Interfaith Dialogue: Threats and Opportunities

In a recent lecture delivered in Dunedin on the Northern Ireland conflict, Prof Ron Wells (professor of history at Calvin College, Michigan) observed that churches involved in efforts for peace have often found it easier to talk to the "enemy" than to their own. The peacemakers are often seen as turncoats or even as traitors by fellow religionists. Eventually, they can find the 'enemy' more receptive than their own.

The Dunedin Abrahamic Interfaith Group brings together representatives of the Jewish, Muslim and Christian communities in the city to support one another in times good and bad, and work for tolerance and understanding of our three faiths - faiths caught up in the political - religious turmoil of our times. Set up after the events of September 11th 2001, the group provides speakers to other groups, organises interfaith events, presents an annual peace lecture (the 2004 lecture was given by David Lange) and visits schools. We even have our own website (

Two recent events have crystallised for me the risks inherent in working for peace. Recently one of our members attended a meeting organized by a group which promotes itself as supporting persecuted Christians in Muslim countries. There is no denying the reality of these concerns. However, the speaker expressed hostility toward Islam as a whole, which he characterised as universally intolerant, deceitful and brutal. No mention was made of historical or current cases of Christian oppression, or of the teaching of Jesus to love those with whom we differ or are hurt by. Our member felt somewhat demoralized and certainly in no position to challenge this totalising view.

I had a very different experience a few days ago. Three of us " a Jew, a Moslem and a Catholic " found ourselves crammed into a classroom along with 40 or so eager-faced pupils and a few teachers. Each of us spoke about faith, peace and tolerance for a few minutes before throwing the session open for questions. One of the best contributions was from a Nigerian girl, a Christian, who spoke at first with regret of the divided religious communities in her country. But later, she chimed in again with stories of sharing days of feast and fasting with her Muslim neighbours. She broke into shy smiles as she spoke of friendly, even loving, interaction at the everday level.

These two stories could not be more different. One is coloured by hatred , bitterness and violence, the other speaks of tolerance, acceptance and a willingness to learn from our neighbour who is different.

In my own five-minute presentation at the school visit, I began by noting how all three faiths are linked by the figure of our common ancestor, Abraham. I noted a further, and - to many, surprising - common link in Jesus, honored by Jews as a rabbi or teacher and by Muslims as a prophet. This unity we share is under severe threat at the moment, with powerful forces on both sides of the conflict having a vested interest in a world divided into opposed armed camps.

Yet everywhere there are signs of hope and the restoration of peace. I mentioned a recent conversation with a middle-aged Iraqi man who told me that, as a boy in Iraq, he had lived side by side with a thriving Christian community, many of whom were his good friends. Closer to home, I spoke with pride of the response by the Catholic aid agency, Caritas, to the destruction caused by the Christmas 2004 tsunami in Aceh province, Indonesia. Here Caritas workers rebuilt Muslim schools and provided facilities for Muslims to pray for their dead. Such actions not only fulfilled the Christian ethic of caring for all, no matter who or where they are, but provided a new model of interfaith relationships to an area riven by Muslim\Christian tensions.

And why is it important for a Christian to be involved in interfaith work, I asked finally? Because of two words from scripture - peacemakers and reconcilers. Jesus’s pronouncement of blessing on those who work for peace is beautifully matched by St Paul’s characterisation of us as co-workers with God in the task of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18) - the task of breaking down and building up. In response to the divine initiative in breaking down the barriers that separate us from God (Eph. 2:14), we are to work to remove the obstacles to peace and understanding between people. That might even involve us in rebuilding a Muslim school or two.

Paul Sorrell

Republished with permission from Tui Motu Interislands, June 2006