NEW HAVEN — – The Rev. Robert H. Schuller, a California pastor and host of television’s “Hour of Power,” reaches 20 million Christian followers around the world. Sheik Al-Habib Ali Al-Jifri ranks among the 10 most popular Muslim preachers worldwide, with followers in the United States, Indonesia, Malaysia and across the Arab world.
On Wednesday, they shared a pulpit and a message: Muslims and Christians must come together and embrace their similarities. Loving God requires loving people, no matter their faith. And religion must be reclaimed from those who use it to divide people, or worse.
“Let’s focus on what God wants us to do, to build, to redeem,” Schuller told the audience of Muslim and Christian scholars and religious leaders from around the world who gathered at Yale for a conference that organizers described as a seminal moment in interfaith relations.
The conference grew out of a 2007 open letter, “A Common Word Between Us and You,” signed by 138 Islamic scholars and clerics worldwide.
The letter laid out fundamental commonalities between Christianity and Islam — namely, that both scriptural, monotheistic religions share concepts of love of God and love for one’s neighbors — and framed the importance of relations between the world’s two largest religions in blunt terms: “If Muslims and Christians are not at peace, the world cannot be at peace,” the letter read. “With the terrible weaponry of the modern world; with Muslims and Christians intertwined everywhere as never before, no side can unilaterally win a conflict between more than half of the world’s inhabitants.
“Thus our common future is at stake. The very survival of the world itself is perhaps at stake.”
In a response that has now been signed by more than 500 people, Yale scholars offered a Christian perspective. It affirmed many of the “A Common Word” ideas and shared the letter’s call for work — not just “polite ecumenical dialogue” — to reshape the relations between Muslims and Christians.
That gave way to this week’s conference, which drew more than 150 Muslim, Christian and Jewish leaders and scholars, including Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad of Jordan, grand muftis of several countries, an Iranian ayatollah and American evangelical leaders.
Similar conferences will be held during the next 15 months at Cambridge University, the Vatican, Georgetown University and in Jordan.
But participants made it clear that their real goal lies outside conferences. Real change must come at the grass-roots level, they said.
“What is the result that the world is going to see?” Al-Jifri asked in Arabic.
He noted that some professors now use “A Common Word” and the Yale response in their curriculum.
“Every teacher should play a role in teaching this document to all of their youth,” he said.
Schuller, who said he was horrified by the way some Christians demonize Muslims, echoed Al-Jifri’s message. “If you want to love God, you have to love people,” he said.
Schuller, who spoke after Al-Jifri, jokingly made clear just how much the two preachers agreed.
“I wanted him to be first so that I could steal his material when I came up,” he said, drawing laughter from the audience.
But the conference did not overlook the differences between the two religions. Much of the discussion addressed theological disagreements.
In that way, the conference stood out from other interfaith programs, which tend to gloss over differences between religions, said Abdul Hakim Murad, one of the “A Common Word” signatories and a lecturer in Islamic studies at Cambridge University.
Those programs usually don’t achieve much, he said, because they fail to acknowledge separate beliefs that people hold in each religion.
This conference took a different approach: It’s possible to have deep differences and still be good neighbors.
The next step, spreading accurate messages about each religion on a local level, will be challenging, Murad said.
In the U.S., a grass-roots effort is already in the works.
The National Council of Churches, an ecumenical group that includes 45 million people in more than 100,000 congregations, has been having a dialogue between Christians and Muslims and will issue its own response to “A Common Word” this fall, said Antonios Kireopoulos, the council’s senior program director for faith and order and interfaith relations.
The council will also attempt to bridge the divide between Muslims and Christians on a local level, fostering connections between individual churches and mosques.
Kireopoulos said those connections ultimately could help people stand together when crises arise, such as the hate crimes targeting Muslims after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“What we need to do is to understand that even though we disagree theologically, that’s OK,” he said. “But it doesn’t mean that we can’t be friends with people.”