The groundbreaking three-day interfaith World Conference of Dialogue which closed yesterday in Madrid appears to have caught international imagination, perhaps in no small part because Saudi Arabia, a conservative state to some, was the prime mover behind the gathering. In his opening address Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah told the 300 attendees, mostly Muslim, Christian and Jewish clergy, that the world’s major religions had to turn their backs on extremism and embrace “constructive dialogue”.
Among the outcomes of the Madrid conference has been a call for the United Nations to establish a formal body to promote regular dialogue between religions. The conference itself decided to set up a working team to look closely at what it is that causes members of different faiths to misunderstand and fear each other and thus lead to the bigotry and violence that has underpinned terrorism by all faiths. Once the causes of misunderstanding have been identified, they can be addressed in two ways.
First, a greater awareness of the beliefs and attitudes of other religions will help take away the suspicions harbored almost automatically for those who are seen to come from different cultures and backgrounds. The instinctive assumption has for too long been that the differences also embody threats. The second way is to build theological bridges between faiths and this can be done by clerics and professors and devout laymen, who bring open minds and a willingness to listen to and consider deeply each other’s views.
At the end of the Madrid conference, Muslim World League Secretary-General Abdullah Al-Turki joined UAE representative Izaddin Ibrahim Moustapha to announce plans for a series of follow-up meetings around the world, at different levels. These would embrace not just Islam, Christianity and Judaism but all other world religions, including Hinduism and Buddhism. Indeed Moustapha said that there were already plans for a major conference in Japan.
Theological bridge building is a key part of another conference that begins at Yale University at the end of this month between 150 Muslim, Christian and Jewish religious leaders, under the banner “Common Word”. The Madrid meeting is likely to have given added impetus to the new gathering. It also set down an important principle to which the dialogue must stick carefully. The dialogue must be conducted on its own merits. Politics must not be allowed to intrude. This may sometimes be challenging but it should never be forgotten that the dialogue is about peace and faith.
There will, of course, be those who will claim as the pace of dialogue quickens, that participants will be going over the same ground again and again. And that will no doubt be the case. That is the nature of mature and sincere dialogue. From such detailed and exhaustive deliberations will come the answers both to interfaith misunderstandings that bedevil relations and inspire bigotry and terrorism and also to how people believing in different religions can find ways to respect the principles of decency and humanity that each religion seeks to express.