|The Islamic Society of North American has taken a proactive initiative to invite two Baptists to speak this weekend in Columbus, Ohio, at its annual meeting, which will draw an estimated 30,000 Muslim participants, have some 600 display booths and offer a plethora of sessions ranging from the "Thinking Outside the Mosque" to "Medical Aspects of Fasting."
A Saturday afternoon session, "Muslim-Christian Dialogue: Building Partnerships Toward a Common Goal," will include two Baptists.
One is Roy Medley, general secretary of American Baptist Churches, U.S.A., who has stepped forward among goodwill Baptists to forge a new, substantive conversation among Baptists and Muslims. I am honored to join him as the other Baptist speaker and grateful for the unanticipated invitation from Sayyid M. Syeed, ISNA's national director.
A paragraph in the ISNA program describes this session: "Living in the United States, a largely Christian nation, it is important to foster relationships and partnerships with our neighbors of the Christian faith. ISNA has worked to create and forge relationships with national Christian organizations to encourage strong bonds between the two faith communities. In this session, the panelists will discuss the initiatives that have begun to further understanding and develop positive interaction between our communities, as well as give insight into future cooperation."
Baptist participation comes a month after a two-hour forum at the Baptist World Alliance gathering in Prague in which global Baptists decided to respond officially to an open letter from Muslim religious leaders to Christian leaders, which called on both traditions to find common ground based on their shared understanding of the foundational principles of love for God and neighbor.
The 29-page Muslim letter said: "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. 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," warned the document. "Thus our common future is at stake. The very survival of the world itself is perhaps at stake."
In an e-mail, Medley told me that he hopes Baptist participation in the ISNA conference can "build upon the Muslim initiative to Christians, A Common Word, by exploring the bases within our respective scriptures for seeking the welfare of all as children of the Creator."
Medley said, "It is important to break down the fear of each other within both communities of faith and for us to counter those who would create and play upon our fear of each other as we develop the basis for building just and sustainable communities together."
The American Baptist leader said that Christians in western society "need to put to bed the lie that faith is bad because it is a seedbed for violence against others."
After the public interfaith session, Muslim and Baptist leaders will continue a dialogue in a taskforce meeting.
The taskforce is meeting during the ISNA's annual gathering to give Baptists an opportunity "to learn more about the Muslim presence and experience in North America," said Medley. "It will be a declaration of our commitment to breaking down the hostility between us. I believe our presence will have symbolic impact as we, along with other Christians and leaders of other faiths, are welcomed by the Islamic community."
Medley said the taskforce will "flesh out" plans for a national forum for academic dialogue between Baptists and Muslims, as well was a series of regional meetings.
"I hope that through regional meetings we might be able create pairings of Muslim-Baptist leaders, who after participation in a regional dialogue experience, will continue to build relationships with one another and between their church and mosque in their home communities," he said.
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.
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