interfaith dialogue


I am in Leicester from yesterday until Saturday night leading a Meissen Delegation Visit. The EKD is focusing this year on 'tolerance' and interfaith issues, so we have a group of English and Germans learning about (and experiencing) interfaith co-existence in an English city.

Very pertinent that we arrived here as the murder of a soldier in Woolwich continues to shock. Yesterday we introduced the Germans to the 'Leicester story' – with quite a lot about Richard III – and ended the day in a Sikh gurdwara.

Today we will be joined by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the head of the EKD at the St Philip's Centre in Evington – a centre setting the pace for faiths working together (not just talking) in this complex city.

It is purely coincidental that we set the theme of the Meissen Delegation Visit a year or two back and we were only able to tie in the Archbishop of Canterbury once he had been appointed and agreed it. The murder in Woolwich changed the context in so far as the Christian response to it and to the fears of the Muslim community are concerned. Our primary concern has to be for the victim, his family and friends, those serving in our armed forces who do the will of our political leaders, and the community who witnessed these shocking events in Woolwich – the desecration of 'home space'.

But, Muslims have responded with unequivocal outrage to this murder. Yes, there is a fear of copy-cat behaviour on the part of other unhinged fanatics; and yes, there will be some who perversely see such brutality as justifiable in the name of some bizarre jihad. But, the response of Muslims has been immediate and straight – and this needs to be strongly encouraged.

Several newspapers this morning are urging Muslim leaders to be more proactive in addressing hate-preaching and the radicalisation of Muslim young people. They are being exhorted to take more responsibility for addressing some of the serious issues in their own communities. And that is OK. The question, however, is whether the rest of us will encourage them practically as they face this task, standing alongside them in these difficult and challenging circumstances.

The coincidence of the Woolwich murder with this Meissen Delegation Visit sadly adds an immediate emphasis to looking at what we are doing in the field of interfaith work in England – our response offering a cases study in how the English church responds to the immediate in the context of our long-term commitment to the common good.

The rest of today will help us look at both English and German interfaith perspectives. No hard questions will be ducked and the talking will, as always, be generous and straight.

 

I was just asked on camera in Vienna why interreligious dialogue matters. I am here for the launch of the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue here. There has been some controversy about the 'hypocrisy' of the Saudis establishing this Centre (in conjunction with the government of Spain and Austria), but the choice is simple: stand outside and shout about the lack of religious freedom in Saudi Arabia, or get engaged and thereby encourage the journey towards openness that some elements are progressing (and not in a vacuum).

Interestingly, this criticism is being articulated in the opening seminars this morning. The session I am sitting in (on conflict resolution) is being chaired by a rabbi. The speakers include both male and female Saudi intellectuals who are addressing the difficulties of dialogue – especially in contexts where some loud voices find dialogue to be both threatening and undesirable. So, those engaged in promoting dialogue are, not surprisingly, sensitive to ignorant observations from those outside who are driven by lazy stereotype as well as (implicit or explicit) threats from inside.

The level of presentation and discussion here is remarkable. There are guests from all over the world and from all the main faiths and other agencies/NGOs committed to interreligious and intercultural dialogue, conflict resolution and education.

Anyway, more anon. However, my response on camera earlier was simple: the alternative to dialogue is monologue. Monologues can make the speakers feel they have said something – even if no one has listened or heard. Dialogue starts with listening – to the 'language' understood by the interlocutor, paying attention to the world (and world view) of the interlocutor, subjecting your own theological or philosophical presuppositions (and lived experience) to perusal through the lens of the other.

OK, I put it more simply and directly than that. But, the point is clear. Dialogue shouldn't need to be defended; it might sometimes be risky, but it is fundamentally a no-brainer.

Or, as I said when preaching at Christ Church, Vienna, yesterday morning, the journey is as important as the destination. We certainly won't reach the destination unless and until we have embarked on the journey. I know it is a bit trite, but you can't steer a stationary car.

 

On 12 March 1938 Austria was annexed to the German Reich. Hitler pronounced this move in a speech before the Hofburg Palace on the Heldenplatz in Vienna. As with many places in this beautiful capital city, the glorious architecture and ambience resonate with darker echoes of human capitulation to violence and the greed for power.

In a few weeks time the doors of the Hofburg will open to a large number of people who will inaugurate and celebrate an adventurous initiative in bringing people together despite their profound differences. The King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID) will open in Vienna and offer a well-resourced centre for dialogue between people of different faiths and cultures. (Which I guess is a bit obvious from the title…)

We have been engaged in this initiative for several years and it has sometimes proved a bit of a tightrope. For example, it is easy to point the finger at the sponsoring regime and identify certain weaknesses in domestic religious freedoms. Yet, bold initiatives such as this one come at cost for everyone, not least those in Saudi Arabia who defy the fundamentalists and take small steps towards opening up. Better to engage with honesty and integrity and begin change than to sit in the place of superior righteousness and shout from the safe sidelines?

The Centre introduces itself as follows:

The King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue was founded to enable, empower and encourage dialogue among followers of different religions and cultures around the world. Located in Vienna, the Centre is an independent international organization, independent of political or economic influence. The Founding States of the Centre (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Republic of Austria and Kingdom of Spain) constitute the “Council of Parties” responsible for overseeing the establishment of the Centre; the Vatican plays a Founding Observer role at this level.

If you are sceptical about this, consider the founding Board of Directors: The Board of the Centre comprises high-level representatives of the five major world religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism). What this doesn't spell out is that includes Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Anglican Christians, Sunni and Shia Muslims, a Jewish Chief Rabbi, a leading Hindu and Buddhist. Its Secretariat of approximately twenty five employees when fully staffed, is headed by a Secretary General. A soon to be established Advisory Forum of up to 100 members of other religions, cultural institutions and international organisations will provide a further resource of interreligious and intercultural perspective.

What surprised me at a meeting in London today was the ease of relationship, the humour that emerged in surprising places, the professional and business-like attention to detail, and the realism that accompanies the work. There was also the key recognition that (a) hospitality is the key to good relationships and reformed prejudices, and (b) dialogue is worked out at many levels, but that what happens on the street matters more than what happens around the table of experts. (Which is also why it is bad that so many Christians are leaving the Middle East in general – a dreadful side-effect of recent wars – because it removes from daily engagement and encounter people who are different.)

As we enter the Hofburg from the Heldenplatz in late November, I will not be thinking about the grandeur of the venue or the ambition of the enterprise. Rather, I will be conscious of the cost to humanity and the world if we neglect our responsibility to take risks for the sake of human flourishing and peace. 1938-45 shows what happens when fear and idolatry make people timid in the face of apparent power.

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