A Global Agenda for Change in Muslim-Christian Relations

The just-completed Georgetown’s Common Word conference, Oct. 7-8, occurs at a time when the need for serious engagement and cooperation between Muslims and Christians is more urgent than ever.

Islam and Christianity are far and away the two largest global religions (1.5 and 2.1 billion). Muslims and Christians together make up well over half of the world’s population. Today, more than ever before, they co-exist or encounter each other in 57 Muslim countries and in Europe and America and beyond. Despite significant doctrinal differences, they also they share much in common in matters of faith, values and interests. If religion has too often been part of the problem, it must also be part of the solution.

In contrast to the past, the world of the 21st century is both transformed and threatened by the impact of globalization, a source of integration and fragmentation in international affairs, economic and social development, and inter-religious or multi-religious affairs. Today, President Barack Obama and European leaders are faced with the fallout from eight years of Bush legacy that led many Muslim critics of the U.S.-UK war on global terrorism to charge it was a war against Islam and Muslims, an attempt to redraw the map of the Muslim world. Obama, in his inauguration and subsequent addresses to Muslims from Ankara and Cairo, has sought to recast America’s image among its Muslim and non-Muslim allies. His commitment to the importance of a multi-lateral approach with its emphasis on diplomacy in the pursuit of peace and justice — in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran, were among the reasons for the recent and surprising award of the Nobel Peace Prize as a recognition and encouragement of Barack Obama’s fresh international vision in American foreign policy.

The Common Word Muslim initiative and the response by major Christian leaders and other global leaders to the document, “A Common Word Between Us and You,” reflects the deep awareness of today’s precarious and dangerous world of global politics and the need for Muslims and Christians to work together. As the CW document reminds us: “Without peace and justice between these two religious communities, there can be no meaningful peace in the world. The future of the world depends on peace between Muslims and Christians.”

“A Common Word: A Global Agenda for Change” was call to action. Sponsored by the Office of the President of Georgetown University, the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, and the Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought, it was the next step in the ongoing process of this groundbreaking initiative. Conferences at Yale and Cambridge universities and the Vatican had brought together global religious leaders and academic experts who explored the theological and scriptural bases and implications of the foundation of A Common Word, the two great commandments, Love of God and Love of Neighbor, based directly Christian, Muslim and Jewish Scriptures.

At Georgetown we addressed the “So what factor?” How do we respond to and put “Love of Neighbor” into action to address the many shared challenges and threats we face in our world? How do we transform a common word into common works?

Critical to realizing the purpose and goal of A Common Word is applied theology, transforming belief and dialogue into action. Conference encounters and their final reports alone, however good and important are too easily archived and do not in themselves change minds and hearts and transform societies. Words must be accompanied by action and deeds; visions must be implemented by concrete and, where possible, joint-efforts and projects.

Although convinced of the importance of this initiative, we were astonished at the incredible response. The acceptance rate from the global leaders invited ranged between 90-95%! Our opening session drew a capacity audience in Gaston Hall of 750; subsequent sessions averaged 500 to 600 participants. Media coverage included the Washington Post-Newsweek’s On Faith, Al-Jazeera English, Al-Arabiyya, BBC, and many others.

In addition to prominent religious leaders and academics, key participants included practitioners: political leaders, social activists, leaders of major NGOs and others who came together to discuss and develop a “global agenda for change.” Among the religious dignitaries were: the Patriarch of Jerusalem, Theofilos III, the Grand Muftis of Egypt and Bosnia, Sheikh Ali Gomaa, and Mustafa Ceric; Professor Ingrid Mattson, President of the Islamic Society of North America; Theodore Cardinal McCarrick and Archbishop Celestino Megliore; the Anglican bishop of London, Richard Chartres, Nigeria’s Archbishop Josiah Idowu-Fearon and Bishop Mark Hanson, Presiding Bishop the Evangelical Lutheran Church and President of the Lutheran World Federation. They were joined by former prime ministers, Britain’s Tony Blair and Norway’s Kjell Magne Bondevik, Anwar Ibrahim, the former Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia, the twentieth sultan of Sokoto, Nigeria, Muhammad Sa’ad Abubakar and the presidents of major Christian and Muslim NGOs and organizations.

During our two days together we listened to and learned about the good practices, their challenges and accomplishments that already exist. Ken Hacket and David Robinson, leaders of Catholic Relief Services and World Vision, spoke of their global outreach and work in Muslim communities; Amr Khaled, charismatic preached and founder of the Right Start Foundation spoke of RSF’s many projects in the Arab world and Europe; Dalia Mogahed, Executive Director, Gallup Muslim Studies, reported on a major youth project, “Muslim Americans Answer the Call”; Fr. Eliseo Mercado and Amina Rasul-Bernardo spoke of their use of A Common Word in the Southern Philippines; Pastor Bob Roberts and Dr. Chris Seiple spoke of their respective partnerships and projects with Muslims in the Afghanistan and the Northwest Frontier Province. Presentations and discussions were open and frank, highlighting important accomplishments, issues and problems; areas of agreement and difference; and especially the need to recognize that differences of faith need not be an obstacle to partnership and collaboration in areas of mutual concern.

At the end of our conference, after two long and exhausting 10 hour days, we held a wrap-up discussion: “Where Do We Go from Here?”. While conferences like religious services often witness a good number of participants who hastily depart before the end, we were deligthed to see a full contingent and in fact had to finally cut off our session. After a summary of the key take-aways from our panels and leaders’ and members of the audience reactions, we turned to what we could and would do to promote the ideas and initiatives discussed and then identified areas and projects to be pursued and developed in future. Many asked that contact information be provided for future collaborations and follow-up workshops, regionally and locally. These recommendations and others were taken up the next day and will be at future meetings by the Executive Committee of THE C-1 WORLD DIALOGUE: Improving relations between the Western and Islamic Worlds, whose co-chairs are Dr. Ali Gomaa Grand Mufti of Egypt and Dr. Richard Chartres, the Anglican Bishop of London.

By John Esposito