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Presentation to the World Islamic Call Society

Presentation by the general secretary of the World Council of Churches, Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, to the World Islamic Call Society, Tripoli, Libya, 10 January 2011

10 January 2011

Presentation by the general secretary of the World Council of Churches, Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, to the World Islamic Call Society, Tripoli, Libya, 10 January 2011

1. Who is my Neighbour?

First of all, thank you for the invitation to come and visit the World Islamic Call Society (WICS) and your head office here in Tripoli, Libya. This is an important opportunity for me and my colleagues to continue the relationships between our two organizations.

Who is my neighbour? The theme I have chosen for my presentation here today is a question that might sound as though it is coming from somebody who has just moved somewhere or somebody who is living next door to strangers. This question is, however, a very real one for many people in the world today. People move and change their context and country; the great movements of migration are significant features of our time.  In the Norwegian context which I come from, the question “Who is my new Muslim neighbour?”  is one of the most significant for the whole society today, and also for the  churches  as they look at how to contribute to the peaceful development of that society. The immigration of Muslims – and Christians – from other countries and continents has changed the rather monocultural society of Norway very quickly.

As we more and more realize that we all live in a global village, we need to ask the same question in a new way: Who is my neighbour? We are living in a time when we all need to realize that we do not live alone on our street; we are not independent, we are interdependent. In this new enlarged reality of neighbourhood and neighbourliness we all need one another.

In this way the question is also transformed into a different question: What kind of neighbour am I?

2. Introduction to the WCC Theme: “Being Neighbours to All”

The World Council of Churches is a worldwide fellowship of Christian churches, which brings together 349 Anglican, Protestant and Orthodox churches from around the globe. One meaning of the word “ecumenical” is “that which belongs to the whole inhabited world”.  The focus is on how we are called to be one as churches in God’s world. “Ecumenical” is also used in the Christian tradition to refer to what unites us as churches, what brings us to a common approach to service and to a common witness. The WCC’s threefold vision includes:

- Living out Christian unity more fully and more visibly

- Being “neighbours to all” – working together for the good of all

- Taking more responsibility and greater care of creation – for the sustainability of life.

Building healing and reconciling communities on the basis of justice and inclusivity, especially in contexts of violence and injustice, in contexts where we find a lack of care of creation, or even in contexts of terrible acts of terror - is at the heart of the WCC’s understanding of “being neighbours”. This vision can be seen in various programmatic areas of the WCC; among these, the commitment to interreligious dialogue and cooperation has a high priority.

In a document we refer to as the “Common Understanding and Vision of the WCC” (CUV) we clearly express our commitment "to foster dialogue and cooperation with people of other faiths in order to build viable human communities". In our ecumenical vision, we say: "We open ourselves for a culture of dialogue and solidarity, sharing life with strangers and seeking encounter with those of other faiths".

This year the WCC will celebrate the 40th anniversary of establishing its department for interreligious dialogue. This represents a significant step in expressing an understanding of fellowship in relation to people of other faiths and beliefs.

Christian-Muslim relations have always received high attention. The WCC has established good relationships with the Muslims and with various Muslim organizations involved in dialogue. Our cooperation with WICS is a clear example of this, and I am happy to see that through this visit we are now further developing it. I think this is an important service we perform for one another, but it is also a service we do together for the whole world. We had a very successful Christian-Muslim consultation in Geneva in November 2010, focusing on “transforming communities”. This was organized by the WCC and WICS together with another co-partner, the Aal al-Bayt Institute in Jordan.

The WCC as a fellowship of churches is served by a secretariat in Geneva. The churches represent the different traditions and the experiences of the Christian faith and the common life of the one Church. We are called to be one. Therefore, we need to share our life and experiences with one another, and express together our faith and our hope. First of all and above all else, we need to express our love for one another and together express our love for our neighbours. The call to the churches to be one is a call to be one in our love to God and to our neighbour.

The common Abrahamic roots that we have as Christians and Muslims, together with the Jews, mean we are able to share many of our values. The long history of coexistence of Christians and Muslims in different parts of the world is something we can all continue to learn from, both the difficult times and the experiences of being able to live well together. These two sides are important assets to us in our efforts to be good neighbours to all.

