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Global Baptists Voice Fear, Call for Positive Dialogue with Muslims Religious Leaders

When some Indonesian Muslims were looting, demonstrating, making intimidating phone calls and threatening churches in 1998, Muslim women at an Islamic boarding school protected the wife of a Baptist pastor when he was out of the country, showing him the positive side of Islam.

Some 10 years later, Victor Rembeth praised an open letter from Islamic religious leaders to Christian leaders, calling it a “loving gesture.”

Rembeth told EthicsDaily.com at the Baptist World Alliance in Prague that when he was on a three-week trip with activists to the United States to talk with Congress a decade ago about human rights violations in Indonesia, during the “year of living dangerously,” that Islamic women invited his wife to stay at their school. On a rotating basis, they came to their home, guarding her from harm.

That “was the act of love,” said Rembeth, now deputy director of Indonesian Disaster Suppression Foundation, an ecumenical church-based, non-governmental organization responding to natural disasters and social conflict.

“Up to that point, I had been struggling even to relate to my Muslim friends,” he said. 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.”

Rembeth’s comments came after a forum discussion of an open letter from 138 Muslim religious leaders to Christian leaders issued last October, which called on both traditions to find common ground based on their shared understanding of the foundational principles of love for God and neighbor.

Titled “A Common Word Between Us and You,” the 29-page 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.”

During the two-hour discussion, some Baptists expressed fear that the Muslim letter would undermine the Trinity, questioned how representative the Islamic leaders were, warned that Muslims saw Christians as infidels and requested the full text of the letter before deciding what to do. Others said that they had been victims of Islamic violence. One U.S. participant cautioned that sometimes Muslims say moderate things when they speak to the West.

The majority of those who spoke, however, voiced support for BWA leadership drafting an irenic letter of response to open up a dialogue with Muslim leaders.

According to BWA press rules, direct quotations and identification of the more than 80 participants are not allowed.

One U.S. Baptist leader said that it was important for Baptists to respond constructively since some Baptists had made such harmful comments about Islam. Pointing out that Baptists had a rich tradition of living respectfully with others, he offered that Baptists would not compromise their core Christian convictions.

Others noted that Muslims had suffered at the hands of Christians. One even called for Baptists to apologize for the Christian harm directed toward Muslims.

A German leader said that the Muslim letter deserved a kind and constructive reply. He said it was not time for a doctrinal discussion but for the two traditions to focus on how to live with one another.

A scholar said that he was not surprised about the alarm which the letter was causing among Baptist forum participants. Yet he warned that a failure to respond would leave God weeping.

One of the forum chairs said that the intent was for a select group of BWA leaders to draft a response in August and to share that draft with the BWA’s member unions, fellowships and conventions. Upon receiving recommendations from the different bodies, the drafters would revise the letter in September based on feedback before sending it to the appropriate Muslim religious officials.

After the forum session ended, Rembeth told EthicsDaily.com that both Christians and Muslims had prejudices toward one another.

“The most difficult problem, when we are talking about this Islam-Christian relationship,” he said, “is to translate from theological differences [into] sociological harmony.”

He called the letter a first step about a “dialogue of humanity, not theology” and said a Baptist response would reduce tensions between the two faith traditions.

In a shorter version of a letter sent last year to the BWA general secretary, Rembeth wrote: “The growing of sectarianism, fundamentalism and radicalism on behalf of faiths and religions are very discouraging. Therefore to be peacemakers in this chaotic world will require all God’s children to work hand in hand regardless of any identity they belong to.”

Rembeth said, “Realizing that both Muslims and Christians share a common understanding of God’s virtue of Love, we then should be able to make this theology of love [to] be the basis of our effort to make peace and justice available to all.”

The Indonesian pastor said that “the Great Commission is not as much effective if it does not go together with the Great Commandment, which is translated in the language of the great compassion of our Lord Jesus Christ, to all, including our Muslim brothers and sisters.”

Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics and attended the BWA meeting in Prague.

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