WASHINGTON – Amid Muslim protests and the Vatican’s defense of the pope’s recent comments on Islam, U.S. Christian figures expressed the need for genuine dialogue, although some have questioned the ability to hold interfaith discourse when rage and violence accompany exchange of ideas.
"The two groups that need to hear and listen to one another as much as any are the evangelical Christians and Muslim leaders," commented Richard Cizik, the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE)’s vice president for governmental affairs.
"There are real divides that exist on these subjects," the NAE spokesperson added, "and we've got to really try to hear each others’ concerns."
On Tuesday, Pope Benedict XVI said Islamic jihad, or holy war, was against God’s nature during a speech on faith and reason at Regensburg University in Germany. The pontiff called for cultural dialogue.
Demonstrations and demands for personal apologies from governments of Muslim nation, including Pakistan on Friday, took place following the speech in which Benedict quoted from a 14th-century Byzantine emperor, Manuel II Paleologos. The Vatican has defended the pope, saying it was not his intention to offend Muslims.
"The emperor comes to speak about the issue of jihad, holy war," the pope said according to The Associated Press. "He said, I quote, 'Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.' "
Benedict is reported to have said "I quote," twice and neither explicitly agreed nor reject the idea.
"The emperor goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable," the pontiff said.
"Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul," he continued, issuing an invitation to dialogue among cultures. Benedict is scheduled to make his first visit to a Muslim nation in November when he is to visit Turkey.
The U.S. Director of Barnabas Fund, Stephen Kopalchick, responded to the controversy by expressing that his greatest concern is for Christians living in Muslim countries. He referenced violent outbreaks against Christians during the Mohammad cartoon incident earlier this year as an undesired yet potential result from the current anger against the pope’s comments.
Other Christians, meanwhile, have questioned the ability for genuine dialogue between Islam and other religions if violence and coercion are factors in the conversation.
"How can authentic and rational dialogue between Islam and other cultures and religions take place when any statement made, which may be construed to be critical, is accompanied by rage," questioned the Rev. Dr. Keith Roderick of Christian Solidarity International.
CSI’s Washington representative said that violence does not improve understanding between religious groups or help further respectful co-existence.
"The growing rage in the Islamic world only reveals how correct Pope Benedict is when he notes that genuine dialogue can only be achieved by ‘broadening our concept of reason and its application,’" said Roderick.
Similarly, Dr. Kenyn Cureton, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC)’s vice president for convention relations, noted reactions of rage against the pope that he sees as an obstacle for dialogue.
"I would hope that Muslims worldwide would commend the pope's call to stop the violence and start the dialogue," he said. "However, I find it ironic that many have chosen to condemn the pope and even burn his effigy instead of condemning the Islamo-Facist terrorists."
Cureton continued, "My question is this: If Islam is truly a ‘religion of peace,’ where is the universal sense of moral outrage of the Muslim community at the barbaric actions of extremists who claim to be followers of Islam? The fact is relatively few Muslim leaders have voiced such outrage; that is cause for concern."
CSI’s Roderick concluded by highlighting the contrasting reactions of non-Muslims when faced with harassment and persecution.
"After all, when Jews, Christians, and other non-Muslims are repeatedly denigrated by slanderous words and abusive treatment in many Islamic countries, there is not a similar universal enflamed response," said Roderick. "In fact, the world barely takes notice of the persecution of those minorities."
Furthermore, Cizik pointed to a recent article in the Foreign Affairs Journal titled "God’s Country?" which said U.S. evangelical Christians generally seek to engage in dialogue – a comment which he agrees with.
Cizik noted that the NAE has a program it started in 2002 where it engages in dialogue with Muslims in the U.S. and worldwide through which it "promotes project of compassion in Jesus’ name."
The NAE spokesperson will be advocating for dialogue next Thursday when he will be speaking about religious and ethnic conflict at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York City.