|When Indonesian Muslims were making intimidating phone calls and threatening churches in 1998, Muslim women at an Islamic boarding school guarded the wife of a Baptist pastor when her husband was out of the country advocating for human rights in Washington.
Some 10 years later, Victor Rembeth cited this experience as a reason why he wants the Baptist World Alliance, the largest Baptist organization, to reply positively to an open letter from 138 Islamic religious leaders to Christian leaders issued last October, which calls on both traditions to find common ground based on their shared understanding of the foundational principles of love for God and love for neighbor.
Prior to the initiative of Islamic women, Rembeth recalled, "I had been struggling even to relate to my Muslim friends." But they "really gave me an idea [that] there are some good Muslims, even though there are also some bad Muslims, as much as there are some good Christians and bad Christians," he said.
Rembeth was one of 80 Baptists who discussed the Muslim initiative at length during a meeting in Prague. A few expressed fear about answering the letter. The majority recognized the need for a constructive reply, not on doctrinal grounds but out of a sense of the moral obligation to work for peace and justice. One participant pled that Baptists needed to counter the harmful comments by some U.S. Baptists, who have a record of hateful statements that have angered Muslims and endangered Baptists in predominately Islamic countries.
A former president of the Southern Baptist Convention said in 2002 that the Prophet Muhammad was a "demon-possessed pedophile." That charge enraged the Islamic community and resulted in Lebanon's Prime Minister, Rafic Hariri, a Sunni Muslim, calling a Lebanese Baptist leader, to see if he agreed with it. The Baptist official adroitly answered, "Baptists don't have a pope. So, not every Baptist leader represents me."
Retelling that conversation two years later, while driving through West Beirut by buildings still bearing the shell-marks from the nation's brutal civil war, the Baptist leader said, "Christians here were astonished by the statement, especially since Lebanon has a diversity of religion, and Lebanese respect one another."
His office sits on the same block as the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary, which holds an annual conference to foster understanding between Baptists and Muslims. At the opposite end of the global village from Lebanese and Indonesian Baptists are Southern Baptists who continue to throw verbal firebombs.
"I believe the Qur'an teaches violence. It doesn't teach peace, it teaches violence," said evangelist Franklin Graham, after the Sept. 11 attacks. "The God of the Christian faith is not the God of Islam. People say they're cousins, but they don't know what they're talking about."
"The God we worship is completely different than the God we see in the Qur'an," said Graham. After the former SBC president's incendiary remarks about the Prophet Muhammad, the then current president and the president-elect of the SBC refused to repudiate the statement. The former agreed that Muhammad was a pedophile, while the latter said the statement was accurate.
Just last year at the 2007 SBC pastors' conference, Charles Colson said, "Islam is a vicious evil."
"Christians will give their lives and die for what they believe, and all through the years they have done so, but Islamists are very different," said Colson. "We will die for what we believe. They will kill for what they believe."
Such anti-Islamic rhetoric consumes what little Baptist oxygen is available for interfaith dialogue and has to date intimidated forces of moderation. Yet that is now changing. BWA participants made a commitment in the Czech capital to craft a communiqué which will undergo review in Baptist conventions around the world before it is finalized and sent to the appropriate Islamic religious leaders.
Triggering the Baptist forum is the 29-page Muslim letter, "A Common Word Between Us and You." That letter says: "Finding common ground between Muslims and Christians is not simply a matter for polite ecumenical dialogue between selected religious leaders. Christianity and Islam are the largest and second largest religions in the world and in history. Christians and Muslims reportedly make up over a third and over a fifth of humanity respectively. Together they make up more than 55 percent of the world's population, making the relationship between these two religious communities the most important factor in contributing to meaningful peace around the world."
"If Muslims and Christians are not at peace, the world cannot be at peace," warns the letter. "With the terrible weaponry of the modern world; with Muslims and Christians intertwined everywhere as never before, no side can unilaterally win a conflict between more than half of the world's inhabitants. Thus our common future is at stake. The very survival of the world itself is perhaps at stake."
Goodwill Baptists recognize their common future with goodwill Muslims. We have set a course that will advance respectful dialogue that is a critical step toward countering extremism in both faith traditions. Unless those of goodwill work together, fundamentalists will continue to dominate the airwaves, creating confusion which is always the author of war.
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics and participated in the forum discussion in Prague. This article also appeared Tuesday on the Washington Post "On Faith" page.