A meeting of the National Muslim-Christian Initiative, a major dialogue between Muslim and Christian leaders, took place in late March, gathering together nearly 40 Christian and Muslim senior representatives from around the country to engage issues of concern to both communities, including deliberate discussion of Islamphobia in the US and religious extremist ideology abroad. The meeting included a public evening program with more than 100 people present, on the intersection of religious freedom and respect for what others hold sacred.
The initiative, begun in 2008 and having last met in 2011, is an integral part of the 30+ years of relationship between Christian communions connected through the National Council of Churches and Muslim organizations. The pause in meetings was due to organizational and programmatic factors in both communities.
The resumption was met with enthusiasm by all participants. This spirit was captured in the welcoming remarks of one of the initiative’s co-conveners, Rev. Dr. Christine Hong of the Presbyterian Church USA, who noted the urgency of the need for this dialogue because of the horrible violence taking place in other parts of the world, and the racial and religious tension going on here in the US. “This dialogue,” Hong said, “asks us how we can accompany one another in the midst of these problems, and how we might better help build a healthy society.”
Dr. Peter Makari, also a dialogue co-convener, pointed out that the past success of the initiative in addressing difficult issues came because of the participants’ insistence to address difficult theological and sociological issues without glossing over differences. He lifted up issues pertaining to the document, “A Common Word Between Us and You,” as an example. He also lamented that the stakes are now higher, “with attacks on Christians, Muslims, and other communities that do not conform being carried out in some parts of the Middle East in the name of Islam, and hate crimes being perpetrated against US Muslims, also in the name of religion.”
The meeting, brought together through the convening efforts of the National Council of Churches and the United States Council of Muslim Organizations, was hosted by the Episcopal Church Center in New York, and the evening program was hosted by the Islamic Cultural Center, also in New York. The meeting was held in conjunction with the board meetings of Religions for Peace USA, so as to take advantage of the overlap both of participants and of issues. Christian participants, from the Protestant, Anglican and Orthodox traditions, and Muslim participants, from Arab, South Asian and African American Muslim communities, collectively brought pastoral and theological experience, as well as academic and advocacy experience, to the table.
Commenting on the broad perspectives of Muslim and Christian leaders present, Mr. Naeem Baig of the Islamic Circle of North America, and also an initiative co-convener, stated that this was essential to addressing pertinent issues in a sustained and effective manner. “If we wish, as we committed to do,” Baig said, “to critically appraise respective wrongs, help to heal memories, highlight respect for religious differences, and address the alienation, feelings of helplessness, and fear that lead to extremism, intolerance and violence, the collective wisdom of all such partners is necessary.”
Dr. Tony Kireopoulos, another of the initiative’s co-conveners, noted that the next session, to be held in late fall, will focus the dialogue moving forward on reframing the narrative. He also noted that a webinar will be held in summer on a related topic as a bridge between sessions. “Creating a new narrative is essential to countering the kinds of extremism and violence we’re seeing abroad by those within the Islamic community that wrongfully use their own religion for political ends,” Kireopoulos said, “and the kinds of hatred we see here in our own country aimed at Muslims whose faith is being wrongfully manipulated from the inside and maligned from the outside.”