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The World Conference on Dialogue: a reflexion

Rev. Dr Shanta Premawardhana, director of the WCC programme on Inter-religious Dialogue and Cooperation comments on the World Conference on Dialogue, which took place in Madrid, Spain, 16-18 July 2008.

29 July 2008

A Reflection by Shanta Premawardhana


Rev. Dr Shanta Premawardhana, director of the WCC programme on Inter-religious Dialogue and Cooperation comments on the World Conference on Dialogue, which took place in Madrid, Spain, 16-18 July 2008.


"Dialogue is one of the essentials of life. It is also one of the most important means of knowing each other, cooperation, exchange of interests and realizing the truth, which contributes to the happiness of humankind," said the final communiqué issued by the conveners of the World Conference on Dialogue and broadly affirmed by the conference, which ended on Friday July 18th in Madrid, Spain. Dialogue is "the best way for mutual understanding and cooperation in human relations as well as in peaceful coexistence among nations," it added. The communiqué urges continuing dialogue between religions, civilizations and cultures, calls upon the UN General Assembly to support the recommendations of this assembly, and looks forward to follow-up events.

The three-day conference and the preceding one among Muslim leaders in Makkah in June gave interreligious dialogue a significant boost. I expect that because of these events Muslims around the world in particular, and religious communities in general, will begin to engage each other in new dialogues and expand existing dialogues. My purpose in this essay is to reflect on the Madrid conference, and offer three cautions -- admittedly from the perspective of a Christian participant -- with the hope that they will stimulate further reflection by religious leaders and contribute to more effective dialogue.

Approximately six weeks prior to the Madrid conference, the King Abdullah Ibn Abdul Aziz Al-Saud of Saudi Arabia convened a gathering of some 500 Muslim leaders from around the world to Makkah. This intra-Muslim conference unambiguously affirmed the Islamic legitimacy for dialogue, expressed the hope that their engagement in dialogue would be a means to counter allegations of extremism often leveled against Islam, and expected dialogue to contribute to confronting the difficult challenges of our day such as terrorism, violations of human rights and pollution. The Makkah Appeal is a strong encouragement for Muslims to engage in dialogue. Having received the affirmation of the Muslim leaders, the King set the example communicating not only the necessity, but the urgency of the task, by immediately convening the Madrid conference.

From the time of his accession to the throne in 2005, King Abdullah has been a leading proponent of interreligious dialogue. In November 2007 he travelled to Rome for an historic visit with Pope Benedict the XVI and in March 2008 he announced that such dialogues are necessary to promote peace. With this successful conference, the King, who as the custodian of the two holiest mosques of Islam already enjoys the deep respect of the Muslim community, also established his credibility with other religious communities as a patron of dialogue.

Yet, he is also a political leader and a controversial one. The close friendship he enjoys with the president of the United States and the Bush family, a relationship driven at least partly by the economics of oil and politics of power, is deeply disturbing. Through this relationship, the US president receives the King's support in rallying other Middle Eastern leaders to affirm US military policies, and the Saudi King gets direct access to a nation addicted to oil, to its oil companies and executives. I am concerned that when political leaders invite us to dialogue, however noble their intentions might be, economics of wealth and politics of power will eventually trump public interest and ethical concerns for justice.

My first caution therefore is this. It is now becoming trendy for kings, presidents and other political and economic leaders to invite religious leaders for similar conferences. It is right and proper that we participate, and do so as often as possible. Religious leaders must be at the table to influence political and diplomatic initiatives. But let us be constantly vigilant that when we find ourselves in the company of the powerful that we never allow ourselves to be co-opted by their often subtle political and economic agendas. Religious leaders must never lose sight of their prophetic calling.

While it is likely that the planning for this conference began before the Makkah affirmation, it was clear that the event was organized in some haste. At a time when Interreligious dialogue is becoming fashionable, various parties seem to trip over themselves to be the first or the only ones to hold conferences, issue letters or publish documents. Interreligious dialogue, however, is an exercise that should be entered into thoughtfully and deliberately, taking great care to make sure that the Other is highly esteemed and their sensitivities carefully regarded. As an example of the problems haste can cause, let me use as an example the invitation list of the Madrid conference.

