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May 17, 2003
Column #1,133

Conservative Christians Urge Dialogue With Muslims

     How should Christians regard Muslims?

     America's religious leaders have been "stuck on two extremes of over simplification," said Diane Knippers, President of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) in Washington.  "The religious left has been idealistic and optimistic that Islam is a religion of peace by people who are like us. The religious right has been making sweeping, gratuitous insults."

     United Methodist Bishop Melvin Talbert, flew to Baghdad with the National Council of Churches before the war, where he declared "Religious tolerance was valued in Iraq." After the war, on Larry King, Talbert said Christians should be tolerant of Muslim leaders "and not assume that our way is the only way."

     By contrast, Jerry Falwell said on "60 Minutes," "I think Mohammed was a terrorist." His words made headlines around the world, sparking a riot that left nine dead in India, and gave a militant Muslim party the ammunition it needed to move from five to 50 seats in the Pakistani Parliament. Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham, described Islam as a "very evil and wicked religion."

     Last week the National Association of Evangelicals and IRD co-sponsored a conference to carve out a new middle ground. It was a welcome fresh breeze. Without mentioning anyone by name, they denounced as "dangerous" and "unhelpful" the militant anti-Muslim rhetoric of prominent evangelical leaders.

     Clive Calver, president of World Relief, NAE's relief and development agency, said that instead of denouncing Islam as evil, there is a need "to pull down barriers...We must copy our Lord and wash feet." He felt harsh Christian rhetoric "obviously put lives and livelihoods of people overseas at risk."

     IRD Vice President Alan Wisdom outlined a wiser approach, encouraging Christians to "seek to understand Islam and Muslim peoples" because most U.S. churchgoers "know little about Islam. If our churches are to show Christ's love effectively to our Muslim neighbors, we must clear away misconceptions and gain accurate insights into Muslim beliefs and practices."

     On behalf of IRD and NAE he issued a set of "Guidelines for Christian-Muslim Dialogue" (www.ird-renew.org) with thoughtful suggestions:

     1. "Open ourselves to talk with all varieties and stations of Muslims."

     2. "Give testimony to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, because it is our duty to do so. Ultimately, Christ himself is the greatest blessing that we could offer to our Muslim interlocutors," noting that Saint Paul and Saint Luke dialogued with unbelievers, which at times involved "arguing, explaining, proving, proclaiming and persuading," as in Acts 17:1-4.

     3. "Make sure that Christians entering into dialogue with Muslims have a firm grasp of an orthodox faith in the mainstream of the Christian tradition."

     4. To lessen the sense of a North-South clash of civilizations, involve Christians "from an African or Asian Christian perspective particularly Christians who have lived as a minority group within a predominantly Muslim nations."

     5. "Affirm some points of theology and morality that Islam and Christianity have in common." Timothy George, in his thoughtful book, "Is the Father of Jesus the God of Muhammad?" notes that both faiths "affirm many important truths about this great God his oneness, eternity, power, majesty. As the Quran puts it, God is `the Living, The Everlasting, the All-High, the All-Glorious.'" On the other hand, he notes that "Muslim theology rejects the fatherhood of God, the deity of Jesus Christ, and the personhood the Holy Spirit - each of which is an essential component of the Christian understanding of God."

     6. "Address the deep differences between Islam and Christianity," by speaking frankly about Jesus Christ who willingly died on the cross as an atonement for human sin. However, Christians are "wiser and more winsome when they place their emphasis on positive affirmations of their own Christian faith," rather than making "negative judgements about Islamic beliefs."

     NAE Vice President Richard Cizik recounted participating in a dialogue with Muslims in Doha, Qatar in April: "Muslims were able to hear from an evangelical our concerns for the victims of the war in Iraq, our compassionate care for victims of war, our reason for supporting the Bush policy directly."

     The Guidelines also warn against common worship with Muslims which would involve unacceptable compromises by either faith. Nor should Christians demand apologies from Muslims for the terrorist acts of some. However, Christians should make a case for their right to attend churches in Islamic countries, as American Muslims have a right to build mosques here.

     It is imperative for Christians to reach out to Muslims. I suggest beginning with Timothy George's book. 

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