World Council of Churches

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Striving Together in Dialogue

This document has been published by the World Council of Churches and other partners, including Islamic organisations and specialised journals. It is the fruit of a Muslim-Christian meeting held in Amersfoort, Netherlands in November 2000. Convened by the World Council of Churches, it took stock of the various Christian-Muslim dialogue initiatives of this organisation since 1991. During the last nine years, Christian and Muslim religious leaders, educators and activists have discussed the thorny and sometimes divisive issues of religion, law and society, human rights, religious freedom, community rights, mission and da'wa and communal tensions. This document draws largely on their questions, reflections and conclusions.

01 November 2000

A Muslim-Christian Call to Reflection and Action

This document has been published by the World Council of Churches and other partners, including Islamic organisations and specialised journals. It is the fruit of a Muslim-Christian meeting held in Amersfoort, Netherlands in November 2000. Convened by the World Council of Churches, it took stock of the various Christian-Muslim dialogue initiatives of this organisation since 1991.

During the nine years before the meeting, Christian and Muslim religious leaders, educators and activists had discussed the thorny and sometimes divisive issues of religion, law and society, human rights, religious freedom, community rights, mission and da'wa and communal tensions. This document draws largely on their questions, reflections and conclusions.

  1. The last three decades have seen many efforts, some of them concerted, towards a new understanding between Christians and Muslims. They are noticeable in the broad areas of dialogue, education and scholarship. Christian-Muslim relations were historically marked by confrontation. The change, it is often claimed, did not occur until Christians, in the West more particularly, were willing and able to rethink their relations with Islam and the Muslim world. The development of ecumenism, the critical re-examination of Christian mission and the awareness of increasingly being pluralist societies -- some formerly "Christian" -- account primarily for a new call to dialogue. Past exchanges between Muslims and Christians are depicted as polemical, if they are even acknowledged.
  2. While it is true that the complex history of Christian-Muslim relations has known much rivalry and war it is often forgotten that there were rich and fertile encounters in the realms of life and ideas alike. Unfortunately, one of the features of our historical memories has been the way in which conflicts overshadow peaceful experiences and accusations drown the voices of understanding. Something similar happens at the level of religious views, when perceptions of difference displace common or shared principles.
  3. Traditional universes were self-contained. Exclusivist and reductionist attitudes towards other religions prevailed. Nevertheless, Islamic history bears witness, especially during the formative phase of Arab-Islamic civilisation, to a remarkable ability to invite and integrate the various contributions that Christians were eager and able to offer. Active in transmitting and developing knowledge, in the various fields of science and philosophy, Christians could also engage in dialogue on matters of revelation and reason, not only as apologists. Despite varying social and material constraints, contacts between people, exchanges and collaboration were never broken.
  4. In modern times and in many countries, emerging national identities, rooted in cultural bonds, strengthened by an awareness of common interests and destiny and shaped by the rules of a new political order, brought Muslims and Christians closer to each other. New relationships transcended traditional barriers. They were distinct from those based on religious affiliation without necessarily contradicting them. These relationships sometimes gave primacy to national solidarity and minimised the need for interreligious dialogue. In some quarters it was feared that religious identity, made explicit in dialogue, might threaten national unity
  5. At the global level, the process of national liberation and de-colonization tended to favour a more equitable relationship between Christians and Muslims, thus creating better conditions for a meaningful interreligious and intercultural dialogue. In conjunction with these developments, religious world views interacted with universalist and humanist ideas, demonstrating a greater sensitivity to the spreading reality of religious plurality. Christians, for their part, had to address this reality, defining its significance for their own self-understanding. Optimistic in character, this response gave birth to ideas that, during the sixties and seventies of the 20th century, led to authoritative church texts and various types of guidelines on dialogue. Likewise, many Muslims upheld the idea of dialogue and participated actively in various initiatives. They emphasised the Qur'anic call to dialogue and, in some cases, suggested that the Muslims need to be leading partners in responding to this call.
  6. At the same time, dialogue generated controversies. To be sure, opposition was not confined to theological positions nor to an assessment of the legitimacy and value of dialogue. It extended to the identification of partners, issues for discussion and areas of common action. Dialogue was faced with both resistance and hesitation. The expectation that a traditional self-understanding be rethought and liberated from the grip of history was not universally met. Nor could Muslims disregard the past, with all its conflicts and misperceptions, and espouse trust instead of suspicion of the Churches' intentions towards them. In addition, changes in economic, political and cultural power relations were not sufficient to insure that dialogue be taken in the sense it is intended: free from partisan interest and critical of the domination of one partner over the other.
