From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Conference explores thorny issue of relations between Christianity and Islam

Date Wed, 12 Dec 2001 11:16:28 -0500 (EST)


Conference explores thorny issue of relations between Christianity and Islam

by James Solheim

     (ENS) Over a year ago plans were laid for a conference on reconciliation in 
the conflict between Christianity and Islam in many parts of the world--but those 
plans assumed a new urgency in the wake of the terrorist attacks against the 
World Trade Centers and the Pentagon. 

     By the time a hundred participants gathered December 2 at Kanuga Center in 
North Carolina, bombs were falling in Afghanistan, suicide bombers in Jerusalem 
were killing dozens of people, and there was fresh violence against Christians in 
the Sudan, Nigeria, Pakistan and Indonesia.

     In an intense three-day conference, sponsored by Kanuga and the Community of 
the Cross of Nails, participants grappled with underlying causes of these 
conflicts and explored possibilities for reconciliation. "I think the main issue 
for us in the United States is understanding the tension between the mainstream 
of Islam and the extremists," the Rev. Spenser Simrill of St. Luke's in Atlanta 
said in an interview with the press. "That's the work we have to do in our home 
churches--to educate people who are confused."

     Many participants confessed that they shared that confusion and were 
grateful for the presence of several Islamic scholars who patiently took them 
through the basic tenets of the faith and suggested some directions for dialogue-
-and possible reconciliation.

What is Islam?

     Dr. Liyakat Takim, who has served as imam at a mosque in Toronto and taught 
at the University of Miami and now at Denver, began with a video introduction to 
Islam and then described the five tenets common to the faith: complete submission 
to God, prayer five times a day, fasting, alms-giving and pilgrimage to Mecca. 

     The challenge in relations between Islam and Christianity, he said, is to 
recognize that we are already related with a common origin in Abraham "but we 
must learn to live with our differences."

     Calling Osama bin Laden's radical Islam "an aberration," and calling 
violence against Christians "totally unacceptable," Takim argued that it was 
imperative to "look at the Koran's whole worldview, seeing it in context." He 
offered similar advice to the radicals, urging them to go back to the Koran and 
avoid interpretations that emerged during periods of conflict. "We need a Luther 
to correct abuses," he said.

     Reconciliation won't be easy, he admitted, because "Muslims know very little 
about Christianity and Judaism. "Reconciliation begins by talking together, and 
avoiding demonizations." He expressed a deep concern that the void created by the 
September 11 terrorist attacks could be filled by radicals and extremists unless 
moderate Christians and Muslims joined hands. "The votes of the silent majority 
are being drowned out by the bombs of the vocal minority," he warned. "We need 
global reconciliation or the consequences will be unimaginable."

Muslims in USA

     In a later presentation on Muslims in the USA, Takim said that "living in a 
minority is a new phenomenon for Muslims, and there are very few guidelines." 
Takim said that "Islam is grossly misunderstood." Takim said. Even when Muslims 
lived with others there was no dialogue, largely because there was no conflict to 
make it necessary. "We need to move from attempts at conversion to conversation," 
even though the Muslim community is still coming to terms with the language of 
dialogue, he said.

     Acculturation in a Judeo-Christian society presents Muslims with some huge 
challenges. Assimilation means a degree of acceptance but at a high cost--the 
loss of identity. Some insulation allows Muslims to maintain identity while still 
interacting with the culture. Muslim immigrants bring their ancestral traditions, 
trying to reinterpret those traditions but also displaying resistance to change. 
African-American Muslims are trying to go back to earlier Islamic and African 

     Takim said that a "reformulation of an Islamic worldview is now underway," 
although he admitted that it is still in early stages. "For most Muslims, to be a 
good Muslim still means being a good seventh century Arab." Reconciliation goes 
hand-in-hand with justice and he wonders, however, why churches aren't crying out 
against injustices against Muslims. And he warned that the Saudis are spreading a 
puritanical, fanatical brand of Islam that is infecting youth. The only way 
forward is more bridge building because, after September 11, "there is no 

Witnesses from the front lines of conflict

     While participants eagerly embraced Takim's vision of moderate Islam, the 
voices of several witnesses described a more violent side of Islam.

     Bishop Josiah Idowu-Fearon of the Diocese of Kaduna painted a grim picture 
of escalating violence in Muslim-dominated northern Nigeria. "There is deep 
hatred between Christians and Muslims in my country," he said in tracing the 
development of modern Nigeria and the current tensions.

     Islam, which arrived in the 10th century, was already established by the 
time missionaries arrived with British merchants in the mid-19th century. Today 
the north is 80 percent Muslim, only eight or nine percent Christian. In the 
central part of the country, the two are evenly balanced. In the south, which  is 
75 percent Christian, relations with Muslims are "very, very cordial."

     By 1990 the violence escalated, largely because the military dictator 
tinkered with the constitution to allow individual states to adopt Shari'ah (the 
straight path), a comprehensive code of morality and religious duties based on 
the Koran. As 15 states adopted it in one form or another, the results were 
incendiary. "We are sitting on a time bomb," the bishop warned.

     Yet he added, "There is still hope for Christians and Muslims in Nigeria, 
even though the situation is not very encouraging. Whether we like it or not, we 
must find a solution. What is the alternative? If we don't find a solution, there 
may be no Nigeria in five or 10 years." The bishop is also worried that Arab 
nations are expressing an interest in this largest black African nation with 120 
million inhabitants.