While approximately 250 religious leaders put aside their other commitments in very short order, some key leaders could not. Among them were the General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and former Vice President of the United States, Al Gore. Some participants had backgrounds that were not acceptable by other religious communities, while others did not have any discernible position of responsibility in their religious communities. Let me highlight three points that stood out.

First, a lack of clarity about who was being invited created a subtle confusion: was this a dialogue between religious communities or between individuals? Each is a different modality. Some participants, for example, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran by virtue of his office, could not participate simply as an individual, but as a representative of the Vatican. But this distinction was lost on some organizers. In one conversation an organizer asked for an affirmation by a Roman Catholic participant naively assuming that that would constitute a Roman Catholic affirmation.

Second, the organizers paid little attention to including women or young people in the conference. Less than 10% of the gathering was women and there were hardly any participants under 30 years of age. While it is sadly the case that religious communities do not have enough women or young people in leadership the invitation list did include men who were not in positions of religious leadership. Furthermore there were no women on the program. To the organizers' credit, soon after the issue was raised from the floor they arranged for a female speaker from Madrid, Dr. Mekia Nedjar, a Muslim, who sharply addressed this question. It is said that Christian theology is not the same since the holocaust, and indeed Muslim theology is not the same since 9/11, she said. These were both atrocities perpetrated by men. How can male dominated theology be the same, she asked.

Third, that the conference included not only Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders but also leaders of Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, as well as other religious traditions was an important breakthrough. Many Muslims do not regard eastern religions as religions, since they are not monotheistic or "revealed." They are therefore usually termed civilizations or cultures. A Muslim participant told the story of a dialogue session with Hindus, in which a Hindu partner told him that Hindus too are monotheistic. They worship the One God who is without qualities and therefore unknowable, while all the other gods that others see as idols are simply human representations of the various manifestations of that One God. This was an eye-opener for the Muslim colleagues who felt that they now had a key to relate to Hinduism as a religion.

My second caution therefore is this. Interfaith dialogue events cannot be organized in haste. They must be preceded by patient relationship building. At the earliest opportunity, organizers of an interreligious dialogue event must consult with key interreligious partners, including women and young people, to think together about the purpose, process, invitees and outcomes of the dialogue event. This demonstration of commitment to the spirit of dialogue from the first planning stages will ensure that the right people are invited and right processes are followed, and the resulting outcome will be strong.

Any time religious leaders gather in an interreligious forum, there's a general tendency to call it an interreligious dialogue. Often, they are not dialogues at all, but conferences, seminars, consultations and even discussions or debates. Dialogue properly defined is the flow of meaning. It is increasingly being used to indicate the flow of meaning intended to produce an agreement that is satisfying to all parties. Most so-called interreligious dialogues are really not dialogues, but serial monologues! In these, meaning flows mostly in one direction -- from the podium to the audience. For fruitful dialogue to take place, time must be provided in the program for small group conversation.

The final communiqué of the conference, the Madrid Declaration, could have been a great document for analysis in small group dialogue. In a plenary of 250 people, it is not feasible to discuss fine points of disagreement. However, getting small groups to work on the document for half a day could have provided an incredibly rich opportunity for dialogue, new ideas for the document and most importantly, ownership of the document by the conference. Although a small team of drafters did produce a well-crafted document, its process left much to be desired. When the final communiqué was presented to the conference, they were encouraged to applaud in affirmation with no opportunity for dialogue, discussion or dissent.

My third caution therefore is this: Interreligious dialogue is best done in small groups. It is best if each group includes at least one person trained in the basic disciplines of dialogue who will pay careful attention to process. Conferences and seminars are not necessarily dialogues. They contain discourses, discussions and sometimes debates. It is not wise to call all interreligious forums dialogues. Doing so dilutes the meaning of the discipline.

Overall, the conference was a success. It will provide a fresh impetus for dialogue between all religious communities, but particularly, it will greatly encourage Muslim communities worldwide to begin to engage in dialogue with their religious neighbors. I hope that His Majesty, King Abdullah, will continue this process. These comments are offered with the hope that our common reflections on these will strengthen our efforts towards effective dialogue which, as the Madrid Declaration states, is "the best way for mutual understanding and cooperation in human relations as well as in peaceful coexistence among nations."