  7. Among the many objections to, and reservations towards, dialogue, five particular ones are worth being underlined. There are those who insist that the local context of communal relations in a given society often makes broader dialogue irrelevant. Others suggest that dialogue may function as a cover for unequal power relations or as an ornament, concealing purposes different from those stated. There are also those who are weary of controversy and tend to be apprehensive of any mutual inquiry and questioning. Fourthly, one finds those who see dialogue as compromising the truth and a betrayal of the divine call to mission or da'wa. A fifth position argues that dialogue is, on the contrary, a more sophisticated form of mission or, even if that is not the intention of its initiators, leading to mission.
  8. Objections to dialogue are often aggravated further by questions regarding the representativeness of participants. Dialogue is readily dismissed by its opponents as elitist or marginal because the people involved are said to be unrepresentative. The question of representativeness is bound to that of effectiveness. Partners in dialogue may be expected to commit their communities, especially when they seem to identify strongly with them. But this ignores the fact that churches, and even more their Muslim counterparts, seldom function as centralised institutions. They do not realistically claim undisputed authority over the faithful, especially when matters such as interreligious relations are at stake. When partners in dialogue rightly point out that their influence is limited, their efforts may be seen as irrelevant. But at least symbolically, they continue to be seen as responsible for attitudes prevailing in their communities, even if they choose to be critical of them.
  9. It is needless to repeat that current developments, political and otherwise, may be threatening to build up new attitudes of distrust and hostility. This imposes a new urgency in the consideration of Christian-Muslim relations and priorities on dialogue and co-operation. The patient work of recent decades is a reliable resource. Its value cannot be quantified but this does not mean that it bears no fruits. Countless local, national and international experiences confirm this. Participants have discovered that interreligious dialogue is informed by, and informs, the internal dialogue within each religion. What was learned in the last decades lays the foundation for a continuing dialogue which is both hopeful and takes account of the contemporary realities.
  1. Relations between Muslims and Christians are usually strongly influenced by local and regional histories and events. But broader developments also have a significant impact, especially when they contribute to destabilising societies previously characterised by peaceful relations of mutual acceptance. In situations where uncertainties of change begin to be felt, suspicion and fear can build up between communities leading to tension and possibly conflict.
  2. It seems clear that in some parts of the world, the traditional nation state model is subject to growing questioning. Some countries have fallen apart, others are constructing larger entities. States have become too small for some purposes and too large for others. In many post-colonial independent countries, nation-building projects remain incomplete, become fragile or are failing. The borders set by the imperial powers, while mostly unchanged, could not gain universal acceptance. In some cases, they are disputed. Claims to common nationhood have been countered by the fact that ethnic, cultural and linguistic communities straddle sometimes several state boundaries while contributing to divisions within them. National governments are often far from having succeeded in delivering on promises of genuine national independence and social and economic advancement. Indeed, in many instances, early progress has gone into reverse and large sections of the national population have sunk deeper into poverty. Official rhetoric of development, national unity, democracy and human rights often contrast with different realities on the ground. For such reasons, political institutions often lack legitimacy.
  3. The continuing globalisation of economic processes, and of information, is associated with increases in human mobility through migration, refugee movements and the growth of transnational networks. Local cultural identity is threatened. This often further weakens the state and adds to the pressures on national and regional loyalties. New relations between people across traditional ties and webs of interests have created new loyalties and identities in which local community has little meaning.
  4. When states become weak, people are thrown back on reliance on traditional community structures and identities for meaning and material security. Conversely, when a state becomes oppressive, people find protection in traditional community structures and identities. In both cases, the effects of globalisation leading to greater cultural uniformity invite, in many cases, a search for specificity and distinction. Such a search favours an affirmation of traditional cultural and religious identities.
  5. Everywhere, "meaningful" identities are multiple and will vary depending on particular needs. Professional and economic security may be found in one form of community (e.g. trade union or professional association) daily social networks in another (e.g. neighbourhood, factory, club), social and political activity in yet another (e.g. party, women's groups) and spiritual search again in another (e.g. religious and worshipping community). But when all such various needs are being met or expressed in one identity, the borders between communal loyalties are mutually reinforced rather than being mutually balanced. Boundaries between oneself and the other are strengthened. They create closed communities within which common and exclusive memories can be developed and activated, the self and stranger are stereotyped and the latter is easily demonised.
