Evangelicals to Reconcile with Muslim Community Through Ecumenical Dialogue

"Any Christian witness in the Muslim world must be a passive type of witness -- by our lives, our actions, our disposition"
( [email protected] ) May 03, 2004 03:56 AM EDT

In the ecumenical tradition of reconciling with the Muslim community through sincere positive conversations, evangelical Christians are planning several dialogues and events to serve Muslim communities around the world.

In the past, several evangelical leaders unintentionally sparked a backlash of hateful dialogue between Christians and Muslims through argumentative charges against Islam. Such rhetoric escalated in the months following the September 11 attack on America, even from the most renowned evangelicals such as Rev. Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham, and the Rev. Jerry Vines, past president of the largest American protestant denomination the Southern Baptist Convention. Franklin Graham called Islam an “evil” religion while Vines called Mohammad a “pedophile,” and subsequently received a firestorm of criticism from both the Muslim and Christian communities.

To undo some of the harm caused by those words, a handful of evangelical ministers have announced that they will not only moderate their rhetoric toward Islam, but also that they will put their faith into action through non-proselytizing action-oriented service to the Muslim community.

"We don't want the whole Islamic world to think that a couple of spokesmen, though well-intentioned perhaps, speak for everyone. We're taught to love people," said the Rev. Harry Thomas, a Medford, N.J., producer of Christian concerts. "I don't know anyone who has been won over by hate talk."

Rev. Richard Cizik, vice president for government affairs at the Washington-based National Association of Evangelicals agreed: "We have stereotypes of Muslims, and they certainly do of conservative Christians. They're both caricatures we need to dispense with."

Both Cizik and Thomas were part of a nine-member delegation that visited Morocco from Feb. 29 to March 8, with hopes put on a Christian music festival, establish humanitarian projects and hold theological conferences in the mostly-Muslim nation. During the visit, the Christian leaders met with the North African prime minister, several Cabinet ministers, regional governors, and top Muslim, Jewish and Roman Catholic authorities.

According to Cizik, the Moroccan officials gladly agreed to the series of exchanges, partly because the pro-Western government wants to combat anti-American sentiments among its peoples.

"My point of view is, there are lots of misperceptions on both sides, and I think it's good that people get together," said Aziz Mekouar, Morocco's ambassador to the United States during an interview with the Washington Post.

The Rev. Rob Schenck, president of the National Clergy Council, an association of 5,000 U.S. clergy, said both sides built a greater level of trust through the visit.

"I think a great deal of mutual trust came out of this first visit, which surprised me," said Schenck.

According to Schenck, Operation Serve International, an evangelical relief organization based in Ohio, will provide medical and dental teams to staff free clinics in rural areas of Morocco beginning as early as this year. Schenck also said that he will be involved with coordinating a “theological exchange” program, where Muslim philosophers and evangelical Christian believers will converse over an open table that is "not just academic but spiritual." The first session has been slated for Morocco in the fall; the second will take place in the U.S. in 2005.

Thomas said he would put on a small-scale Christian contemporary music festival in Morocco next spring. According to Thomas, the Marrakech event, which is promoted by the regional officials, will be a free event.

Meanwhile, Cizik clarified that none of these activities are a “ruse” for proselytizing.

Said Cizik: "One thing the evangelical members of the delegation agreed on is that any Christian witness in the Muslim world must be a passive type of witness -- by our lives, our actions, our disposition.”