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01 August, 2008

Is religious tolerance possible?

...inter-faith conference takes major first step

You won't read or hear about it in local media, but an interfaith conference was held last week in Madrid, Spain, hosted by King Abdullah of South Arabia. The three-day World Conference on Dialogue included not only the three so-called "Abrahamic" faiths -- Judaism, Christianity and Islam -- but also representatives of Buddhism and Hinduism.

VOANews agency reported that the conference concluded in agreement with King Abdullah's premise that religion should be a means to iron out differences, not a cause for disputes. The legacy of the meeting, however, will depend partly on what happens next and on further steps, if any, that the Saudi monarch can take. Cynics say he must start by opening his own nation to the concept of religious tolerance.

Intra-faith and interfaith understanding is an ambitious plan and Abdullah has stepped forward to lead the Muslim's dialogue with the world at a time when the militant extremism and the United States' war on terror have divided the world into Us and Them and the Islam-West rift is at its widest. Consider also that half the world consists of those who practice religions that do not trace their spiritual descent from Abraham and eventually they will need to be reached out to as well. So the conference can be seen as the first stage of an "earthquake", the result of which could eventually bring positive shifts in religious tolerance.

We can live in hope. Christians, Jews and Muslims may hold different understandings of how God has been revealed to humankind, but all three groups are called to love God and neighbor and care for the poor. That, in itself, can be a springboard to conversations and, as one religious scribe put it, "...to celebrate religious holidays together and even set aside days to worship together -- all to promote understanding, respect and goodwill."

Sorry to say, at this point I am pessimistic. We Christians are just too insular for this kind of "togetherness". A propensity to Evangelism is the major stumbling block. There is a deep-rooted segment of the Christian community that fears "watering down" and favors converting those of other faiths, not forming an alliance with them. I hesitate to confess that I really do not know where I stand on this issue and that might make me "unChristian" in some people's eyes.

Don't you sometimes wish that the world would just bug off and leave us to quietly believe and to worship in the manner in which we have become accustomed? Heaven knows, you and I are tolerant enough!?

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