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U.S. News
Presbyterian Church urges Muslim dialogue

Crucial since Sept. 11, General Assembly advises

Thursday, June 20, 2002

By Ann Rodgers-Melnick, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The Presbyterian Church (USA) has called for its presbyteries, congregations and members to get to know Muslims and learn about each other's faiths, saying interfaith dialogue was important before Sept. 11 and has been crucial since then.

The General Assembly of the 2.5-million-member denomination endorsed a paper, "Striving Together in Dialogue: A Muslim-Christian Call to Reflection and Action," that was drafted by Christian and Muslim religious leaders during a meeting in the Netherlands in late 2000 at the instigation of the World Council of Churches.

"Just as the Holocaust exposed the terrible depths of Christian Europe's attitudes toward Jews, so the Sept. 11 events reveal the incalculable need for reconciliation between Muslims and Christians in the face of centuries of mutual historical wrongs," said the formal statement supporting the nearly unanimous vote of the 556-member General Assembly.

The paper emphasized that dialogue is neither for the purpose of trying to convert the other party nor to water down either party's beliefs to make them compatible.

"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," the paper said.

"Dialogue is not a negotiation between parties who have conflicting interests and claims. It should not be bound by constraints of power relations. Rather, it needs to be a process of mutual empowerment of both Christians and Muslims toward 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."

The only point of debate was whether to add a list of denominational resources on Islam, most of which were originally designed as aids to evangelizing Muslims. Some Presbyterians felt that the goals of the denominational documents ran counter to the goals of the World Council of Churches.

"I believe it is important, if we are going to foster dialogue with our Muslim friends, that we not have an agenda of trying to convert them," said the Rev. Anita Hendrix of Baltimore Presbytery.

Others argued that most Presbyterians have never met a Muslim, the disputed documents provided helpful reference points on the differences between Christianity and Islam and that Presbyterians must engage in both evangelism and dialogue.

"I agree that dialogue with our Muslim neighbors is something worthy of our notice ... But I want to underscore that essential to our work as Christians is evangelism," said John Somerville Jr., an elder from Michigan.

The commissioners voted 361-137 to keep the evangelism resources with the resolution on dialogue, then passed the resolution without further debate.

The Rev. James Mead, pastor to Pittsburgh Presbytery, was pleased both with the call for dialogue and the vote to keep the evangelism resources intact. He said there has been "not much" interaction between the presbytery and the Muslim community of Pittsburgh, and he would like to see more.

"I would really like to get to know the Muslim clergy," Mead said. "Because Pittsburgh is known for its faith more than most places in the United States, we ought to be noted for the love and charity with which we relate to all citizens, including those of other faiths."

But, Mead continued, while Christians and Muslims are both people of faith, the content of that faith and their understanding of who God is are quite different.

"Muslims, Jews and Christians are all people of faith, all people of the book, and have important things in common, including the conviction that there is a God to whom everyone is accountable. But Muslims, Jews and Christians in fact do not believe in the same God -- surprising as that may sound to most Americans. Every Muslim in America knows that," Mead said.

"But I can talk more easily to people of faith. And because we are all people of faith, we have common ground to stand on, to do what we can to work together."

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