning all discussion, of course, was the belief among Muslims, Christians and Jews that their respective faiths, though sharing much, were nevertheless the closest manifestation of God’s plan.
Other areas of pastoral and doctrinal disagreement came to the fore during the closing sessions. For instance, Mohammed Bechari, the president of the National Federation of French Muslims, expressed criticism of “some clergymen for accepting homosexual marriage”.
The atmosphere darkened somewhat also when Sheikh Tayseer Rajab al Tamimi, chief Palestinian Islamic justice, told Jewish attendee Rabbi Douglas Krantz that his coreligionists should “apply the Torah, stick to the scriptures and tell the government of Israel that what they are doing is completely against Judaism”.
Tensions were too much for some delegates to handle, with one evangelical academic, who wished to remain anonymous, complaining: “After several days of hearing attacks on Christianity, I started to get a little tired. We certainly weren’t making those kinds of comments about Islam.
“I would have much rather had a constructive conversation about how we can help Palestinians and tackle poverty in the Middle East.”
This point was echoed by Mr DeGioia, who cited statistics from UN reports that “about 65 million Arabs are illiterate” and that “no generation of young Arabs has been as large as today’s – 100 million new jobs will be required by 2020”.
The academic’s figures formed an unspoken backdrop to Yale’s discussions: that the bulk of Islam’s adherents hail from the developing world while Christianity, through its associations primarily with the secular and developed West, carries with it, wittingly or unwittingly, true global temporal power.
In this context, the meeting became an opportunity for Islam’s scholars to air frustrations, while Christendom – supported by its implicit hegemony – acquiesced to a central tenet of its faith and turned the other cheek.
Nevertheless, the congregation of ayatollahs, priests, sheikhs and academics departed with a sense that something – however intangible – had been achieved.
Dr Ibrahim Kalin, the founding director of Turkey’s Seta Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research, hoped discussions will have “a trickle-down effect”.
“Religious leaders do not make policy, but they have ways of influencing it and public perception,” he said.
All participants acknowledged the difficulty in measuring the good that can come out of the conference. Organisers claim it will have profound effect because delegates were bona fide spiritual leaders who command huge constituencies of worshippers, rather than individual clerics or academics who hop from one interfaith conference to the next.
The hope is that, when the spirit of A Common Word is preached to Muslim and Christian congregations from Baghdad to Boise, the disenfranchised Iraqi teenager will be less likely to blow himself up in a bustling souq, and the Bible Belt American will think twice before electing a hardline politician.