Paige Patterson, above, said that admitting Ghassan Nagagreh, a Palestinian and Sunni Muslim, would provide "a chance for us to have an influence on his life." (Photo: SWBTS.edu)
Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SWBTS), took the right course of action, albeit a highly controversial one, in admitting a Muslim student to the school's doctoral program.
According to Religion News Service, the Southern Baptist Convention's largest seminary admitted Ghassan Nagagreh, a Palestinian and Sunni Muslim, to the doctoral program last year.
Nagagreh seeks an advanced degree in archaeology and has been involved with the seminary's research digs for some six years.
Patterson said that admitting Nagagreh would provide "a chance for us to have an influence on his life."
In an SWBTS official statement, Patterson explained that both Israeli and Muslim students have joined with Christian students in the archaeological dig at Tel Gezer, located in Israel.
Nagagreh "accepted the necessity of abiding by our moral code of conduct. He is a man of peace," Patterson said.
"This man's progress has been good," the seminary's president said, "and we are especially grateful for the close relations that have been forged with peaceful Muslims and the opportunities that we have had to share biblical truths with them. In all of this there is not even a hint of compromise of our historic position."
Make no mistake, Baptists and Muslims have different sacred books--the Bible and the Quran. We have much different doctrines. Yet we do share a common word to love our neighbor. Patterson is engaging in conversation because it is the right thing to do.
Regrettably, hardcore Christian fundamentalists think any meaningful interfaith dialogue with Muslims is wrong, and coreless Christian liberals think interfaith dialogue means watering down Christian orthodox beliefs for the sake of agreement.
I affirm the perspective of Mohamed Magid, president of the Islamic Society of North America, on interfaith dialogue.
Speaking about how pastors and imams fear interfaith dialogue because they think it leads to theological compromise, Magid told EthicsDaily.com in an interview in "Different Books, Common Word: Baptists and Muslims:" "People think that in order for Baptists and Muslims to agree in doing anything that I have to water down my religion."
He said the reverse is true for both faith groups: "By working with other people you assert your own belief ... you dig deeper in the Scripture ... loss of 'my own' religion comes from unfounded fear."
EthicsDaily.com is an imprimatur of the Baptist Center for Ethics. "Different Books, Common Word: Baptists and Muslims" aired on 130 ABC-TV stations.
Opportunities for interfaith dialogue help the world's two largest religions--Christianity and Islam--clarify their beliefs to one another, dispel false stereotypes, model trust-building and demonstrate courage.
At the heart of interfaith dialogue is a commitment to religious liberty, a Baptist hallmark.
The former president of the Baptist World Alliance, David Coffey, expressed this concern--as the first Baptist to respond to the groundbreaking, peacemaking initiative from Muslim scholars and leaders to Christian leaders known as A Common Word Between Us and You.
"Religious liberty includes the right for all persons to freely worship and live their faith without fear and prejudice," Coffey wrote.
Religious liberty includes the right for both Christians and Muslims to do mission work and to engage in evangelism--respectfully, without forced or manipulated conversion.
At a time when Christian persecution in much of the Islamic world is reaching a tipping point and some American Christians want to intensify Islamophobia, Patterson has rung the bell about religious liberty, one that I hope rings loudly.
Christians and Muslims can respect one another and treat the other with dignity and opportunity.
As one who has disagreed sharply with Patterson on numerous occasions over two decades, I think he has made a good decision, one that counters a negative narrative about conservative Baptists.
Hopefully, his action will foster goodwill among Baptists and Muslims as news of this decision spreads globally.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics. Follow him on Twitter at RobertParham1 and friend him on Facebook.
Editor's Note: To view a debate on Fox News between Parham and Patterson on the role of women, click here.