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Yale Christian/Muslim conference concludes with call for further interfaith talks

By Frank Brown, Assistant Director, Publications

Common WordAn eight-day conference at Yale University that drew scores of prominent Muslim and Christian leaders from around the world ended with a unanimously accepted declaration for mutual respect, understanding and further interfaith discussions.

“Let us learn to love each other. Let us learn to love all neighbors. And let us do that in the name of our common future and in the name of our one God,” Yale Divinity School professor Miroslav Volf, who co-hosted the event, told about 150 participants on the final day of the July 24-July 31 conference.

Volf, the founder and director of the Divinity School’s Center for Faith and Culture, was a key organizer of the conference, Loving God and Neighbor in Word and Deed: Implications for Christians and Muslims, along with Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad of Jordan. The conference followed the Center’s coordinated Christian response by several hundred signatories, published in a full-page advertisement in The New York Times, to an historic declaration in October 2007 by 138 Muslim clerics, who had urged reconciliation between the two faiths based on Christians’ and Muslims’ mutual emphasis on loving God and neighbor.

The July 31st declaration, adopted in the final minutes of the Yale conference, included four key points of agreement covering recognition of God’s love, respect of each other’s rights, commitment to continuous dialogue, and defense of interfaith dialogue as a legitimate enterprise.

The conference had begun with four days of low-key workshops at Yale Divinity School that were closed to the public and press, thus providing a venue for frank and productive exchange. The level of security was unprecedented at the Divinity School in recent years, with YDS staff required to display IDs, Yale and New Haven police deployed around the property, and dark-suited private security guards monitoring movement within the U-shaped complex.

Common Word

Senator John Kerry (D-MA) opened the four-day public portion of the conference, held at Yale Law School, with a July 28 address to participants and the press in the main auditorium.  Kerry urged his listeners to promote “commonality and basic rights that ought to be protected,” to “speak powerfully and jointly for civil society,” and to join with like-minded global initiatives and leaders to “let God’s word be heard.” (Read: Senator Kerry’s full text pdf.)

Over the course of the following three days, scholars and clerics from both faith traditions, as well as a smattering of rabbis, took part in a series of discussions on issues ranging from “God is loving” to “loving one’s neighbor.”

“If we wish to live in peace, we have to settle peace in the land that lacks it, the land of prophets, and of religious revelation,” said Sheikh Dr. Tayseer Rajab Al-Tamimi, the Chief Islamic Justice of Palestine, in a reference to Jerusalem during the session on “loving one’s neighbor.” Later, in a different session, Rajab Al-Tamimi complained to Rabbi Douglas E. Krantz, of Congregation B'nai Yisrael in Armonk, NY, about the treatment of Palestinians by Israeli security forces. “I’m calling upon the rabbis to go by what the Torah says, to stick to scriptures.”

Common WordOther speakers, too, addressed tensions in the Middle East between the three Abrahamic traditions. Sheikh Mustafa Cerić, Grand Mufti of Bosnia, called in his keynote address for greater emphasis on what the three faith share. “It is my sense that we have not even touched the face of Jewish, Christian, Muslim commonalities. Ours is not the problem of difference. Ours is the problem of similarity. Don’t forget, that those who are similar are often more severe to each other then to those who are different. Perhaps that it is time that we, the Jews, the Muslims and the Christians, learn to live with our similarities, especially in the Holy Land, which should be, not the place of the Holy War, but the House of the Holy Peace for all.”

The Yale conference came on the heels of a similar - if more broadly interfaith - conference sponsored in mid-July by Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah. The king summoned Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders to Madrid. Following the Madrid event, the king was labeled a traitor to Islam and worthy of assassination by the terrorist group al Qaeda.  In their closing declaration, the Yale participants took pains to “denounce and deplore threats made against those who engage in interfaith dialogue. Dialogue is not a departure from faith; it is a legitimate means of expression and an essential tool in the quest for the common good.”

In the coming months, at least five other responses to the Muslim leaders’ 2007 A Common Word declaration are planned. Next month, leaders of the New York-based National Council of Churches are expected to meet and approve a theological response to A Common Word. In October at Cambridge University, a small number of Muslim and Christian scholars are set to convene. Next year, both the Vatican and Jordan’s Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute are planning interfaith events.

David Ford, the Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge University, who was also a participant at the Yale event, said, “In Cambridge, we are having a further conference in succession to this which will largely focus on the Archbishop of Canterbury’s response to A Common Word.”

One of the Yale conference’s key organizers, Joseph Cumming, said he has been receiving kudos for both the mechanics and the substance of the New Haven event. "Many, many of the participants told us that this conference was radically different from any interfaith conference that they'd participated in before. There were multiple factors that they cited. One was hospitality...There were a number of Muslim leaders who said it was the best they had experienced anywhere," said Cumming, a fluent Arabic speaker who is the director of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture’s Reconciliation Program.

Cumming added that attendees also praised the scholarly depth of the discussions at the workshops, as well as organizers' willingness to tackle difficult and painful issues. “Participants felt that this meeting was unique in that these issues were addressed forthrightly and honestly in an atmosphere of mutual respect and even of love,” he said.

What also set the Yale conference from other efforts was, in part, that it attracted top-tier American evangelical Christian leaders, who have historically not been as engaged in formal interfaith dialogue as their more liberal Protestant counterparts.

What set the Yale conference from other efforts was, in part, that it attracted top-tier American evangelical Christian leaders, who have historically not been as engaged in formal interfaith dialogue as their more liberal Protestant counterparts.

Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, proclaimed in his keynote address, “It is a powerful thing to say, ‘I love you,’ but it is supernatural to demonstrate that love… What we need is the words that are turned into the deeds, the actions of love.”

Common Word

The conference organizers had identified one realm for turning words into deeds as the global battle against poverty. At a July 30 panel discussion entitled “Love and World Poverty,” Hartford Seminary president Heidi Hadsell, spoke on the issue, “Christians are called to love, respect, and be in solidarity with the poor; learn from and with the poor; work actively for justice for the poor and indeed there are a number of biblical texts which indicate that loving the poor is tantamount to loving God.”

One theme echoed by many of the conference participants was that a tremendous amount of good will and trust was being built informally on the sidelines, whether over meals, in the downtown New Haven hotel where many guests stayed, or during an afternoon excursion to a local orchard to pick peaches. In his final comments at the conference’s July 31 closing, Ghazi bin Muhammad touched on this feeling.

“You know, of course, all of you, the Muslims most certainly, that there are two paradises in the Quran. Essentially, in the commentary, these are the paradise of the soul and the paradise of the spirit. Whilst one paradise is looking towards God, looking to God,” he said, “another paradise is what I think Christians call the communion of the saints, people visiting each other, in love, being together, in love, in heaven. So, it came to my heart, a little bit this morning, that in such gatherings, there is a sort of fractured, earthly presentiment of this felicity, which we are all promised.”

With reporting by Jason Peno, Rachel Watson, Leslie Brown and Frank Brown.

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