Kings Reach Across Religious Divide

There are two important Abdullahs in the Arab world – one is the king of Saudi Arabia and the other of Jordan. Both are orchestrating two unprecedented interfaith dialogues.

One of those historic initiatives is taking place at the United Nations in New York and ends tonight.

The two kings are conducting the outreach separately, for their own reasons. The more significant point is that they are. The dialogue across the religious divides is the first since 9/11 – indeed, the first ever on such a global scale.

When Pope Benedict’s 2006 statement linking Islam to violence triggered violent protests, Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad, a cousin of King Abdullah of Jordan, co-ordinated a peaceful Muslim response.

A group of 138 scholars issued a statement, emphasizing the common elements between Islam, Christianity and Judaism: oneness of God, love of neighbour, shared prophets, etc. The signatories came from 40 countries, and were Sunnis, Shiites and others representing all the major schools of thought.

Addressed to all Christians, the statement rejected violence in the name of religion. It noted that Muslims and Christians make up well over half of the world’s population, and that “without peace and justice between these two religious communities, there can be no meaningful peace in the world.”

The Vatican responded coolly. But others warmed up to it, including the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The prestigious Yale Divinity School issued a letter signed by 300 prominent Christians, liberals and evangelicals alike.

“Peaceful relations between Muslims and Christians stand as one of the central challenges of this century, and perhaps of the whole present epoch … The future of the world depends on our ability as Christians and Muslims to live together in peace.”

In July, Yale hosted a meeting in New Haven, Conn., of 150 people – Protestant theologians and evangelicals on the Christian side, and Shiites, Sunnis and others on the Muslim side. Six Jewish guests were present as observers.

Last month, Cambridge University in Britain held a similar meeting.

Last week, the Vatican, having come on board along the way, hosted 58 Christian and Muslims scholars and leaders, 29 from each side.

Mustafa Ceric, mufti of Bosnia, a survivor of Serb-initiated ethnic cleansing, said the world had a choice: “The clash or alliance of civilizations? Violence or reconciliation?”

The Pope, while speaking of the need “to overcome past prejudices,” stressed religious freedom. He has long complained about restrictions on Christians in Muslim nations, especially Saudi Arabia.

The final communiqué said that religious minorities should be “entitled to their own places of worship.” It was not just the Vatican but also the Muslims present who sent a clear message to Saudi Arabia.

On a separate track, Saudi King Abdullah had met the Pope last year, the first meeting between a Saudi monarch and a pontiff.

In June, the king held a meeting of Sunnis, Shiites and others in Mecca. In July, he held an interfaith dialogue of his own, in Madrid, with King Juan Carlos hosting.

And he was the initiator of this week’s UN meeting of the representatives of Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Shintoism and Confucianism. All 192 UN member states were invited and 65 asked to speak. President Shimon Peres of Israel spoke of the possibility of “a movement of profound significance.”

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that while anti-Semitism “remains a scourge, Islamophobia has emerged as a new term for an old and terrible form of prejudice.”

There are two ways of reading Abdullah’s initiative. He is in damage control: 15 of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudis, and his Wahhabi Islam has been under attack, including for its severe restrictions on non-Muslims. Another reading is that he has been dragging his conservative clerical establishment toward tolerance – first, for other Muslims and then, non-Muslims. The intra-faith and interfaith dialogue is part of that exercise.

Either way, it is welcome, as is the Jordanian initiative.

John Esposito, director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., was one of the signatories of the Yale letter. Of the Jordanian initiative, he told me yesterday, “this is really the first time in history that a representative group of Muslims from across the world has come together to address the Christian world and has entered into a dialogue.”

His colleague Ibrahim Kalin, professor of Islamic studies at Georgetown, who was at the Rome meeting, told me his group welcomes the Saudi initiative: “It is a good sign that the king of the most conservative Muslim society in the world is extending an open invitation to all faiths to come together.”

Haroon Siddiqui’s column appears Thursday and Sunday.

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