As Religions Collide, Some Positive Stories about Baptist Interfaith Engagement


A Buddhist priest welcomed Baptist World Aid's Paul Montacute in 2005 to an interfaith orphanage in Sri Lanka. (Photo: Robert Parham)

Islamists have burned churches and attacked Christians in Egypt in recent days, alarming Christians worldwide.

Buddhist hard-liners have targeted the minority religious communities of Christians and Muslims in Sri Lanka, alleging that they have engaged in efforts at conversion.

BBC News reported that in recent weeks Buddhist groups threw rocks at Muslims during their evening prayers. Under pressure, a mosque in the nation's capital of Colombo was closed and relocated.

Time magazine reported the bombing of a Buddhist center in Jakarta, Indonesia, where the dominant religion is Islam.

The report noted that hard-line Indonesian Muslims have attacked Christian churches and treated other minority Islamic groups badly.

Hard-line Buddhists in Myanmar have forced thousands of Muslims to flee.

Underreported is the mistreatment of Christians and Muslims in the West Bank by the Israeli government and its wall of hardship. Jewish settlers routinely attack Palestinians.

In Tennessee, Christians Zionists have sought to make life miserable for the Islamic community in Murfreesboro.

Tennessee and other states have passed bills opposing Islamic law. Since Islamic law isn't a real threat to usurp U.S. law, one could rightly see such efforts as anti-Muslim expressions.

Abundant press reports underscore the reality of interfaith conflict - some deadly, others violent, and still others just mean-spirited.

Interfaith conflict isn't the only story, however. From personal experience, I know that another narrative exists.

Networking with goodwill global Baptists protects one from the myopia rooted in Christian nationalism and inspires one about the remarkable efforts in places where Christianity is a minority religion. These are two of my many reasons for being involved with the Baptist World Alliance.

Take my 2005 trip with Paul Montacute, then director of Baptist World Aid, to inspect the damage done by the tsunami that crushed much of southeast Asia and swept all the way to east Africa.

I quickly learned that Baptists in Sri Lanka sought cooperation with Buddhists and Muslims.

Kingsley Perera, then the general secretary of the Sri Lankan Baptist Sangamaya (Union), told us that Christians, Buddhists and Muslims were good neighbors and "have no problems with each other."

He did acknowledge that Christians had misused their faith historically and in recent days. He also noted the role of hard-line Buddhists in seeking an anti-conversion bill, one contrary to the country's constitution that allowed for religious freedom.

At an orphanage outside of Colombo, we were welcomed by a Buddhist monk and found Hungarian Baptist Aid adding a wing onto the orphanage.

Or take my 2008 trip to Prague for the BWA gathering.

Indonesian Baptist leader Victor Rembeth spoke of how Muslim women had protected his wife when he was out of the country and a religious conflict erupted.

"Up to that point, I had been struggling even to relate to my Muslim friends," he told me. Their act "really gave me an idea there are some good Muslims, even though there are some bad Muslims, just much as there are some good Christians and bad Christians."

Or take the 2010 BWA World Congress.

Emmanuel Kwabena Mustapha, a Baptist leader in Yendi, Ghana, shared that Muslim "artisans" helped to build a Baptist church. Moreover, a Muslim imam loaned him his car to take 30 folk to be baptized in a river.

In the same city, imams and pastors played a soccer game, which the imams won.

Or take our documentary, "Different Books, Common Word," which aired on 130 ABC-TV stations in 2010. That documentary tells five stories about how goodwill Baptists and Muslims in the United States were engaged in interfaith dialogue and action.

Every time one hears about interfaith violence and conflict, one would do well to remember that interfaith initiatives are underway to advance the common good.

One of the reasons that religions collide is the lack of commitment to religious liberty, the shortage of respect for other faith perspectives and the lack of protections of minority houses of faith.

When Islamic scholars released in 2007 an open letter to Christian leaders arguing that both religions shared a common word of love for neighbor, David Coffey, then president of the BWA, wrote a letter of support.

"I am concerned wherever Christians or those of any faith are denied full religious liberty. Religious liberty includes the right for all persons to freely worship and live their faith without fear and prejudice," he wrote.

In a later column, titled "Talking with Muslims," Coffey wrote, "We need to be truthful about the woeful lack of religious liberty in Muslim states. It is morally wrong for Islamic regimes to subscribe to the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and to prohibit freedom of religious worship and conversion among their citizens. And it is doubly hypocritical for their citizens to enjoy those rights when living in a foreign country whilst denying the same liberty to foreigners living in their home country."

Goodwill Muslims are struggling with how to respect and advance the religious liberty of minority houses of faith in countries where the majority faith is Islam.

It is not an easy thing to do, as my friend Sayyid Syeed, national interfaith director for the Islamic Society of North America, often says.

Indeed, ensuring and protecting religious liberty around the world and across multiple faith platforms is one of our age's great challenges.

It's also one of the great gifts that Baptists have brought to the faith table.

Would not all Baptist churches benefit from exploring the positive ways that those of goodwill are engaged in interfaith exchanges?

To know more about interfaith engagement between Muslims and Baptists, search EthicsDaily.com. To order "Different Books, Common Word: Baptists and Muslims," click here. To find out about the BWA, note the treasure trove of articles here.

Let's be evangelists about what goodwill Baptists are doing on the interfaith front.

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.

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Tags: Interfaith, Interfaith Engagement, Religious Liberty, Robert Parham


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