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Living in a world of difference

06 August 2004

By Mark Woods (*)

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The World Council of Churches (WCC) Faith and Order plenary commission is just that – churches meeting to discuss theological issues touching on the way they conceive the Christian faith, and the way in which, on the basis of that faith, their life together in fellowship is organised. But on Thursday 5 August, two Malaysian women – one Christian, one Muslim – made powerful pleas for genuine inter-religious dialogue.

Two Malaysian women

As a Muslim-majority country, Malaysia is held up by its citizens as a model of what a Muslim country should be. Its watchwords are co-operation, co-existence and mutual respect, and there's no doubt that, in a large measure, it's been a success story. But it can also be argued that there's some way to go before there's complete harmony between religions.

Dr Patricia Martinez is a Roman Catholic, and a senior research fellow at the Asia Europe Institute of the University of Malaya. Non-Muslims in Malaysia, she said, are "tolerated" and "accommodated". Far from being desirable, however, this language "reduces non-Muslim minorities to outsiders and second-class citizens" – though the same, she said, holds true in reverse in countries where Muslims are in a minority.

She raised concerns over the sense of grievance felt by Muslims over Palestine and the war on terror, and said: "We need to speak up about issues that affect Muslims, reach out in solidarity – and yet be unafraid to also speak up about other issues of injustice perpetrated by Muslims on their non-Muslim minorities."

A major problem, she said, was that there is very little "actual dialogue about realities in encounters between faith communities", in spite of the fact that Muslims and non-Muslims encounter each other on a daily basis.

She paid tribute to the prime minister, Datuk Seri Ahmad Abdullah Badawi, who "has quietly addressed long-standing issues that have challenged non-Muslims in Malaysia. But Muslims, she said, should "adopt a confidence and openness about being Muslim and a fidelity to Islam amidst difference".

Malaysians, she said, need to come together to talk. "We need to have the courage, the space and the latitude to articulate these real-life irritants, bigotries and misunderstandings so as to resolve them."

In a telling section of her address, she identified the problem of "abdicating" religious dialogue to churches or institutions. Instead, she argued, "Whole communities need to be conscientised and encouraged to enact interfaith encounter in whatever way and however minimally."

She concluded: "Not everything is about theology, about knowing Islam. It is about engaging with the other."

Nora Murat is the legal officer for Sisters in Islam, a women's activist group mobilised, she said, by "injustice, oppression and ill-treatment". Having begun as a protest against the problems women face regarding the Islamic family laws which demand that women be completely obedient to their husbands – including submitting to beatings and unwanted sex – the movement drove Muslim women back to the source of their religion, the Quran.

Muslim women's rights, they discovered, were rooted in their faith. "We were more convinced than ever that it is not Islam that oppresses women, but interpretations of the Quran influenced by cultural practices and values of a patriarchal society which regard women as inferior and subordinate to men."

Their "women's reading" of the Quran, she said, led them to campaign not only on specifically women's issues, but in the wider areas of freedom of expression, freedom of religion and human rights.

And this meant being prepared to take a hard look at the impact on other religions of being in a Muslim-majority state. She agreed, she said, with Martinez' rejection of the word "tolerance" .

In a hard-hitting appeal to move beyond the "safe" areas of dialogue into areas of sensitivity, she said: "The word 'sensitive' is sensitive in itself. It has been used to shut people up and instill fears. 'Do not question, as when you do you are questioning God'… we need to recognise that there is no sensitive issue, but that it is being made up as we go along."

Murat called for a public debate on issues like the role of religion in politics, and whether the state should legislate on morality. She made a passionate plea for freedom of expression, saying: "Every citizen has a right to talk about religion, especially when it is increasingly shaping and defining our lives, laws and policies."

Theological responses

In contributions from the floor, participants responded to the call for inclusion and dialogue. "I couldn't agree more with Sisters in Islam", said the Roman Catholic Archbishop John Onaiyekan. "I don't want to be tolerated, but accepted."

For Rev. Prof. Viorel Ionita of the Romanian Orthodox Church, inter-religious dialogue is not an appropriate subject for the Faith and Order Commission. "We are far, as churches, from having a common basis to engage in inter-religious dialogue," he said.

Contributions to the debate were received from two theologians. The Rev. Prof. Mark Heim of the American Baptist Churches USA presented a paper on "Sharing our Differences: Koinonia and the Theory of Religious Plurality". After reviewing the history of the debate, he outlined a Trinitarian framework for the theology of religious plurality, arguing that, in whatever religious context they occur, experiences such as the power of God in nature, deliverance and new life, and mystical unity and self-transcendence, are genuine experiences of God, and "God is known in the midst of these different patterns" .

Because of this, he said, "In honouring the testimony of our religious neighbours, we gain a more profound understanding of salvation itself and of the distinctive witness Christians bear in the world.

"Generosity of spirit towards the (other) religions," he concluded, does not diminish witness to the decisive work of Christ. For that decisive work includes Christ's gift of communion in the Spirit, and in that gift rests our hope that the many may truly be one, one in a koinonia that does no violence to difference."

Rev. Dr Jacob Kurien of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church wrote of "Being Christian neighbours in the context of religious plurality". "In the new globalised situation," he said, "religious plurality is the immediate context of life necessitating inter-religious encounter whether people like it or not."

A theology of neighbourhood, he said, should be based on the Trinity, which shows the importance of diversity, otherness and relationships in constituting a community. And while in traditional language Jesus is the unique way of salvation, no limits can be put on the saving power of God. It may, he said, "be reasonable to look at religions as provisional realities marching towards the eschaton, or moving towards the fulfillment of God's plan of salvation".

(*) Mark Woods is news editor of the Baptist Times and an ordained Baptist minister from the UK.

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Kuala Lumpur features: Although written according to the usual journalistic standards of accuracy and balance, since this article is intended for the general public it should not be read as a formal academic or theological text, nor should it be considered an official statement of the Faith and Order commission.

Opinions expressed in WCC Features do not necessarily reflect WCC policy. This material may be reprinted freely, providing credit is given to the author.