  6. In such cases, differences in community size become an issue of minority threatened by majority. Insecure communities in one place seek alliances with others elsewhere, perceived to share a common identity, in order to achieve political empowerment. External attention to, and support for, "minority rights" is thus invited. They can be used as a pretext for self-interested intervention by foreign powers. National governments and political movements that are part of "majority" communities which see themselves as threatened by such interventions, see their suspicion towards "minorities" justified and deepened. At the same time, some governments strengthen their power by managing communities and relations between them, exploiting mutual fears, mobilising one against the other and recruiting some in support and thus further undermining the security of others.
  7. When communities identify themselves or are identified exclusively by their religion, situations become more explosive. Religion speaks for some of the deepest feelings and sensitivities of individuals and communities, it carries deep historical memories, and often appeals to universal loyalties, especially in the case of Christianity and Islam. And so religion comes to be seen as the cause of conflict and is often in fact an intensifier of conflicts whose causes are outside religion.
  8. Such developments in recent decades have, however, coincided with developments in the religious arena. In many regions, what had been thought of as an irreversible process of secularisation has been countered by a "return" of religion into public life. An increased political and social visibility of religion was noticeable before the fall of the Soviet system and has strengthened as a result. In the West, the talk of "Islam, the new enemy" and the "clash of civilisations" points to a certain perception of the role of religion in the public sphere and in international relations. In the Muslim world, religion has regained its vigour, in resistance to Western domination and as an affirmation of the rights of Muslims and their competence to contribute to the making of a new world.
  9. As the experience of Christian-Muslim co-operation and mutual understanding grows and spreads it begins to offer a prospect of counteracting processes which tend to globalise conflicts that involve Muslims and Christians. There are cases where a conflict in one place, with its local causes and character, is perceived and exploited as part of a conflict in another, with its separate and specific causes and character. So enmities in one part of the world spill over into situations of tension in other regions. An act of violence in one place is used to confirm stereotypes of the "enemy" in another place or even provoke revenge attacks elsewhere in the world.
  10. Muslim and Christian leaders and activists in dialogue are intensifying their efforts to "de-globalise Christian-Muslim tensions". They constantly warn against essentialism and sensationalism and draw attention to the specific local causes of conflicts, whose solutions can be found, first and foremost, in addressing those local causes. They refuse to be drawn into others' conflicts on the basis of uncritical responses to calls for solidarity and instead help to apply common principles of peace, justice and reconciliation. They can thus help parties to local conflicts to release Islam and Christianity from the burden of sectional interests and self-serving interpretations of beliefs and convictions. Christian and Islamic beliefs and convictions can then constitute a basis for critical engagement with human weakness and defective social and economic orders, in a common search for human well-being, dignity, social justice and civil peace.
  11. It is needless to repeat that a culture of peace among religious communities is grounded in the culture of dialogue. The decades of dialogue between Muslims and Christians, at all levels, have strengthened relationships between the two religions, both individually and institutionally. Extensive personal networks of friendship and trust have been created through dialogue in the midst of conflicts labelled Christian-Muslim, making joint efforts for peace and justice both imperative and realistic. Growing mutual knowledge and interest in a greater understanding are replacing simplistic and uninformed stereotypes. Theological training and religious studies are beginning to include the other in their searching. Although there is clearly a long way to go, the fact of such beginnings gives reason for hope. It is a significant resource for future action.
  12. The increasing participation of women in society has mobilised many women into Muslim-Christian co-operation in projects of development and social justice. The experiences of "the dialogue of life" where women play a leading role, can not be separated from the broader dialogue and joint action of Christians and Muslims. In the longer term the massive expansion of women's participation in higher education, including religious education, suggests a progressively growing challenge to traditional patterns of thinking and structures of power. Such challenge is an essential contribution to the future of dialogue.
  1. In a world where Christians and Muslims live as neighbours and co-citizens, dialogue is not only an activity of meetings and conferences. It is a way of living out our faith commitment in relation to each other, sharing as partners common concerns and aspirations and striving together in response to the problems and challenges of our time. Widely accepted guidelines for genuine dialogue, need to be re-emphasised and reaffirmed. A number of common affirmations are to be renewed taking stock of the previous experience and in the light of a Christian-Muslim appraisal of the current situation.