At the same time, global and local realities are producing new tensions that need to be addressed with urgency and determination. And the task of the WCC as a fellowship of churches is also expressed through our visit to Cairo and Tripoli this weekend.

The recent terror attack on the church in Alexandria on New Year’s Eve is a very sad reminder of how urgent it is to create and strengthen responsible relations of neighbourliness. The Coptic Church is one of the founding members of the WCC. The leadership of His Holiness, Pope Shenouda III,  following the attack is an outstanding example of how the churches not only believe but also convey a message of love and peace, even when massacres like this happen. I am proud of the way this member church has been able to handle this extremely difficult situation so far, and thereby made a very significant contribution to the future of living together as good neighbours in Egypt.  This is a message for Egypt, but it is also a message for the whole world.

The response from Muslim leaders and representatives, in particular the general secretary of WICS, Dr Sharif, and the visits of solidarity and condolences you and your colleagues have paid to Pope Shenouda in Egypt, are also significant expressions of how you take your role as good neighbour seriously. Similarly, the responses from Muslim neighbours in the streets of Egypt have been encouraging to all of us. The best protection Christians in Egypt can have is from a responsible state and from caring Muslim neighbours, in Egypt and elsewhere.

3. The Parable of the Good Samaritan

As I try to reflect here on how the question is transformed, from “who is my neighbour?” to “who am I as a good neighbour?” I recognize that this transformation of the question can be found in one of the parables Jesus told in the gospel.  The parable of the Good Samaritan is a parable told by Jesus to a group of teachers of the Jewish religion, summarizing his interpretation of the Ten Commandments.

According to the gospel of Luke (10:25-37) a traveller is beaten, robbed and left half dead at the side of the road. Unfortunately this is not an unknown situation in today’s world either. In the parable, first a priest and then a Levite come by, but both avoided the man. These figures represent the traditionally religious people and the authorities of those biblical times.

In the gospel, Jesus tells this story as a way to answer the question “Who is my neighbour?” This is a typical human question: How much should I do? How do I know when I have done enough? Where is the limit of my responsibility? The answer comes by telling a parable about the other, who does not belong to the community. Finally, a Samaritan comes by. Samaritans and Jews generally avoided one another, but in Jesus’ story it is the Samaritan who helps the injured Jew. By telling the parable in response to a question regarding the identity of the "neighbour" whom Leviticus 19:18 says should be loved, Jesus is trying to say that there are no limits to my responsibility towards my neighbour.

There is an important message in this parable and in how Jesus changed the question from: “Who is my neighbour?” to: “Who appeared, among these three, to be a real, good neighbour?” This is the question we also need to ask. When we focus on the Other and the need of the Other, the answer is not always difficult.

The change of perspective is the real message. How can I, how can we, be good neighbours? How can we, as Christians and Muslims, be good neighbours in the local village and in the global village? How can we live together in our nations and across the borders of nations taking care of one another? The good neighbour is not limited by any border but always able to cross the borders, to care and to be what we need to be to one another.

4. The Religious Neighbour and our Spiritual Resources

So this leads me to another question, about what we have to offer as people of faith, as spiritual leaders, to our neighbours in a world which lives in great need of a renewed understanding of neighbourliness and could learn so much from our faith perspectives.

Every religion comes with comprehensive claims. Every religion provides its followers with a set of values and expects the faithful to live according to these values. In multi-religious societies the interrelation of diverse values and ways of life needs to be developed on the basis of mutual respect in a public process of dialogue in society. This is not only about ideas and concepts but about our daily life.

From the outset the WCC posed the question to the churches: How does the one humanity belong together in the one world? We share the same planet. We share the destiny of humanity. We all, each one of us and every human being, wherever we live, whoever we are, whatever faith we have, share the dignity of being created in the image of God.

These deep underlying convictions mean that in all WCC interreligious dialogue we try:

First: to focus more on the living experience of people from all walks of life who are engaged in a living dialogue. Such a focus on dialogue of life embraces all aspects and spheres of human life.

