NEW HAVEN, CONNECTICUT // In the biblical spirit of fire and brimstone, a meeting between top Muslim and Christian scholars began in the US this week with apocalyptic warnings of inter-religious bloodletting if the world’s two main faiths fail to reach accord.
Jordan’s Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad bin Talal opened the Yale University conference on Tuesday discussing widespread anger over the Palestinian territories, US foreign policy and terrorism, predicting Armageddon-like consequences of a deepening rift between the Islamic world and Christendom.
“We are now actually at the stage where we, as Christians and Muslims, routinely mistrust, disrespect and dislike each other, if not popularly and actively rubbish, dehumanise, demonise, despise and attack each other,” he said.
Citing statistics from an international Gallup survey, Prince Ghazi warned the 150 assembled scholars that “60 per cent of Christians harbour prejudice against Muslims – and 30 per cent of Muslims reciprocate”.
“My feeling is that, God forbid, a few more terrorist attacks; a few more national security emergencies; a few more demagogues; and a few more national protection laws, and then internment camps – if not concentration camps – are not inconceivable in some place, and that these would inevitably spawn more global counter-reactions,” he said.
The Hashemite royal likened Christians and Muslims to Rwanda’s Hutu and Tutsi tribes before the 1994 genocide, warning that climate change and global competition for food and other natural resources could result in rival camps “slaughtering each other”.
His fears were echoed by Miroslav Volf, who, as founder and director of Yale Divinity School’s Center for Faith and Culture, was host of the four-day event and who described interfaith relations as at one of their lowest points since the Crusades.
“Tensions, deep conflicts and often murderous violence between our two communities are leaving a trail of blood and tears and many troubling memories,” said Mr Volf, a Croatian-born Protestant. “They also undermine hopes and efforts of many to live in peace, flourishing as individuals and as communities.” The conference was born from the response of 138 Muslim scholars to a speech by Pope Benedict XVI at the University of Regensburg in Sept 2006, in which the pontiff controversially quoted a historical passage that described Islam as “evil and inhuman”.
The Islamic world’s reply, a 29-page letter to Christian leaders called A Common Word Between Us and You, tried to foster peace by defining shared principles between the two faiths that are followed by more than half the world’s population: love of God and love of neighbours. Prof Volf was among more than 300 Christians to sign a welcoming response that ran as a full-page advertisement in The New York Times in November last year.
This week’s seminar is the first in a series of face-to-face talks between A Common Word’s signatories and Christian respondents, ahead of events in Cambridge and the Vatican in the run-up to a larger meeting in Jordan in 2010, near the site of Jesus’s baptism.
It follows a Madrid conference organised by Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah and a plethora of other initiatives, although insiders highlight the importance of this series because its delegates are bona fide religious leaders with huge constituencies of worshippers, rather than the conference-hoppers filling other meets.
The initiative also represents an unprecedented union of Sunnis, Shiites, Sufis and other branches of Islam, orchestrated by Prince Ghazi’s Royal Aal al Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought, unifying a faith that traditionally operates without central authority.
Among the guests are an Islamic spiritualist, Sheikh al Habib Ali al Jifri, the founder and director of Abu Dhabi’s Tabah Foundation, John Kerry, a Massachusetts senator and former presidential candidate, and Muhammad Abd al Rahim Sultan al Ulama from UAE University in Al Ain.
Mr Volf described the conference as a “ray of light, shining through the barely parting clouds” of religious intolerance, claiming that discussing commonalities of the two faiths will effect “worldly good”.
But cracks in religious harmony have already started to appear, with delegates spending hours debating whether the Holy Trinity in Christian doctrine is polytheistic, as is alleged by some Muslims.
The Yale debate also features a number of evangelists, a Christian sect often characterised as hostile to Islam. Delegates have grappled with the issue of proselytising to and converting Muslims – seen as a duty by some evangelists although sinful in Islam.
Underlying all religious discussion, of course, is the belief among Muslims that Islam is the culmination and fulfilment of Judaism and Christianity, whereas the two other Abrahamic faiths claim religious superiority on similarly chronological grounds. When planning Islamic prayer areas, Yale’s divinity chiefs took the unexpected step of creating a Christian prayer zone, which was described by one organiser as designed to present a “comparably pious appearance” to their Muslim counterparts.
Perhaps the biggest bone of contention was raised by Prince Ghazi, who said many elderly sharia scholars had avoided Yale because they could “no longer easily endure how Muslims have been treated at [US] airports since Sept 11”.
Nevertheless, debates have been good-natured and scholars of opposing faiths stroll through Yale’s leafy campus together deep in theological conversation, breaking bread with each other at halal meals served without alcohol.
By the end of the conference this afternoon, delegates hope to have established enough common ground to agree upon the words of communiqué that denounces religious extremism.
Whether the organisers achieve their end remains uncertain. Nobody has yet been bold enough to question whether an accord between theologians will effect any real change on the ground – heralding an end to terrorism, US foreign policy U-turns or the breakout of peace across the Middle East.
For Mr Kerry, there are no short-term solutions, only an extended process of dialogue and more dialogue. But the Catholic senator suggests the debate should not proceed within the tranquil environs of a US Ivy League college, nor England’s leafy Cambridge nor chic Madrid, where King Abdullah received Jews, Christians and Hindus.
For the Democrat, the conversation needs to take place in the heart of the trouble zone, with Saudi Arabia hosting an event in the desert kingdom, despite Riyadh’s apparent reluctance to host advocates of non-Islamic faiths on home turf.
“It is close to Mecca, it is in the holy land where a lot of the misinterpretation exists.
“And I think it helps to concentrate the media in that part of the world to achieve better understanding. As we know, a large proportion of the people of September 11 came out of Saudi Arabia,” Mr Kerry said in an interview.
“Radicals and extremists appeal to the lack of understanding, and they appeal to people’s lowest common denominator and worst instincts.
“The more you can lift that up and appeal to people’s higher instincts and understanding, the more chance we have of being successful.”