Christian Muslim Dialogue: a Covenant for Muslims and Christians 

 

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Composed by the Arab Working Group for a Muslim-Christian Dialogue
as adopted in Cairo during the Shawwâl of December 2001

Description: An organization of prominent international Arab Muslim and Arab Christian intellectuals, religious scholars and people engaged in public life—met in Beirut in May 1995. The Middle East Council of Churches facilitated this meeting to create the Arab Working Group for a Muslim-Christian Dialogue. The group included members from Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Jordan, Palestine, the Sudan and the United Arab Emirates. From this meeting, the group shares a firm belief in the peaceful, prosperous coexistence of Muslims and Christians in a society where freedom, justice, equality and the rights of citizenship prevail.

Introduction

1. A number of prominent Arab Muslim and Arab Christian intellectuals, religious scholars and people engaged in public life met in Beirut in May 1995. The Middle East Council of Churches facilitated this meeting to create the Arab Working Group for a Muslim-Christian Dialogue. The group included members from Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Jordan, Palestine, the Sudan and the United Arab Emirates. From this meeting, the group:

2. The motive of all members of the working group was and still is personal: none wish to represent any particular body. What moved and still moves them to work within the group is their religious commitment and wish to achieve only what serves the common good. In this, they keep in view the nation as a whole: not simply one segment of it as a group, a sect, a party, or the like. The members see it as a dialogue of life as an intellectual discussion with action programs that join adherents of both religions, so that they might stand together to face the challenges to the education, morality and the culture of the nation.

In the group’s view, the dialogue includes more than merely the fellow citizens who belong to the same national group. The dialogue also engages believers who see the effort as an applied expression of their religious principles giving substance to the meaning of

3. Taking as its key these defining ideas, the Arab Working Group for a Muslim-Christian Dialogue has launched a series of initiatives. It has convened several seminars with diverse topics such as citizenship, equality, pluralism, political participation, coexistence and the heritage of Abraham.

In addition, the group organized a conference about Jerusalem in June of 1996. The first of its kind, this meeting brought together Muslim and Christian decision-makers and leading Arab intellectuals. The group initiated several other events, among the most important of which have been meetings between Muslim and Christian youth in Egypt and Lebanon.

4. Drawing upon its growing knowledge and the results of conferences and activities during the past years, the group thought it good to prepare this document about dialogue and coexistence. It articulates principles and broad guidelines that might bring a wider incidence of a culture of dialogue for mutual understanding, coexistence and common action to nurture a patriotic, just and free society that can to face the dangers that threaten the nation.

5. The Arab Working Group for Dialogue observes that the effort to give a firm foundation to a sense of coexistence is mandated via the shared national and social concern; further, it aims—via a single historical and cultural process—to achieve a sense of common destiny. These core issues bring everyone together. The duties, rights and consequences they imply are not the domain of just one faction. Religious differences do not deny the fact of belonging as one to an Arab Islamic culture that invites Christians and Muslims to participate side by side.

6. In the face of foreign interventions and designs for asserting domination over the Arab world, the group sees the increase of national unity as vital. Sensitive to how outside intervention can hasten internal unrest often with a subtext of religion, it is wrong to make light of how foreign powers can manipulate and exploit internal factors and circumstances to serve their interests.

As citizens of one nation, members of both faiths have to join in dialogue and work together to address internal issues and solve the problems they raise. This prerequisite must occur to stop the foreign interference that merely makes the situation worse and brings mutual suspicion and fear. Making light of internal problems can damage national unity. Similarly, giving too much weight to them can cause a similar harm. Among citizens of both faiths in one nation, exaggerations can foster a general mood of panic, fear and isolation.

All of this calls for sustaining the process of dialogue by giving it the capacity to bring about change. It must be translated into a practical program aimed at building a firm foundation for coexistence and treating the root causes of confessional religious unrest. Political, economic, social and cultural circumstances account for much of this unrest. These objective factors conspire to breed a mood of general malaise, which may manifest itself in many guises, one of which is religious unrest. Clearly, they do not have an impact upon just one religious community; their bane and the burden of addressing them falls upon the whole of society.

7. Another benefit of dialogue is that it can resolve the confusion between true religiosity and the extremism that leads to violence. Extremism is a harshness of mind that sees only self and no other; violence is behavior that inflicts one’s views by force upon those who differ with those views. The two are, at times, linked though not bound to or typical of religious commitment. What helps give rise to them is a complex of political, social, economic and broad cultural factors. Out of these, extremism and violence can manifest themselves in various guises and contradictory doctrines. A wrong understanding of what it means to be religious can strengthen the reaction to those circumstances. Moderation is abandoned for types of behavior contrary to real religiosity and spiritual values.

