WASHINGTON — Over 400 Muslim, Christian and Jewish leaders from all over the world affirmed on Wednesday a new declaration calling for the global protection of religious minorities and marginalized communities.
The "Washington Declaration" was unveiled after two days of collaboration among hundreds of interfaith leaders who gathered for the three-day "Alliance of Virtue" conference organized by the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies and its leader, Shaykh Abdallah Bin Bayyah, a Saudi Arabian Islamic Studies professor.
"[W]e cannot love and serve God if we fail also to love our neighbors — including the strangers in our midst," the declaration reads. "Recognizing that our shared values are more important than our differences, and that we are strongest when we act together, we pledge to combine our best efforts to foster unity where there is discord, aid the impoverished, tend the vulnerable, heal the poor in spirit, and support measures that will ensure respect for the dignity of every human being. We will be guided in this endeavor by convictions that flow from our deepest theological understandings."
Along with calling for unity and the promotion of religious freedom, the declaration calls for four courses of action.
First, it calls for the establishment of an "Alliance of Virtue" to implement the Washington Declaration. Second, it calls for the provision of over 1 billion meals to feed impoverished and underserved communities throughout the world.
Additionally, the declaration calls for a multi-religious body consisting of prominent religious figures to "support mediation and reconciliation." Finally, the declaration calls for the creation of an interfaith committee to adopt the recommendations laid out in the declaration that "reflects the fullness of diversity in our communities and across the world."
"All people, regardless of faith, are entitled to religious liberty," the declaration states. "There is no room for compulsion in religion, just as there are no legitimate grounds for excluding the followers of any religion from full and fair participation in society. This principle is prominent in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam and is intimately associated with the United States, where the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom preceded even the adoption of the federal Constitution."
Members of the Washington Declaration's steering committee include former U.S. ambassador at-large for international religious freedom Rabbi David Saperstein, evangelical Texas Pastor Bob Roberts, Imam Mohamed Magid of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society in Virginia, former archbishop of Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick and Mohamed Elsanousi of the Network for Religious and Traditional Peacemakers.
As tens of thousands of people of all faiths are persecuted every year, the Washington Declaration builds upon the Marrakesh Declaration of January 2016. The declaration was signed by over 350 faith-leaders and called specifically for the protection of religious minorities in Muslim-majority nations.
"We believe that religious leaders have a special responsibility to ensure that the tenets and teachings of our faiths are not distorted for wrongful purposes and that, on the contrary, they provide a living example of God's love at work in the world," the Washington Declaration explains. "In light of that responsibility, we reject the polarization that leads to conflict and war. We are determined to deepen our solidarity and thereby ensure that religion is a force for reconciliation and harmony. We pledge to work across confessional divides in support of values that are central to each of our faith traditions, including peace, mercy, forgiveness, compassion, justice, and truth.
"Together, we can help the world to understand that differences of doctrine are no bar to cooperative deeds; on the contrary, these differences enable us to address shared challenges from diverse vantage points and through a variety of strategies," the declaration continued. "In that spirit, we promise to exchange ideas, train and encourage our congregants to engage in joint projects and advocacy, form partnerships with relevant national and international actors, reach out to the leaders of other faith and ethical traditions, and create a model of collaboration that people of all religions can pursue in support of the common good."
Following the first official reading of the declaration by William Vendley, secretary general of Religions for Peace International, several faith leaders discussed the importance of the new declaration in a panel discussion.
"This is an incredibly historic gathering that sets the stage for what is truly a new era of cooperation between the families of Abraham and beyond," Rabbi David Rosen, international director of interreligious affairs at the American Jewish Committee, said.
"The big challenge for us is to take the gift for which we have been privileged to be a part during these days to our world and our communities and have the courage to demonstrate that religion not only can but must be part of the solution to the challenges of our time. It is not so simple because all of us are going to face criticism and condemnation from elements within our own respective communities that see us as weak, as disloyal, as failing our respective communities."
Vendley's remarks ring true for two evangelical protestant leaders who participated in the panel.
Deborah Fikes, the former permanent representative to the United Nations for World Evangelical Alliance, told the audience there can be backlash and hostility from some conservative evangelicals in response to such collaborative efforts with Muslim leaders.
"There definitely are obstacles for evangelicals because of that culture," she said. "I have actually resigned from official positions so I can speak more freely and not endanger them with the hate mail and the backlash," Fikes said.
She also praised Roberts, a fellow panelist and senior pastor at Northwood Church in Keller, Texas, for his efforts as an evangelical leader in collaborating with Muslim leaders to promote peace and reconciliation.
"I so admire him. It's been painful for me to see how he is criticized and maligned when Christians who are doing that, evangelicals who are doing that, have not followed biblical teachings," she asserted. "[They should] sit down with him to hear but yet they attack. It is much harder for someone in the position that he is in."
Roberts praised other evangelicals in the room present for the conference.
He said that he loves and affirms all his counterparts in this collaborative effort, even if they don't believe the same thing theologically that he does. Roberts even joked about how Imam Magid was his close friend even though Magid doesn't believe that Jesus died for his sins.
"Is this really the culture we want to raise our kids in? Is this really what we want? Do I want my grandkids to grow up to hate Muslim kids and Jewish kids? I don't. I want them to love them," Roberts said. "I want them to be apart of their life."
Roberts and Fikes aren't the only ones who have faced backlash for their participation in such efforts.
"There are forces at work that do not want this to happen," Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, president of Zaytuna College, said during the panel. "Some of us are living under death threats."
Bruce Lustig, the senior rabbi for Washington Hebrew Congregations, said during the panel that there are many things in the world that Muslims, Christians and Jews can disagree on. However, he stressed that each community needs to be intentional about finding areas they can agree on and still have a conversation as fellow human beings.
"There are many things that we can spend our time on that will divide us and make us deal with issues that are so difficult. There are opportunities to be face-to-face," Lustig said. "Having spent time with Bob Roberts and Imam Magid and us having done our 'Good Neighbor' initiatives and working together teaches us that when you give people the opportunity to be face-to-face, there is an opportunity that is unbelievable to really find the divine in each other. That is profoundly important."