Issue 48, December 2006
The last issue of Current Dialogue was essentially a report on the 9th Assembly of the World Council of Churches (WCC) and contributions touching the domain of interreligious relations and dialogue. This issue will highlight the relationship, which is likely to dominate the agenda of interreligious relations and dialogue of the WCC: Muslim-Christian relations.
On the one hand I am glad that our constituency is telling us that we as Christians should devote more time, energy and imagination to cultivate, foster, further relations with Muslim brothers and sisters, organisations and institutions. Islam merits our attention. Christian-Muslim relations were historically marked by confrontation. Past exchanges between Muslims and Christians are often depicted as polemical, if they are even acknowledged. The rich and fertile encounters in the realms of life and ideas were easily forgotten. We should therefore look to our relationship with Islam as a new possibility to address together the concerns of our time and to craft together a constructive future.
On the other hand I am somewhat saddened by this insistence on Christian-Muslim relations because it seems to me that some of the calls for more dialogue, more conversations, more encounters, are coloured by a sense of imminent disaster in the relationship between Christians and Muslims. Am I mistaken if I sense that the call for more dialogue is because of a fear of an impending clash of civilisations? Am I wrong in interpreting that the call for dialogue is an attempt to bring Muslims into our space so as to make them less dangerous? This would not be the best soil for Christian-Muslim dialogue to grow stronger.
Let us foster a dialogue with Muslims that is built upon the self-definition of the participants in the dialogue and not on what we think Islam is and what Muslims are. The WCC document: 'Striving Together in Dialogue - A Muslim-Christian Call to Reflection and Action' states that "… dialogue is not a negotiation between parties who have conflicting interests and claims. It should not be bound by the constraints of power relations. Rather, it needs to be a process of mutual empowerment of both Christians and Muslims towards their joint engagement in public concerns and their common pursuit of justice, peace and constructive action on behalf of the common good of all people. In this process, Muslims and Christians will draw on their spiritual resources.”1
Some of the contributions in this issue will signal that Muslim brothers and sisters in our dialogue are increasingly feeling to be under pressure. Under pressure to explain what Islam is not, to define themselves against established stereotypes, to distance themselves from accusation of Islam as being prone to violence, terrorism, claims for world dominance etc..
The WCC is since many years involved in Christian-Muslim relations. We have the last years established good relations with the Turkish movement of Fethullah Gülen, the "Hizmet Insani" (Those devoted to service). It is establishing centres throughout the world to foster better relations between Muslims, Christians and Jews, and is actively contributing to education and an open society.
In 2007 we are looking forward to initiate a women’s project between Iranian women and women from the WCC constituency, developing our relations with the Institute for Interreligious Dialogue in Tehran. We are grateful for these relations, hope to strengthen them and look forward during 2007 to open other avenues also in Christian-Muslim relations.
The Assembly in Porto Alegre left us with the task to make interreligious relations, dialogue and cooperation a priority. The office is to be strengthened in terms of personal resources and the thrust is to be developed in close cooperation with other programmes in the WCC.
We have throughout the year been exploring how we could be attentive to the wishes of the Assembly. A preliminary activity plan for the coming years has been discussed and articulated and I would for your information like to share some of it with you.
Projects in the dialogue programme focus on: deepening mutual trust through interreligious dialogue and cooperation; intra-Christian theological exploration to enable churches to re-articulate their self-understanding, building upon experiences gained in and through inter-religious dialogue, identifying and addressing gaps in current dialogues on gender issues and conflict, and the interaction of youth and religious life; and an intentional accompaniment of churches in situations of tension and conflict.
Strengthening trust and respect
Furthering bilateral and multilateral explorations in interreligious relations on issues of common concern as well as of friction remains a priority. Religious communities live together in local contexts, where they thrive and enjoy good neighbourly relations. There is however also another story, which witnesses to Christians and people of other faiths living next to each other but in mutual ignorance, in isolation and at worst in situations of conflict and fear of each other. The WCC recognises the urgent need to develop greater and better relations between Christians and their neighbours of other faiths.
Next to cultivating and deepening relations with people of other faiths through bilateral dialogues, the office will place particular emphasis on contemporary and cutting-edge issues in today’s religiously plural societies. It will explore new ways of communicating issues pertaining to interreligious dialogue on issues such as religion and violence and “the Other” in our religious traditions. Following up the “Critical Moment” conference which took place in June 2005, discussions will continue on the issue of conversion.
We will intentionally seek to provide a space for young adults on themes related to religious identities and the construction of meaning in pluralist societies. There is a yearning for spirituality among youth, not always in a strictly religious sense, but in a wider sense that is often disconnected from institutionalised religion and dogmas, rites and religious practices, following a conscious move towards autonomy. The intention is to facilitate both regional and cross-cultural encounters of young adults.
There will also be a special focus on women engaged in interreligious dialogue.
Christian self-understanding amid many religions
We will in cooperation between programmes enable a dialogue among Christian communities, including Pentecostal and evangelical churches to explore Christian self-understanding in a world of many religions. One particular issue of importance in such a conversation is to address conversion and its effect on interreligious relations.
Accompanying churches in situations of conflict
There is an increasing awareness that religion plays a central role in civil and political life. Religious symbols and idioms in some countries are used to manipulate and promote political powers and interests, causing tensions and conflicts between communities. There is a growing environment of religious intolerance that has a negative effect on societies. We will in cooperation within the WCC, with regional ecumenical partners, with people and institutions of different faiths focus on areas, regions, where religion seem to be used to fuel conflict. The activities of this undertaking will be linked to other programmatic areas of the WCC addressing issues of ecumenical relations, justice and peace. It is our intention to accompany churches and communities faced with an environment of religious intolerance, discrimination and conflict equipping them through interreligious dialogue, capacity building and advocacy for change.
Let me finally return to the last issue's editorial, where we congratulated our former colleague, Dr. Tarek Mitri, to his appointment as Minister of Culture in Lebanon. Since then, Lebanon has suffered the consequences of a war that still demands victims and peace is not a reality. Since then, the government is in crisis and the future seems bleak. Our thoughts and prayers for the wellbeing of the people of Lebanon will be accompanying us as we enter the last preparations for Christmas and a New Year.