- (The World Evangelical Alliance / The Christian Post)
Following a four-day conference, Christian and Muslim leaders from around the world announced the first fruits of the "Common Word" exchange through a joint statement that affirmed their support for religious freedom and further interfaith dialogue based on their common love for God and neighbor.
During the "Loving God and Neighbor" meeting at Yale University, the high-profile leaders discussed how Christians and Muslims might work together to address world poverty, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the situation in Palestine and Israel, the dangers of further wars, and the freedom of religion.
On Thursday, over 140 conference participants unanimously approved a cooperative statement that signaled a new beginning of collaboration between Christians and Muslims where stronger assertions of faith would be not just be allowed but required.
Geoff Tunnicliffe, international director of the World Evangelical Alliance, was among top evangelical leaders at the July 28-31 conference who agreed to sign the document.
The statement began by affirming the "unity and absoluteness of God" and God's merciful love as central to both religions.
The most weight was placed on the second paragraph in which religious leaders affirmed a mutual respect for each other's faith.
"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," declared the statement, read by Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad of Jordan at a news conference Thursday.
The statement also denounced a death threat by Al Qaeda last week against Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah for hosting an interfaith conference this month in Madrid.
The leaders agreed to "denounce and deplore threats made against those who engage in interfaith dialogue."
"Dialogue is not a departure from faith," the statement affirmed. "[I]t is a legitimate means of expression and an essential tool in the quest for the common good."
Additionally, conference participants also planned for a week every year when Muslim and Christian clergy would preach to their congregations the good aspect about the other's faith. Other practical steps to promote understanding between the two faiths included a website with notable Christian and Muslim books and a study guide with frequently asked questions about the two faiths.
The recent four-day gathering stemmed from a letter, titled "A Common Word Between Us and You," issued by 138 Muslim clerics last October calling for sincere dialogue between Muslims and Christians. In November, Christians responded with a statement that agreed to work with Muslims on pressing issues based on their common principles of love for God and neighbor. Over 500 Christian leaders endorsed statement issued by the Yale Center for Faith and Culture.
Some evangelical theologians and Christian leaders had criticized the Christian letter, saying it didn't assert the correct Christian view of God as the trinity.
But as the conference panel discussions would reveal, no one backed away from the core assertions of their faith as they engaged in highly academic and often theological conversations on topics that ranged from God's love to world poverty.
In an opinion piece, Dr. H.A. Hellyer, a consultant in West-Muslim relations, welcomed the "strong evangelical component" at the meeting.
"These were religious people; they weren’t interested in diluting their faiths," he wrote in a commentary published Saturday by The National, a newspaper based in the United Arab Emirates. "And in that, a type of sincerity emerged that was perhaps the greatest benefit of the initiative."
Professor Miroslav Volf, a leading organizer of the conference who also heads the Center for Faith and Culture, said during the news conference that the most important learning between the two communities took place over "coffee, tea and meal conversations."
WEA leader Tunnicliffe, who represents some 420 million evangelicals worldwide, invited Muslim leaders to take their bridge-building initiative one step further by learning more about evangelicals.
"Muslims feel they have been stereotyped and stigmatized in the media. As evangelical Christians we feel the same stereotyping," he said during closing remarks Thursday.
"We are a diverse community of Christians yet we are often portrayed through the media as being tied to one political agenda, one view of eschatology, and intolerant of all others," shared Tunnicliffe.
He said evangelicals share a "commitment to some core biblical truths" but hold a "diversity of views on many issues."
"Just as we promise to seek to move beyond the stereotyping of Muslims found in the media, can I ask you, my Muslim friends, to get to know us beyond what is reported in the newspapers and television programs? If we are going to continue to build this new bridge this must be a part of the architecture."
The "Common Word" conference was the first of a series of conferences to take place in the fall and next year that will center on promoting peace and understanding between the Abrahamic faiths. Future conferences are scheduled in October at Cambridge University, November at the Vatican, March 2009 at Georgetown University, and October 2009 at Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute in Jordan.
Correction: Thursday, August 21, 2008:
An article on Sunday, Aug. 3, 2008, about Christian and Muslim leaders supporting religious freedom and further interfaith dialogue incorrectly reported that Leith Anderson, president of National Association of Evangelicals, was among evangelical leaders at the July 28-31 conference who agreed to sign a collaborative document. The Christian Post confirmed with the NAE office that Anderson did not sign the document.