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Inter-faith dialogue

In the first half of the 20th century, social scientists and assorted intellectuals in the West confidently asserted that religion would inevitably decline in the face of forces unleashed by secular rationality and modernity. This prognostication came to be known as the secularization thesis. An eminent American sociologist Peter Berger, in an interview to The New York Times in 1968 confidently stated that "by the 21st century, religious believers are likely to be found only in small sects, huddled together to resist a worldwide secular culture." However, this prophecy of doom was belied by the tidal wave of ethnic and religious revival and reawakening that began to sweep across large parts of the world from the 1980s onwards and which gathered added momentum in the closing years of the 20th century. In a recent article, Berger has confessed that the secularization thesis has been falsified by the resurgence of ethnic and religious consciousness in large parts of the world, including the United States, that the project of secularization has been successful only in one small corner of the world, namely Europe. The rest of the world, he says, continues to be as fervently religious as ever. The resurgence of religious consciousness and identity across the world has a significant bearing on inter-faith dialogue.

The initiative for inter-faith dialogue in the West was taken by the Vatican and the World Council of Churches in the 1950s. A series of meetings and consultations between the representatives of Christian churches and those of other religions, including Muslims, were organized in different European cities. A major impetus to inter-faith dialogue was provided by the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). In 1964 Pope Paul VI established an Office for Non-Christian Affairs at the Vatican to study diverse religious traditions, provide resources and promote inter-religious dialogue through education. The Office for Non-Christian Affairs produced a document entitled "Orientations for a Dialogue between Christians and Muslims" in 1970. The document urged Christians to clear away the "outdated image, inherited from the past, or distorted by prejudice and slander, that Christians have of Islam." It also recognizes the "past injustice towards the Muslims for which the West, with its Christian education, is to blame." The document notes with regret that far too many Christians, brought up in an atmosphere of open hostility, are against any reflection on Islam. Carrying the spirit of dialogue and reconciliation forward, the Office for Non-Christian Affairs in 1967 asked Christians to offer their best wishes to Muslims at the end of the month of Ramadan with "genuine religious warmth."

On April 24, 1974, Cardinal Pignedoli, head of the Office for Non-Christian Affairs, visited Saudi Arabia and carried a message from Pope Paul VI for King Faisal. The message expressed "the regards of His Holiness, moved by a profound belief in the unification of Islamic and Christian worlds in the worship of One God". In October 1874, a delegation of the ulama from Saudi Arabia visited the Vatican and was warmly received by the Pope. This meeting paved the way for a meaningful and sustainable dialogue between Christians and Muslims. The Saudi delegation was subsequently received by the Ecumenical Council of Churches of Geneva and by the Lord Bishop of Strasbourg, His Grace Elchinger. The Bishop invited the members of the delegation to join the midday prayer in his cathedral. In 1989 the Office for Non-Christian Affairs was renamed the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue.

The World Christian Council launched a programme for Dialogue with People of Living Faiths and Ideologies in 1971. From the outset the focus of the programme has been on Muslim-Christian relations. A number of international and regional meetings and workshops were organized under the programme, which focused on an exchange of views and experiences related to Christian-Muslim dialogue. Christian churches in France have played a pioneering role in fostering closer ties between Christians and Muslims. France was the first European country where an Office for Relations with Islam was set up by the Catholic Church in 1973, which was followed a few years later by the establishment of a Church-Islam Commission by the Protestant churches. Several Christian umbrella organizations in the West, including the Conference of European Churches and the Council of Bishops' Conferences in Europe, launched programmes which focused on Christian-Muslim relations in the context of Europe. The World Council of Churches in Geneva opened an office devoted to inter-faith dialogue. In Sweden (which, like Britain, has an established church), inter-faith activities are supported by the state. Under the state-sponsored programme, a Christian priest, a Jewish rabbi and a Muslim imam held public inter-faith dialogue sessions. In 1994 this group was sent on a peace mission to Sarajevo. In 1996 the Nordic Centre for Inter-Religious Dialogue was established in Stockholm. In recent years inter-faith programmes have been launched in many parts of the world. A larger forum for inter-religious dialogue is the World Parliament of Religions which has regularly been meeting in Chicago since 1993. Unesco has organized several meetings and conferences focused on the role of religion in fostering inter-cultural harmony and global peace.

