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American Muslim, Baptist Leaders Hold Groundbreaking Meeting

Around 80 Baptist and Muslim leaders from across the nation gathered in Boston for a first-of-its-kind dialogue Jan. 9-11 in hopes of furthering mutual understanding and discovering areas of common ground. Held at the Islamic Center of Boston and Andover Newton Theological School, the meeting included presentations, breakout discussion sessions, worship services and fellowship times.

Baptist plenary speakers for the gathering included: Charles Kimball of the University of Oklahoma; Rob Sellers of the Logsdon School of Theology at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas; and Cheryl Townsend Gilkes of Colby College in Maine. Muslims scholars who made presentations were: Imam Amir Mukhtar Faezi of the Bait-ul-llm Academy in the Chicago area; Louay M. Safi of the Islamic Society of North America Leadership Development Center in Plainfield, Ind.; and Muhammad Shafiq of the Center for Interfaith Studies and Dialogue at Nazareth College in Rochester, N.Y.

Additional leaders for the weekend included: Roy Medley, general secretary of the American Baptist Churches, USA; Sayyid Syeed, national interfaith director of the Islamic Society of North America; and Nick Carter, president of Andover Newton. Participants also represented the Alliance of Baptists, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, Lott Carey Baptist Foreign Mission Society, North American Baptist Fellowship of the Baptist World Alliance and Progressive National Baptist Convention.

The weekend’s dialogue occurred in large part because of the efforts and hopes of Medley and Syeed. A task force of Baptist and Muslim leaders was later created to plan the event.

Task force member Hopeton Scott, pastor of First Baptist Church in Bridgeport, Conn., told EthicsDaily.com it was “remarkable” to see what occurred this weekend as a result of the planning meetings just last year. He added he was encouraged by the openness of the groups to come together for dialogue because it is “always challenging to get people of different backgrounds together.”

As planning was underway for the Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant, held early last year in Atlanta, Medley made a comment in a Muslim newspaper that he hoped one early effort of the Baptist unity movement would be an effort to create dialogue with Muslims.

“We need to repair the damage done by Baptists who made hurtful statements about Muslims in the past,” Medley was quoted saying in August 2007. “If you believe in religious liberty, you must respect other religions. The best way to witness to your own faith is through humility and service.”

After reading Medley’s remarks, Syeed wrote Medley in hopes of moving toward the goal of creating dialogue between Muslims and Baptists. Syeed has previously been involved in dialogue efforts with Catholics, Jews and other religious groups and has even met with the Pope.

When Medley received Syeed’s letter, he traveled to meet with Syeed and Stan Hastey of the Alliance of Baptists, a meeting that led to the creation of the task force. After an initial meeting early last year, task force members met over Labor Day weekend in conjunction with the ISNA’s annual convention held in Columbus, Ohio.

This past weekend, Syeed talked about how the dialogue came to be and said it was wonderful to see “how God can inspire people and make them do his will.”

“It was amazing … how several Baptist organizations came together to make a new history happen,” Syeed added as he recognized the Baptist conventions that decided to engage Muslims in dialogue.

Robert Parham, executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics, attended the ISNA meeting in Columbus and wrote of his experience. His editorial was republished by the ISNA and was referenced by Syeed over the weekend. Parham also participated in the Boston dialogue.

Task force member Hopeton Scott told EthicsDaily.com over the weekend that a highlight of the entire planning process was how he and the other Baptists were received at the Islamic meeting. He recalled that throughout the meeting—and even at other locations like a restaurant in town—Muslims expressed their appreciation and excitement that Baptists had come to the meeting.

The national Muslim-Baptist dialogue was designed to follow up on “A Common Word between Us and You,” which is an open letter to Christian leaders released by Muslim leaders in October 2007. The letter was offered in hopes of encouraging dialogue and promoting efforts to discover common ground between Muslims and Christians. The document highlighted teachings in both Islam and Christianity on the importance of loving God and loving one’s neighbors.

“If Muslims and Christians are not at peace, the world cannot be at peace,” the document declared. “Thus our common future is at stake. The very survival of the world itself is perhaps at stake.”

Last week, the Baptist World Alliance released its response to “A Common Word” in hopes of building on the growing Muslim and Christian discussion about the document. BWA President David Coffey was one of several Christian leaders to whom “A Common Word” was specifically addressed.

The BWA’s response, which was distributed to dialogue participants in Boston, began by expressing to the Muslim signers of “A Common Word” the BWA’s “appreciation for the generous initiative you have taken, and of our delight in the eirenic and constructive spirit in which your letter has been written.”

“Many of us have hoped for the kind of dialogue between Muslims and Christians that you offer, and now we have your invitation, opening up the way for conversation and deeper friendship,” the BWA’s letter added. “We believe that this letter is a unique moment in the history of Christian-Muslim relations.”

Over the weekend, the dialogue proposed in the Muslim and Baptist letters occurred as Muslims and Baptists listened to presentations on one another’s beliefs and traditions, observed worship services of the other faith, and shared their experiences and asked questions during small group sessions and meals.

Brian Kaylor is a contributing editor to EthicsDaily.com.