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Dialogue on sacred texts yields peace-building insights

Dialogue on sacred texts yields peace-building insights

Armenian Archbishop of Tehran Sebouh Sarkissian addressing the meeting of CID and WCC in Tehran, Iran. Photo: Rev Bonnie Evans-Hills

31 August 2017

At a meeting at the Centre for Interreligious Dialogue (CID) in Tehran, Iran on 20-23 August, delegations from the World Council of Churches (WCC) and the Iranian Shia community gathered, with a sense of warmth and a willingness for deep exchange, for a bilateral dialogue.

“One of the most longstanding and enduring interreligious relationships that the WCC has enjoyed over a number of years is that with our colleagues in the Centre for Interreligious Dialogue,” said Clare Amos, WCC programme executive for interreligious dialogue.

The recent meeting was the ninth gathering of a bilateral dialogue that has continued for more than 20 years.

“Even though some of the participants in both the Iranian Shia delegation and the delegation of the WCC were new – there was present a genuine sense of warmth, familiarity and friendliness stemming from long experience that both made our sessions more pleasant and enabled us to dig deeper and share the wisdom of our respective religious traditions,” said Amos.

The theme for this year’s dialogue was “The Interpretative Role of Sacred Texts in Establishing a World Free from Violence”.  Though the issue of religion and violence and the hope of religion becoming a tool in peace-building are widely explored in today’s interreligious dialogues, the decision to focus on sacred texts was a unique aspect of the recent dialogue, which reflected on the Bible and the Qur’an as potential drivers of conflict or peace.

“We explored together some of the criteria important to take into account when engaged in scriptural interpretation – above all the criteria of what approaches were life-giving and what reflected love,” said Amos. “We looked at how ethical human relations and the needs of justice were essential to bear in mind when interpreting our sacred texts.”

The discussion affirmed the importance of taking context seriously when interpreting such texts: the particular Shi’a valuing of aql (reason) informed the discussion, as did the acknowledgement by both delegations that power relationships inevitably informed the process of scriptural interpretation. A powerful image – which had previously been offered to the group by Ayatollah Damad – was that the Qur’an could both act as a ladder to enable people to climb up to heaven, or as a rope that gradually pulled one down into a well of deep darkness. It was an image that resonated with the Christian participants as they too engaged with the Christian Bible.

The WCC delegation also gathered insight from Armenian people in Tehran. “Our visit to ‘Armenian City’ in the middle of Tehran was an eye-opener, and helped us understand how the Armenian community in Tehran is working to sustain its identity and cultural life in a context which can sometimes present significant challenges,” said Amos.

Communique highlights key points

Participants issued a communique that describes the history of such dialogues and outlined major points they discussed.

“In both Christianity and Islam the value both of ethical human relations and of the needs of justice functioned as criteria that were essential to bear in mind when interpreting our sacred texts,” reads the communique. “Correspondingly the foundational moral role that sacred texts play in helping to shape individuals and communities over a period of centuries was also vital to bear in mind.”

The communique also noted the importance of serious engagement with context in the interpretation of sacred texts. “Context is multi-valent, and includes both the original context of the texts themselves, both historical and literary, the contexts of those who have interpreted the texts over previous generations, and the context of the reader and interpreter today,” reads the commuinique. “We need to encourage a two-way conversation between the text and the reader, which would necessarily include a gradual purification of the reader.”

The dialogue also acknowledged the ways that power, its possession and its lack, affects the interpretation of texts. “An attitude of humility in which we were prepared to acknowledge that the complete truth can only be fully known in heaven was important in order to enable our sacred texts to be life-giving rather than conflict creating,” reads the communique.

Participants expressed their gratitude to Dr Abuzar Ebrahimi, director of the Islamic Culture and Relations Organization, and to Archbishop Sebouh Sarkissian, Armenian Archbishop of Tehran, who was a member of both delegations, for their generous hospitality.

“Such bilateral dialogue meetings, important though they are, cannot be seen as ends in themselves,” said concluded Amos. “That is certainly true in this case.  There have been over the years  a number of valuable spinoffs from the WCC-CID dialogue – often involving the exchange of young people between WCC programmes and the Ecumenical Institute and universities in Tehran or Qom.”

Joint Communique of the 9th Meeting for Dialogue between the Centre for Interreligious Dialogue and Civilization of Iran and the WCC

WCC’s work on Strengthening inter-religious trust and respect