Historic interfaith Conference Follows Muslims’ Lead

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Chances are, if there were news stories this week about Muslims, they were not about the four-day conference that brought Islamic and Christian religious leaders and scholars to Yale University.

The 60 Muslims who attended included some top religious leaders from Middle Eastern countries. There were 60 Protestant seminary professors and clerics in the Christian delegation and nine Jewish observers.

As you might expect of a conference titled “Loving God and Neighbor in Word and Deed: Implications for Christians and Muslims,” they concluded with a positive, cooperative declaration:

“Muslims and Christians affirm the unity and absoluteness of God. We recognize that God’s merciful love is infinite, eternal and embraces all things. This love is central to both our religions and is at the heart of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic monotheistic heritage.

“We recognize that all human beings have the right to the preservation of life, religion, property, intellect and dignity. No Muslim or Christian should deny the other these rights, nor should they tolerate the denigration or desecration of one another’s sacred symbols, founding figures or places of worship.

“We are committed to these principles and to furthering them through continuous dialogue. We thank God for bringing us together in this historic endeavor and ask that He purify our intentions and grant us success through His all-encompassing mercy and love.

“We … denounce and deplore threats made against those who engage in interfaith dialogue. Dialogue is not a departure from faith; it is a legitimate means of expression and an essential tool in the quest for the common good.”

OK, OK, nobody came out and apologized for sectarian violence and religious persecution as it is being practiced in many places, a fact that already drew criticism from some fundamentalist commentators. No, they didn’t spend time making the list of “Dogma that Divides Us.” It wasn’t a political peace summit.

What it was, though, was pretty wonderful. And what’s more wonderful is that further sessions are already on the calendar.

The Muslims started it. Some 138 prominent Muslims – teachers, writers, government ministers, religious and legal leaders – representing the major branches of Islam and the Muslim population of many countries – signed an open letter to Christian leaders last year pointing out that the religions share a common ground: Love of God and love of neighbors is taught in both sacred scriptures. They called for interfaith dialogue.

The letter, “A Common Word Between Us and You,” dated Oct. 13, is pretty amazing because there is no Global Islamic Religious Parliament that might produce such a thing. There’s no hierarchic equivalent to the Vatican from whence Catholicism speaks with one voice. Of course, there’s no such voice for all Christendom, either.

The Muslim appeal was coordinated by the Royal Institute for Islamic Thought in Jordan. A special advisor to King Abdullah II of Jordan drafted “A Common Word.” Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad studied at Princeton University and earned a doctorate at Cambridge University and was a key party to the Yale conference this week.

“A Common Word” drew a flood of response from the Christian world, not just from interfaith advocates, but a broad spectrum that included Orthodox Christians and evangelical denominations which are less likely to get aboard an ecumenical train.

The most resounding Christian response was drafted by Yale Divinity School scholars organized by Miroslav Volf, director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture. A month after they heard from the Muslims, they published their response as a full-page ad in the New York Times with more than 300 Christian leaders and scholars signed on.

Some of those signers have taken heat from their flocks or critics for joining this peace initiative. Otherwise, except for an occasional analysis in a denominational or academic publication, it pretty much proceeded under the radar.

Now with the first step successfully taken, the dialogue will continue: at Cambridge University in Great Britain in October, at the Vatican in November, at Georgetown University next March and at the Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought in Jordan in October 2009.

For more details on who is involved and what they’re saying, see the Web site www.acommonword.com. There’s a page where you can have your say, too.

Of all the words written there, from this viewpoint none can top the opening of the Yale letter, which can also be found at www.yale.edu/faith.

The scholars set the tone for seeking common ground in such a divided world with a quote from Matthew’s Gospel account of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus talking about judging others: “First take the log out your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.”