In light of this as it works to foster coexistence, one aim of dialogue is to raise the standard of the debate through ‘that which is best,’ and bring to the fore values of religious faith and the humanitarian spirit. Dialogue is directed toward the high purpose of realizing the public good and responding to social and developmental problems that confront all groups in society. It affirms that a valid understanding of religious faith includes accepting the religious ‘other,’ living with that ‘other,’ and respecting his or her religious convictions and the private nature of his or her religious rites and laws.

8.The basis for coexistence, the interests of a united country, the social interaction of citizens of a single nation do presuppose a dialogue; thus, it is a spiritual, moral and cultural need to promote the virtue of believers to take the time to get to know each other. That will help build mutual respect, strengthen the bonds of affection and put an end to the stereotypes that give rise to alienation and fear.

Diversity is fact of human life; indeed, it is a sign from God displayed in humans and in all creation. Dialogue, getting to know one another and the healthy competition to do good works can mobilize diversity as a source of social enrichment; they inhibit the twisting of diversity to cause fear, conflict and alienation.

9. The dialogue begins fully aware of the dangers in the argument that the so-called bloody frontiers divide Christians and Muslims worldwide. This argument is based on the notion of the clash of civilizations by masking the Western plans for domination with a religious gloss. Over and against this on the world stage, the Arab Muslim-Christian dialogue intends to affirm a united Arab position of both faiths defending the common Arab causes of which foremost is the cause of Jerusalem. Nevertheless, a distinction must be made between an Arab Muslim-Christian dialogue and the dialogue between Arabs (of either faith) and other cultures, Western and non-Western.

10. The Arab Muslim-Christian dialogue gains added significance in light of a number of phenomena, factors and obstacles that are unique to relations between Arab Muslims and Christians. In fact, as the working group sees it, these give us an added incentive for dialogue and common action.

11. Lack of respect for cultural and religious distinction and the poor management of pluralism in Arab societies have, to some extent and in specific countries, restricted areas where Muslims and Christians can meet, mingle and work together. This restriction has affected residential districts, schools (especially private ones), professional, cultural and political institutions and clubs. This has weakened the institutions of civil society that ought to be a uniting force for the national body politic. Thus, the dialogue envisaged by the working group strives to advance full citizenship and participation in public life freed from the shackle of the confessional, which, by its nature, undermines national unity, open doors to foreign interference and obstructs democratic development.

12. Some Arab groups now retreat from a culture of understanding one another, of mutual recognition built upon a calm and thorough dialogue and of seeking information in original documents. This has given way to polemical and injurious rhetoric with no grounding in earnest knowledge, which only inflames doubts and fears and adds to verbal and symbolic violence. This trend demands a firm response founded upon frankness, bold resistance, making the facts and the truth known to all and the effort to help adherents of the two faiths get to know each other. This is what the working group has stood for and worked toward in all its activities.

13. Another clear fact is the fear about the future arising out of economic, social and political conditions. Among the most prominent of these are:

This last fear is often ascribed to the relationship between Muslims and Christians, a factor which builds it into an inflated fear. Evident as a fact equal among the majority and the minority, it pictures one religious group threatening the future of the other. To counter this fear, the working group supports joint efforts in summer work camps for youth. These offer a time for all to get know each other in a natural environment, which in the past was common in society and put off the onset of the mutual fear with its threat to coexistence.

14. Visible as well is a tendency of some people to link national and sectarian struggles elsewhere in the world with internal relations between the constituent Muslim and Christian strands of the national fabric. They picture the local situation as an extension of a supposed worldwide struggle between Christianity and Islam. This serves to deepen doubts and fears between Muslims and Christians in our Arab countries. This can undermine cooperation with one’s fellow citizens because they stand accused of complicity in a religious conspiracy, unless they renounce the specific positions adopted by fellow believers in a foreign national or confessional conflict. The working group believes that the dialogue can help to avert the threatened effect upon the process of coexistence in our local environment posed by national and sectarian conflicts elsewhere in the world. It can help prevent foreign powers using them to inflame mutual doubts and fears. At least it can expose this exploitation to neutralize its adverse effect upon relations between brothers and sisters, Muslims and Christians and fellow citizens of the nation.

Furthermore, the dialogue seeks to affirm the principle of absolute justice. Faithful Muslims and Christians will support the cause of the persecuted and downtrodden, regardless of their religion and that of those who oppress them. This will affirm the moral integrity of the nation and strengthen the values of coexistence between Muslim and Christian believers.