  2. Differences are inherent in the human condition and a manifestation of divine wisdom. In recognition of such differences, interreligious dialogue is based on mutual respect and understanding. It should not be used for a theological debate in which adherents of each religion try to prove religious truth at the expense of the other.
  3. Partners involved in interreligious work are not required to compromise on any of their basic religious beliefs in order to engage in a constructive dialogue. Much of the significance of dialogue between Muslims and Christians depends on its ability to engage those who are faithful to their respective religions and rooted in their communities. Dialogue is motivated by a religious vocation and is founded on religious values.
  4. In dialogue, the deepest meaning of what our scriptures say to us is opened up and speaks anew. Christians are motivated by the teaching that God wills love of neighbour inseparably from the love of God, which is shown in human action through love of others (Luke 10:27; Rom. 13 9-10; Gal. 5:15; John 4:20-21). Christ's teaching of love includes all those we view as friends and those with whom we may feel enmity for any reason. Such love is not a mere sentimental emotion but an impetus to action (1 John 3: 18) and the basis of trust (1 John 4:18). Christians also recall that they are not to bear false witness against their neighbour (Ex. 20:16). In dialogue, they come to know their neighbours of other religions in ways that enable them to keep this commandment in fact, not simply through vague intention. "What does the Lord require of you" the prophet Micah asks, "but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" (Micah 6:8).
  5. As Muslims enter dialogue, they recognise the Qur'anic texts concerning diversity and God's purpose which say: "O people: we created you from a single [pair] of male and female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other (49:13) and "We sent you solely as a mercy for all creatures" (21:07). Plurality is inscribed in God's design: "To each among you have we prescribed a law and open way. If God has so willed, He would have made you a single people but [His plan] is to test you in what He has given you: so excel each other in good deeds; it is He that will show you the truth of the matters in which you dispute (5:48). Muslims are called to seek justice through their dialogue activities. The Qur'an teaches "Give just measures and weight; do not deprive others of their due" (7:85) and "O you who believe ! Stand out firmly for God as witnesses for fair dealing, and let not the hatred of others turn you away from justice, be just: that is nearer to piety" (5:8).
  6. Therefore 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.
  7. With this perspective in mind, genuine dialogue implies a recognition of, and respect for, differences. At the same time, it seeks to discover and appreciate common values of Christianity and Islam. A fruitful mutual understanding can not be enhanced unless both convergences and recognised differences are held in a creative relationship. This is equally true of debates within each religious community. Intra-religious and inter-religious dialogue depend on, and feed into, each other.
  8. Appreciation of both diversity and commonalities can be achieved in dialogue as an educational process that enables each community to come to know better both the other and itself. Muslims and Christians are thus helped to be critical of, and overcome, the many mutual stereotypes, prejudices and misconceptions that serve to propagate suspicions and fear and justify exclusion.
  9. But dialogue is not confined to communication or exchange of knowledge. It offers opportunities for interaction and practical engagement in matters of common concern at the grassroots level and in everyday life. Dialogue brings intellectual pursuits and life engagement into an integrated whole. The persuasiveness of the moral messages and the credibility of the intellectual pursuit necessarily depend on inclusive action on behalf of the common good.
  10. In a context where religions are finding renewed public vigour, issues of freedom of conscience and human rights generally have re-emerged, in the last few years, as sensitive and even divisive. In this respect, Christian-Muslim dialogue has an indispensable contribution to make in affirming that the principles of human rights and religious freedom are indivisible. It is called to direct the forces of religiosity toward common good, instead of allowing them to breed intra-religious and inter-religious hatred and conflicts. Muslims and Christians agree that freedom of conscience is essential to their respective faiths. But religious freedom does not only imply freedom of conscience but also the right to live in accord with religious values and the recognition of cultural and religious diversity as basic to human reality. More broadly, Christians and Muslims can contribute, through dialogue, to a discourse on human rights that can help reconcile the truly universal principles and the culturally specific claims. Such a discourse needs to be grounded in the respective religions to be genuinely inclusive and universal.
  11. While recognising that mission and da'wa are essential religious duties in both Christianity and Islam, Muslims and Christians need to uphold the spiritual and the material well-being of all. Many missionary activities, and the methods they use, arouse legitimate suspicions. There are situations where humanitarian service is undertaken for ulterior motives and takes advantage of the vulnerability of people. Thus the clear distinction between witness and proselytism become crucial. It is the basis for the recognition that people of faith can enjoy the liberty to convince and be convinced and, at the same time, respect each other's religious integrity, faithfulness to one's tradition and loyalty to one's community.