A number of academic institutions, research centres and seminaries in Western countries focus on inter-faith understanding and dialogue, especially on Christian-Muslim relations. These include the Centre for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim relations at Selly Oak Colleges, Birmingham (Britain), founded in 1975, the Duncan Black Macdonald Centre for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations at the Hartford Seminary in the US, and the Centre for Muslim-Christian Understanding established in 1993 by Georgetown University and the Foundation pour L'Entente entre Chretiens et Musulmans at Geneva. The Centre focuses on the historical, theological, political and cultural dimensions of the encounter between Islam and Christianity. The Muslim-Christian Research Group, a team of Muslim and Christian scholars working together in Paris, has published books in French and English on issues related to Christian-Muslim relations.

Earlier, Muslims viewed the initiative taken by Jewish and Christian groups in inter-faith dialogue with suspicion and mistrust, fearing that this was a disguised attempt at proselytization. In the course of time the mist of apprehension has lifted and there is now a greater willingness on the part of Muslims to share their perceptions and experiences with the followers of other faiths. Several Islamic institutions and organizations in Europe, North America and other parts of the world have made inter-faith dialogue, especially Muslim-Christian dialogue, an important part of their programmes. The Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), based in Indiana, USA, is a national association of Muslim organizations in the United States which provides a common platform for presenting Islam, supporting Muslim communities and developing educational, social and outreach programmes, including inter-faith dialogue. The Islamic Foundation at Leicester, Britain, has an Inter-Faith Unit, which brings out an informative journal called Encounters: Journal of Inter-Cultural Perspectives. The Al-Bayt Foundation in Jordan, which is devoted to research on Islamic civilization, also devotes attention to Christian-Muslim relations. In Indonesia, inter-faith dialogue has been officially promoted for the past few decades. An Institute for the Study of Religious Harmony was set up in Jakarta in 1993. The State Institute of Islamic Studies in Jakarta started a journal called Religiosa: Indonesian Journal of Religious Harmony. In 1998 a Chair for the Study of Islam, Judaism and Christianity was created at the University of Rabat with the cooperation of Unesco.

Religion has much to offer to our troubled world. Unfortunately the creative, humanizing and liberating potential of religion has not been adequately harnessed. Religious sensibilities can be a valuable source of personal fulfillment, cultural vitality and social solidarity. The history of the resistance movement against the apartheid regime in South Africa provides an illuminating illustration of this fact. The strength of inter-religious solidarity in the resistance against apartheid played a vital role in bringing this obnoxious system to an end.

African history and cultural traditions have been profoundly shaped by the interplay between three religious traditions, namely Islam, Christianity and traditional African religions.

In order to release and harness the great potential of religion, it needs to be divested of its outward trappings and reinterpreted in a humane, inclusionary and accommodative spirit and in the context of our globalizing era. The Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences has issued a refreshing statement in recent times:

Asia is the womb of the great world religions. All great scriptural religions were born on Asian soil. The Church has to be in constant dialogue with the religions of Asia and to embark on this with great seriousness…..There may be more truth about God and life than it is made known to us through the Jesus of history and the Church. As such, Christians who take Christ's injunctions seriously must search for this truth in the various religions of the world.

Inter-religious dialogues are generally confined to academic and religious elites and do not touch the lives of people at the grass roots level. In order to make inter-religious dialogue more effective and viable, it is necessary to ensure the involvement and participation of large numbers of people from diverse religious backgrounds and from different walks of life. This can be done by involving grass roots organizations, regional movements and local leadership in inter-faith dialogue.

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