     "I'm known as Mr. Dialogue because I believe in it as a form of witness. But 
it is becoming a very difficult ministry," he said, because both sides are 
largely ignorant about each other. And people are using religion to foment 
political turmoil because they know Africans are very religious people. He noted 
that Christians in some areas are beginning to fight back. When he warns against 
the use of violence, the Christians say, "Bishop, there is no third cheek." 

Indonesia on the brink

     Waving a fax that he had just received that described a fresh outbreak of 
violence on the Indonesian Island of Sulawesi, the Rev. Patrick Sookhdeo, 
international director of the Barnabas Fund, began a chilling description of how 
the world's largest Muslim nation was sliding toward chaos.

     After years in which it had been one of the most tolerant Islamic societies, 
Indonesia went through a transition in the 1960s when the nation lost its strong 
central base for its government, Islam gained more power and "a total of about 
30,000 Christians have been killed so far, with another half million homeless," 
according to Sookhdeo.

     He painted a bleak picture of the future, suggesting that Indonesia might 
disintegrate into regional factions or even move towards an Islamic state. It is 
also possible that militant Muslims would call for a wider jihad or war against 
the West.

     There are attempts at reconciliation but the human rights abuses are very 
real," he said. And the economic situation is getting substantially worse, with 
the currency near collapse. He said that Christians are begging for intervention 
"but very few have been willing to take up their cause." He wondered, "Why on 
earth is there no outside intervention. In this most devastated area, why the 
silence? The whole region is extremely volatile and no one is interested."

     During a panel discussion, he said that the USA must take the religious 
element in worldwide conflicts more seriously and break the link between religion 
and territory. In an earlier presentation he made the same point, noting that 
violence has been a part of religions and "often that violence is linked to power 
and power is linked to territory. We must honestly face up to our own tradition," 
he said. "It is time for Islam to face up to the strand of violence in it."

     Sookhdeo said that "Bin Laden is not an aberration," that he "uses violence 
for a specific end. He is convinced that he's engaged in a justifiable war with 
the West." He admitted his pessimism about the future and said that he is worried 
that the West may win the immediate battle but ultimately lose the war against 
terrorism because it is fueled by anger of what is perceived as an affront by the 
West to Islamic culture and its support for corrupt regimes.

Glimmers of hope in Sudan?

     The gloomy atmosphere of the conference was pierced, if slightly, by a 
report from Dr. Douglas Johnston, president and founder of the International 
Center for Religion and Democracy, which has been working in the Sudan for 
interreligious cooperation.

     "Bin Laden changed the game," he said in his presentation. "We need a 
different engagement with cultures of the world. We Americans are perceived as 
very arrogant. We must acknowledge that religion is a component of most political 
conflicts in the world today--and it is time to bring religion back into the 

     His organization seeks to do precisely that by employing what he calls 
"faith-based diplomacy." It creates cells of peacemakers in countries involved in 
conflict, providing a base for peace negotiations. In the Sudan, for example, it 
has built relations of trust with the Khartoum government, encouraging them to 
take steps toward peace. Trying to move beyond the images of the civil war in the 
country, he said that life in the Sudan is different than the stereotypes because 
"the brand of Islam in the Sudan is very liberal."

     Like other African nations, the Sudan is "living out the consequences of its 
colonial history," suffering from a leadership crisis common to the continent. In 
addressing the civil war that has been raging for decades, he said that "there is 
no innocence to be found. Bad things are happening on both sides. But there is no 
sign in the Sudan of allegations of a state-sponsored terrorism."

     Injecting a note of reality, Abraham, one of the so-called "Lost Boys of 
Sudan," briefly described his attempts to survive the civil war in the south by 
fleeing. He is among thousands of children who have been separated from their 
families, some of them for 15 years or more, looking for safety in Ethiopia and 
then refugee camps.

Radical ministry of reconciliation

     In closing remarks, the Rev. Andrew White, director of International 
Ministry at Coventry Cathedral in England, said that participants had been able 
to grapple with the issues in a loving environment. In opening and closing the 
conference, he offered some suggestions on how to use the terrorist attacks "as 
an opportunity for a recommitment to a radical ministry of reconciliation." 
Before that can happen, he said it was necessary to avoid political correctness 
from preventing an honest engagement with the issues and to avoid demonizing each 
other. "We must be willing to face up to the wrongs perpetuated by our own 
tradition," he argued, and "realize that there is a spiritual dimension to 
reconciliation" and offer support for "all victims of religious conflict and 

     White also said that reconciliation must be based on truth with forgiveness, 
the motto of the Community of the Cross of Nails, an "international network of 
individuals who share a commitment to a practical vision of reconciliation and a 
genuine intention to live a disciplined Christian life," based at Coventry 
     "We need to be a praying people--and an informed people," White said. He 
is encouraged that many international organizations, such as the World Bank, 
realize that after September 11 "they can's exist on an island, without engaging
religious leaders."

     "We have demonized those in our own faith tradition," he added, demonstrating 
more willingness to engage the fundamentalist side of Islam than the fundamentalist 
side of Christianity. "We need to learn how to re-engage."

     Bishop Arthur Walmsley, retired bishop of Connecticut, brought greetings from 
Presiding Bishop Frank T. Griswold. Walmsley, who has been asked by Griswold 
to shape a response by the bishops to "waging reconciliation," reported that the 
bishops will use their annual March retreat to explore the deeper ramifications 
of a ministry of reconciliation. 

--James Solheim is director of Episcopal News Service.

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