Second: to understand the different contextual realities of dialogue. Christian and Muslim communities living in different environments are faced with different issues and concerns. This reality calls for a dialogue at many levels and in different forms. It also calls for an understanding of the specific agendas pertaining to concrete situations.

Third: to put an emphasis on interreligious cooperation “dialogue in action”, especially in addressing the common concerns that are threatening our world today –  concerns about poverty, pandemic diseases climate change and so many other issues. This implies taking joint initiatives and joint action to address situations as they arise and develop. This was one of the recommendations from our consultation in November last year and has been part of what we have been discussing with the WICS during this visit.

Let me again emphasize that we do all of these by putting our spiritual resources into practice; people who pray, and especially those who pray for other people, express in the deepest way not only their concerns for others but also their love for others. The deepest way we have for expressing our relationships with other human beings is to pray for one another.  These spiritual gifts should shape our spiritual leadership as religious leaders.

5. The Power of our Language

How do we speak about one another? Do we know the power of our own language?

Being neighbours in the same global community – where whatever happens to one of us affects all – how do we live and practice the call to be “a good neighbour” in the way we speak?

The power of language is very subtle. The use of one, small word can convey totally different messages.

If we take as an example our use of the word “we”, it can be a very exclusive word or, on the contrary, a very inclusive one.  There is a need for a new understanding of “we” that indicates an inclusive and not an exclusive identity.

None of us has only one identity. That becomes more and more clear to all of us in the global community, and we cannot chose only one identity – and shape it as if we were living in the past. I am not sure anybody really had only identity in the past, either. But when we say “we”, we can say it in such a way as to say “we”, not the Others, not the stranger, not the one who does not sharing our values and faith.  Or we can say “we” in a way which is inclusive, a “we” which is plural and includes different identities, values and faiths.

How do we talk about each other? How do we report on the concerns of faith communities different from our own? How can we counter the enemy images so present in the media? And how can we use language and the way we talk about one another positively for deepening our living together?

6. The Importance of Education in Transforming Communities

What are we able to do in our communities that are changing rapidly, locally, nationally and globally, to develop this concept of good neighbourliness in a way that leads to positive transformation in our societies? So that good neighbourliness can be seen in transformed neighbourhoods and communities.

We can do so much through the wise use of our spiritual resources, while working for transforming conflict and building peace.

The WCC sees itself as a space for bringing transformation and change. It has a role of defining rather than deciding, through words and practice, what the churches do.  The more than 60 years of existence of the fellowship have witnessed significant transformation towards mutual understanding, acceptance and more cooperation in addressing global challenges, in the relationships between member churches that belong to different Christian traditions, cultures and regions.. Their rapprochement also helped in the mending and healing of relationships between nations and conflicting communities. These encouraging examples can be taken further as we strive to transform relationships within our multi-religious communities. We need to do this both by taking initiatives for transforming realities and by allowing ourselves to be transformed by relationships and also sometimes by the challenges we face together. The outstanding solidarity that has grown between Christians and Muslims, at local, national and international levels, during the recent violence in Egypt, is a very powerful illustration and expression of this. .

The role of religious leaders is particularly important in how we develop speaking about the greater “we” – and how we include others in the good conversations we are able to have with one another.  We need to offer proof that we are responsible leaders, and able to prepare people to become responsible and faithful citizens in our multi-religious societies. Taking up responsibility for peace, justice and sustainability for all.

To bring to a conclusion what I have shared with you so far, I would like to emphasize the importance of relevant and balanced religious education.

In our Christian-Muslim consultation last November we committed ourselves to “... encourage the development of programmes designed to strengthen young people’s abilities to play a constructive role in a plural world, to reflect on the values of compassionate justice and mutual respect and to prepare them for future leadership roles.”

How do we educate our people to live together as good neighbours? To accept, respect and enable one another, so that each can have their own space and the chance to be themselves, share their beliefs and values within a framework of being co-citizens.

Adequate knowledge, based on proper teaching about the other and direct relationships with one another, is absolutely necessary. Such knowledge is required at the level of leadership as well as for the youth in our communities.

Being a believer can also open one’s heart to other believers, even if our beliefs are different and we disagree about both important and less important issues.

We are called to be good examples – to create new parables – from our own lives.

May God give us courage to do so.