Leaders and Scholars Discuss Interfaith Challenges

World political and religious leaders — including former British prime minister Tony Blair – called for believers to seize upon interfaith commonalities to address global issues of peace and security at a two-day conference on Muslim-Christian relations this week. “The best hope for faith in the 21st century is that we confront all of this together,” Blair said during the opening panel of the conference on Oct. 7. The conference, sponsored by Georgetown’s Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding and the office of Georgetown President John J. DeGioia, will run through Oct. 8.

“This is not because we intend to have the same faith — we don’t. Our separate beliefs will remain. But our coming together will allow us to speak in friendship to one another about our own faith,” added Blair, whose Tony Blair Faith Foundation promotes interfaith respect and understanding.

The conference, “A Common Word Between Us and You: A Global Agenda for Change,” stems from an October 2007 letter from Muslim leaders to Christian churches and communities. The letter called for the two faiths to reach a better understanding based on two common principles: love of God and love of one’s neighbor.

This year’s conference, the fourth such gathering of the Common Word initiative, seeks to move the conversation forward from words to action, said John Esposito, director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.

“It’s great to have conferences, but the question is, ‘So what?’ The question is what happens after it,” Esposito said. “How do you get a trickle-down effect? How do you implement? That’s part of what we’re challenged to deal with today.”

The opening panel in Gaston Hall set out to chart the progress and challenges within Muslim-Christian relations. Blair and Esposito were joined by Kjell Magne Bondevik, former Norwegian prime minister; Sheikh Mustafa Efendi Ceric, grand mufti of Bosnia-Herzegovina; and Dato’Seri Anwar Ibrahim, former deputy prime minister of Malaysia.

Religious and world leaders face an uphill battle in bringing faiths together so long as people’s minds are not in tune with their souls, Ceric said.

“Today’s world has a great amount of knowledge. It possesses a surplus of information, but lacks the insightful sense of wisdom,” he said. “There is a deep discrepancy between the mind’s perception and the human soul’s insight. … The soul is almost choked by the knowledge of the human senses.”

Ceric noted that 70 percent of world refugees are Muslim, most of the current wars are in Muslim lands and Muslims believe their rights are not secure, he said.

“We are serious about Common Word. We are serious about dialogue,” Ceric said. “For us, it’s not a political game – it’s a question of existence. And we believe we have the right to exist in this world.”

The Common Word conference continues Wednesday and Thursday with panels on religious pluralism in the 21st century; religion, violence and peace-building; and the role of international nongovernmental organizations in a pluralistic world.

“I think the single most important thing is the translation of words into action,” Blair said of the conference. “If we show by our actions that we are committed to understanding and respect and justice, that is how we will succeed. That is how we will overcome not just the extremism within religion but the cynicism outside of it.”

Lauren Burgoon
(October 7, 2009)