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The term interfaith dialogue refers to cooperative, constructive and positive interaction between people of different religious traditions (i.e., "faiths") and/or spiritual or humanistic beliefs, at both the individual and institutional levels. It is distinct from syncretism or alternative religion, in that dialogue often involves promoting understanding between different religions to increase acceptance of others, rather than to synthesize new beliefs.
Throughout the world there are local, regional, national and international interfaith initiatives; many are formally or informally linked and constitute larger networks or federations. The often quoted "There will be no peace among the nations without peace among the religions. There will be no peace among the religions without dialogue among the religions" was formulated by Dr Hans Küng, a Professor of Ecumenical Theology and President of the Foundation for a Global Ethic.
To some, the term interreligious dialogue has the same meaning as interfaith dialogue. Neither are the same as Nondenominational Christianity. The World Council of Churches, though. distinguishes between 'interfaith' and 'interrreligious.' To the WCC, 'interreligious' refers to action between different Christian denominations. So, 'interfaith' refers to interaction between different faith groups such as Muslim and Christian or Hindu and Jew for example.
The history of interfaith dialogue is as ancient as the religions since men and women when not at war with their neighbours have always made an effort to understand them (not least because understanding is a strategy for defence, but also because for as long as there is dialogue wars are delayed). History records many examples of interfaith initiatives and dialogue throughout the ages.
- Interfaith dialogue and action have taken place for many centuries. The Emperor Akbar the Great, for example, encouraged tolerance in Mughal India, a diverse nation with people of various faith backgrounds, including Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism and Christianity. Religious pluralism can also be observed in other historical contexts, including Muslim Spain.
- The Ottoman Turks' administration of the Balkans from the 15th to 19th centuries provides another historical example of generally peaceful coexistence between peoples of different faiths, including Sufi and non-Sufi Muslims, Roman Catholics, Orthodox Christians and Jews. The tolerant context of this period contrasts dramatically with the ethnic strife and atrocities in the region during the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s.
- There have been several meetings referred to as a Parliament of the World’s Religions, most notably the World's Parliament of Religions of 1893, the first attempt to create a global dialogue of faiths. The event was celebrated by another conference on its centenary in 1993. This led to a new series of conferences under the official title "Parliament of the World's Religions".
- Early 20th Century - dialogue started to take place between the Abrahamic faiths - Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Bahá'í.
- The 1960s - The interfaith movement gathered interest.
- 1965 - The Roman Catholic Church issued the Vatican II document Nostra Aetate, instituting major policy changes in the Catholic Church's policy towards non-Christian religions.
- In the late 1960s interfaith groups such as the Clergy And Laity Concerned (CALC) joined around Civil Rights issues for African-Americans and later were often vocal in their opposition to the Vietnam War.
- September 11, 2001 - After September 11, under the leadership of James Parks Morton, Dean Emeritus of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the Interfaith Center of New York's mission became increasingly centered on providing assistance to immigrant and disenfranchised communities whose religious leaders were often the only source of knowledge for new immigrants about coping with a new life in an urban environment like New York City. New programs were launched that responded to the needs of these constituents, combining practical information about establishing civic connections and information about other religions with insight about common social concerns. New programs included Religious Communities and the Courts System (2003), Teacher Education in American Religious Diversity (2003), Mediation for Religious Leaders (2005), and Religious Diversity Training for Social Workers (2005).
- On October 13, 2007 Muslims expanded their message. In A Common Word Between Us and You, 138 Muslim scholars, clerics and intellectuals unanimously came together for the first time since the days of the Prophet[s] to declare the common ground between Christianity and Islam.
- In 2008, through the collaboration of The Hebrew Union College, Omar Foundation, and the University of Southern California Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement was created. This inter-faith think tank began to hold religious text-study programs throughout Los Angeles and has an extensive amount of resources on its website including scholarly articles about Creationism, Abraham and Human Rights.
- July 2008 - A historic interfaith dialogue conference was initiated by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to solve world problems through concord instead of conflict. The conference was attended by religious leaders of different faiths such as Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism and was hosted by King Juan Carlos of Spain in Madrid.
- January 2009, at Gujarat’s Mahuva, the Dalai Lama inaugurated an interfaith "World Religions-Dialogue and Symphony" conference convened by Hindu preacher Morari Bapu from January 6 to 11th 2009. This conference explored ways and means to deal with the discord among major religions, according to Morari Bapu. Participants included Prof. Samdhong Rinpoche on Buddhism, Diwan Saiyad Zainul Abedin Ali Sahib (Ajmer Sharif) on Islam, Dr. Prabalkant Dutt on non-Catholic Christianity, Swami Jayendra Saraswathi on Hinduism and Dastur Dr. Peshtan Hormazadiar Mirza on Zoroastrianism.