  12. In dialogue, Muslims and Christians learn that Christianity and Islam are not two monolithic blocks confronting each other. They also learn that tensions and conflicts in various parts of the world are not an expression of a "clash of civilisations" nor do they define bloody borders between Christianity and Islam across the world. At the local level, dialogue can help diffuse, or even solve, problems that may otherwise be manipulated by external powers for their own purposes.
  13. As Christians and Muslims understand justice to be a universal value grounded in their faith, they are called to take sides with the oppressed and marginalised, irrespective of their religious identity. Justice is an expression of a religious commitment that extends beyond the boundaries of one's own religious community. Moreover, Muslims and Christians uphold their own religious values and ideals when they take a common stand in solidarity with, or in defence of, the victims of oppression and exclusion. The logic of "reciprocity" in addressing minority rights contradicts the unconditional universality of the value of justice. People of faith should not allow themselves to be constrained by the methods of inter-state relations. The logic of reciprocity demarcates the world and societies along religious lines and contradicts principles of equal citizenship.
  14. Women and men of faith, engaged in dialogue, affirm the equal citizenship of all persons within any given state or society, cutting across all ethnic, social and religious boundaries. Religious affiliations that unite people with others beyond their national borders need not contradict equal citizenship. Multiple identities are a fact of human existence. People define themselves in terms of various identities related - for example - to nation, religion, culture, family, gender, age and work. In dialogue, no dimension of personal identity excludes another. The more dialogue partners feel secure in their own identities, the more they are able to be inclusive and engage in wider interreligious and intercultural relations and interaction.
  1. Recommendations drawn during the many dialogue conferences that have been held in the last decade are often very similar. Their repetition may well purport to emphasise their importance and remind Christians and Muslims that the task before them continues to be unfinished. Against the background of assessing of the present state of Muslim-Christian relations attempted in this document, a few of those recommendations need to be highlighted and prioritised for further action. They concern partners in dialogue and structures of co-operation, education and media.
  2. In order to broaden its impact, Christian-Muslim dialogue needs to widen its participation and to reflect the diversity of opinions in each community. Moreover, the inclusion of students and young peoples, religious leaders, various professional groups and non-governmental organisations should be encouraged.
  3. Muslims and Christians are increasingly invited to participate in many inter-cultural, interreligious and international dialogue initiatives. While such participation may have a significant impact, it does not always mean acceptance of the underlying assumption of many such initiatives.
  4. Christian-Muslim dialogue retains uniqueness and urgency, locally, regionally and globally. It deserves to be the focus of continued attention and multiplied efforts. The cumulative experience acquired in this bilateral dialogue and the long-tem engagement should be sustained beyond short-lived considerations and expediencies.
  5. The strengthening and the creation of Muslim-Christian bodies at national and regional levels remains a priority. Such bodies should engage with civic and religious authorities in the pursuit of justice, equality of citizenship, human rights and civil peace. They are called to play a leading role initiating planning and implementing dialogue and co-operation projects. They also have a particular responsibility in dealing with tensions and conflicts that affect Christian-Muslim relations and in ensuring that problems specific to one context do not spill over into others. Muslim- Christian bodies and institutions should make efforts to learn from each others' experiences and develop ways of co-operation across regions.
  6. Christians and Muslims should be encouraged to engage in joint study and research. They should involve academic and other bodies in developing guidelines for the preparation of text books and teaching materials which present authentic images of the other, correct misconceptions and promote dialogue and good relations.
  7. Educational programming in schools, colleges, universities and adult education systems should be designed to enhance the understanding and appreciation of the various cultural and religious traditions of the world and should, whenever possible, invite adherents of those traditions to take part. This is particularly important when so many people are travelling into different cultures as tourists, professionals, business people, journalists, diplomats, non-government organisation workers, etc. Teaching programmes in theological and religious faculties and seminaries should prepare Muslim-Christian graduates with the training and sensitivity necessary for interreligious dialogue in a plural context.
  8. Participants in Christian and Muslim dialogue should actively address the media and make a more creative use of the latest instruments of communication, such as the Internet. This will extend the participation, and awareness of, dialogue. It will also help counteract the effects of sensational, simplistic and stereotypical images and their manipulation.