15. As praxis, the dialogue improves comprehension, mutual attention, empathy and candor, though it shuns speech that inflames and wounds. It is an expression of intellectual and ethical integrity when dealing with the ‘other’ and is committed to the principles of justice and fairness. It allows leeway for correcting one’s views by looking critically at one’s stereotypes of the ‘other’ as well as self-analysis. Through our respect for 1) the diversity of religious thought, 2) the principles of coexistence and cooperation and 3) the need for an equality of citizenship, this dialogue, thus, builds confidence, nurtures functional relationships and true friendship.

16. The working group chooses a dialogue that:

17. The desired dialogue is not directed toward self-serving debates or argumentative religious polemics. It does not call for comparisons to determine which is better. Nor is it governed by the urge to control so as to affirm one’s self over or against the other, or display superiority, mastery, pride, superior competence and self-sufficiency.

18. What is preferred in this dialogue is not a coup in negotiations between two power blocks—Muslim and the Christian—via the assumption that each is a homogeneous whole. Although they share a core of fundamentals, adherents of any one religion represent a variety of differences in outlook, tendencies, views, interpretations and doctrinal positions.

19. This dialogue is not built upon accommodation or the kind of politeness that masks or ignores differences: it does not fall into the trap of deception. Effective and constructive dialogue and cooperation do not assume that one party must back down from any point of doctrine or faith.

20. The principal standard for authentic dialogue is intellectual integrity. Just because this should be obvious does not mean we should not lay stress upon it. It assumes that, whenever necessary, we can go beyond some of our inherited images or stereotypes of the so-called other. We can liberate ourselves from popular mythology. Intellectual integrity demands that, when we look at others’ heritage, we use their sources and their self-definitions. This requires that we scrutinize the distorted images each side has drawn of the other. Further, it demands a serious analysis of the cultural, social, historical and psychological factors that conspire to create feelings of mutual fear and suspicion.

21. Related to this is the effort to use one language in addressing Christian-Muslim relations, not two. The tendency is to use one language when addressing your own group and another language when addressing another’s group. For the sake of frankness and in order to avoid deception, parties in dialogue must free themselves from those things that cause them to resort to ambiguous language, which only discredits the dialogue’s authenticity and annuls its achievements.

22. The working group believes that religion cannot be banished from public life; its constructive role therein cannot be denigrated. There is no substitute for the religious values that administer the people’s affairs and achieve good things such as nurturing freedom, supporting liberty and renewing creation. They guard against corruption and deviation; they promote patriotic effort. Thus, religion must not be exploited for narrow political or partisan interests, or for instigating political and social conflict. This would deny its social role, its spiritual mission and its very integrity. This would make of it an ancillary tool, not source of wisdom and guidance.

23. Dialogue and efforts at encouraging coexistence would have no integrity without respect for the particularities, sensibilities, symbols and sanctities of both faiths. This is not limited to how adherents of the two religions treat each other. It must express itself also in both faiths standing together against the desecration—by any group—of the ideals they each hold sacred.

24. While we affirm that religious liberty is a human right enshrined in the teachings of the religions themselves, as two faiths, we stand together against any kind of material or moral pressure, or any means of coercion or seduction, which may be used under the pretext of religious freedom to alienate Muslims and Christians from their respective religions. We urge scholars of both faiths, people of culture and intellectuals to seek the spiritual and humanitarian values common in both faiths and lifestyles of their adherents, as well as those bright examples of coexistence, solidarity, compassion and mutual affection to highlight the dialogue and tolerance as practiced in society as a whole. Faithful people long for wisdom and are called to weigh matters using the honest scales of justice; without it, whatever they have is debased.

25. The Arab Working Group for a Muslim-Christian Dialogue agrees upon the above principles and general guidelines. Considered as a whole, it sees them as constituting a guide or a basis for practical programs and steps in the cause of coexistence and in other areas of

These and other initiatives and common efforts to implement practical program have to be tailored to fit the full spectrum of Arab society and environments. The working group will expend its utmost efforts in this cause and it hopes that these principles and considerations may act as a call to the people, a witness among them and a covenant for Arab Muslim-Christian action.—The Arab Working Group for a Muslim-Christian Dialogue —adopted in Cairo: Shawwâl in December, 2001 tr: LRS - 19/01/2002

Keywords: absolute justice, alienation, civil society, coexistence, cooperation, dialogue of life, diversity, Egypt, freedom, human rights, intellectual integrity, Israeli aggression, Jerusalem, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, pluralism, religious ‘other', religious freedom, Shawwâl, solidarity, Sudan, suppression of democracy, Syria, United Arab Emirates

 

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