- July 2009, the Vancouver School of Theology opened the Iona Pacific: Inter-Religious Centre for Social Action, Research, and Contemplative Practice under the leadership of Principal and Dean, Dr. Wendy Fletcher, and Director, Rabbi Dr. Robert Daum.
Policies of religions to interfaith dialogue
Interfaith and multi-faith interactivity is integral to the teachings of the Bahá'í Faith. Its founder Bahá'u'lláh enjoined his followers to "consort with the followers of all religions in a spirit of friendliness and fellowship.
Bahá'ís are often at the forefront of local inter-faith activities and efforts. Through the Bahá'í International Community agency, the Bahá'ís also participate at a global level in inter-religious dialogue both through and outside of the United Nations processes.
In 2002 the Universal House of Justice, the global governing body of the Bahá'ís, issued a letter to the religious leadership of all faiths in which it identified religious prejudice as one of the last remaining "isms" to be overcome, enjoining such leaders to unite in an effort to root out extreme and divisive religious intolerance.
Buddhismhas historically been open to other religions. As Ven. Dr. K. Sri Dhammananda has stated: Buddhism is a religion which teaches people to 'live and let live'. In the history of the world, there is no evidence to show that Buddhists have interfered or done any damage to any other religion in any part of the world for the purpose of introducing their religion. Buddhists do not regard the existence of other religions as a hindrance to worldly progress and peace.
The 14th century Zen master Gasan Joseki indicated that the Gospels were written by an enlightened being:
- "And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow. They toil not, neither do they spin, and yet I say unto you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these...Take therefore no thought for the morrow, for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself."
- Gasan said: "Whoever uttered those words I consider an enlightened man."
The 14th Dalai Lama has done a great deal of interfaith work throughout his life. He believes that the "common aim of all religions, an aim that everyone must try to find, is to foster tolerance, altruism and love". He met with Pope Paul VI at the Vatican in 1973. He met with Pope John Paul II in 1980 and also later in 1982, 1986, 1988, 1990, and 2003. During 1990, he met in Dharamsala with a delegation of Jewish teachers for an extensive interfaith dialogue. He has since visited Israel three times and met during 2006 with the Chief Rabbi of Israel. In 2006, he met privately with Pope Benedict XVI. He has also met the late Archbishop of Canterbury Dr. Robert Runcie, and other leaders of the Anglican Church in London, Gordon B. Hinckley, late President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), as well as senior Eastern Orthodox Church, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish and Sikh officials.
In 2010, the Dalai Lama was joined by Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, and Islamic scholar Professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr of George Washington University when Emory University's Center for the Study of Law and Religion hosted a "Summit on Happiness".
Traditional Christian doctrine is Christocentric, meaning that Christ is held to be the sole full and true revelation of the will of God for humanity. In a Christocentric view, the elements of truth in other religions are understood in relation to the fullness of truth found in Christ. God is nevertheless understood to be free of human constructions. Therefore, God the Holy Spirit is understood as the power who guides non-Christians in their search for truth, which is held to be a search for the mind of Christ, even if "anonymously," in the phrase of Catholic theologian Karl Rahner. For those who support this view, anonymous Christians belong to Christ now and forever and lead a life fit for Jesus' commandment to love, even though they never explicitly understand the meaning of their life in Christian terms.
While the conciliar document Nostra Aetate has fostered widespread dialogue, the declaration Dominus Iesus nevertheless reaffirms the centrality of the person of Jesus Christ in the spiritual and cultural identity of Christians, rejecting various forms of syncretism.
Pope John Paul II was a major advocate of interfaith dialogue, promoting meetings in Assisi in the 1980s. Pope Benedict XVI has taken a more moderate and cautious approach, stressing the need for intercultural dialogue, but reasserting Christian theological identity in the revelation of Jesus of Nazareth in a book published with Marcello Pera in 2004.
For traditional Christian doctrine, the value of inter-religious dialogue is confined to acts of love and understanding toward others either as anonymous Christians or as potential converts.
In mainline liberal Protestant traditions, however, as well as in the emerging church, these doctrinal constraints have largely been cast off. Many theologians, pastors, and lay people from these traditions do not hold to uniquely Christocentric understandings of how God was in Christ. They engage deeply in interfaith dialogue as learners, not converters, and desire to celebrate as fully as possible the many paths to God.
Much focus in Christian interfaith dialogue has been put on Christian-Jewish reconciliation. One of the oldest successful dialogues between Jews and Christians has been taking place in Mobile, Alabama. It began in the wake of the call of the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) of the Roman Catholic Church for increased understanding between Christians and Jews. The organization has recently moved its center of activity to Spring Hill College, a Catholic,Jesuit institution of higher learning located in Mobile. Reconciliation has been successful on many levels, but has been somewhat complicated by the Arab-Israeli conflict in the Middle East, where a significant minority of Arabs are Christian.
Orthodox Judaism forbids interfaith dialogue. Prominent Rabbinic authorities in ruling on this issue, further caution that the intent is to convert Jews, that participation leads to confusion and wrong ideas and that Judaism's prohibition of proselytism, combined with other religions' "missionary zeal", creates an unbalanced dynamic such that the "dialogue" effectively becomes a monologue. The Modern Orthodox movement allows narrow exchanges on social issues while forbidding discussion of doctrine. Reform Judaism, Reconstructionist Judaism and Conservative Judaism encourage interfaith dialogue.
Islam has long encouraged dialogue to reach truth (and not interfaith dialogue which seeks to find common between people and leave differences aside). Islam also stressed that the supreme law of the land should be Islam and that Islam regulates all life affairs and therefore regulates how non Muslim and Muslims live under an Islamic state, with historical examples coming from Muslim Spain, Mughal India, and even starting as far back as Muhammad's time, where people of the Abrahamic faiths lived in harmony.
Many traditional and religious texts and customs of the faith have encouraged this, including specific verses in the Qur'an, such as: "O people! Behold, we have created you from a male and a female and have made you into nations and tribes so that you might come to know one another. Verily, the noblest of you in the sight of God is the one who is most deeply conscious of Him. Behold, God is all-knowing, all-aware." [Qur'an 49:13]
In recent times, Muslim theologians have advocated inter-faith dialogue on a large scale, something which is new in a political sense. The declaration A Common Word of 2007 was a public first in Christian-Islam relations, trying to work out a moral common ground on many social issues.
Relations between Muslims and Jews remain quite difficult, exacerbated by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There are inter-Muslim issues in between Sunnis and Shiites that are very much unresolved in the Middle East. Also, relations between Muslims and Hindus in India and Pakistan could theoretically be much better if interfaith efforts were more successful.
According to the Ahmadiyya understanding, interfaith dialogues are an integral part of developing inter-religious peace and the establishment of peace. The Ahmadiyya Community has been organising interfaith events locally and nationally in various parts of the world in order to develop a better atmosphere of love and understanding between faiths. Various speakers are invited to deliver a talk on how peace can be established from their own or religious perspectives.
Zoroastrianism has long encouraged interfaith, all the way from Cyrus the Great's speech in Babylon, which permitted the population to keep following their own religion and keep speaking their own language. Cyrus did not enforce the state religion unto the people. As well, Cyrus freed all the Jewish slaves from Babylon, which earned him a place in the Jewish scriptures. Zoroastrians believe that all religions are equal, and that their religion is not superior to other religions. They believe that the Prophet Zoroaster implied the religion unto them, and did not convert each of them. Therefore, they do not even accept converts into their religion. All adherents must be born into the religion.
United Nations support
On December 2, 2008, Anwarul Karim Chowdhury said:
- "Interfaith dialogue is absolutely essential, relevant, and necessary. ... If 2009 is to truly be the Year of Interfaith Cooperation, the U.N. urgently needs to appoint an interfaith representative at a senior level in the Secretariat."
- The Republic of the Philippines will host a Special Non-Aligned Movement Ministerial Meeting on Interfaith Dialogue and Cooperation for Peace and Development from March 16 to 18 in Manila. During the meeting, to be attended by ministers of foreign affairs of the NAM member countries, a declaration in support of interfaith dialogue initiatives will be adopted. An accompanying event will involve civil society activities.
- In 2010, HM King Abdullah II addressed the 65th UN General Assembly and proposed the idea for a ‘World Interfaith Harmony Week’ to further broaden his goals of faith-driven world harmony by extending his call beyond the Muslim and Christian community to include people of all beliefs, those with no set religious beliefs as well. A few weeks later, HRH Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad presented the proposal to the UN General Assembly, where it was adopted unanimously as a UN Observance Event.
The first week of February, every year, has been declared a UN World Interfaith Harmony Week. The Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre released a document which summarises the key events leading up to the UN resolution as well as documenting some Letters of Support and Events held in honour of the week.
Criticism of interfaith dialogue
Conversely, organisations labelled as extremist have been accused of adopting interfaith dialogue as a political front, as well as to raise funds. One commentator has noted of Islamist groups, that, "Interfaith is the perfect ‘do-good’ agenda with which to legitimise their reputation and obfuscate their genuine, more sinister, intentions.
British MP Paul Goodman has questioned the UK Government's decision to fund Campusalam, a University interfaith group, that has received under half a million pounds of taxpayers' money,
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