Building interfaith relationships crucial, leaders say

Published January 1, 2000

Camille Venier of Kaslo, B.C., carries the Canadian flag at the peace pole ceremony on Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was held prisoner under the South African apartheid regime.

Cape Town, South Africa

Building relationships among different faiths is going to become increasingly important, especially in a multicultural country like Canada, religious leaders say.

Delegates to two recent international interfaith meetings said the clear message is that peace, justice and environment issues are of mutual concern to people of faith.

“We’re never going to get away from living next door to each other,” said the Anglican Church’s interfaith consultant, Rev. Eric Beresford.

“Our cultures and communities are so mixed up,” said Canon Beresford, a delegate to the World Conference on Religion and Peace, held in Amman, Jordan and the Parliament for the World’s Religions in Cape Town, South Africa.

Canon Beresford said if Anglicans want to be heard in these areas, they must work with members of other religions to create a stronger voice, a position he will urge on the church.

He said as immigration changes the face of Canada, there is a need to “focus on interfaith co-operation around justice and peace type issues that affect ordinary communities that include people of faith living alongside one another.

“Otherwise,” he said, “the religious voice gets completely excluded in secular society. “There are issues shared by a large number of Christians, Muslims and Jews ? that’s a large number of Canadians.”

Canon Beresford said a practical focus on interfaith relations is more useful than “dogmatic questions like what Muslims think about Jesus.”

The Bishop of Blackburn, Rt. Rev. Alan Chesters, takes a similar view. Bishop Chesters, who was in Cape Town representing the Archbishop of Canterbury, said evangelicals are sometimes reticent to be involved in interfaith discussions because they fear compromising their faith.

But he said that shouldn’t be the case. His Diocese of Blackburn in northern England has a strong evangelical and charismatic presence as well as several towns with Muslim communities.

He said getting to know one’s neighbour is just “common sense.” And he said there are many issues of common concern as cities and towns face urban decay.

The fact that Christianity and Islam are both missionary faiths and currently fighting in parts of the world, such as Sudan and Pakistan, is a separate issue, he said.

“Because relations are difficult in other parts of the world doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t work for peace and harmony and speaking out together on issues where it’s appropriate for the faith communities to speak out,” he said.

To bishops from dioceses in the world where Christians are being persecuted and even martyred for their faith, he said quiet, understanding persistence is key.

“You have to go on gently saying (to those bishops), ‘We are not where you are and please allow us to make the gestures of goodwill and progress in a Christian way because ultimately we believe that may help you.'”

The moderator of the United Church, Very Rev. Bill Phipps, agrees finding practical common ground is more important than talking about beliefs.

But he goes even further. For Mr. Phipps, harmonious living is “far more important a question than the individualistic saving of souls.

“That whole issue is secondary to saving the planet and to learning how to live together,” he said.

In fact, the United Church has a policy of not trying to convert people of other faiths. Instead, the focus is on developing the faith of churchgoers and those who are seeking faith.

Speaking near the end of the Amman conference, he said, “The beauty of it is that people are free to engage in peace-building without the restrictions of dogmatics.”

At the core of each of the world’s major religions is “how humanity lives together in a way that does not destroy the Earth.

“Each tradition brings special gifts to that. Buddhists bring the supreme gift of meditation and emptying oneself to be part of the whole. Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) bring justice and law,” he said.

“I really believe that the next century could see the best of all religious traditions, co-operating together and giving leadership to the world on issues of peace, and justice and environmental protection.”

Mr. Phipps was elected one of several international presidents of the New-York based World Conference on Religion and Peace.

The major religions of the world are “in every neighbourhood around the world,” he said. They should “look at one of their roles as being a massive network that really cares about peace, justice and compassion and brings a countervailing morality and ethic to the world.

“That’s a huge contribution in a market driven world,” said the head of the country’s largest Protestant denomination.

The conference holds its international assembly every five years. It concentrates on bringing people of different faiths together and works on specific interfaith projects around the world.

Delegates to Amman saw a video presentation on the work of an inter-religious council in Sierra Leone that helped end hostilities between the government and rebels. Staff from the conference helped bring government and rebel leaders together for talks.

The negotiations were “very painful,” said Sierra Leone president Ahmad Tejan Kabbah in a speech to conference delegates.

But he said faith is the cornerstone of peacemaking. “After all our trials and tribulations, there should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that Sierra Leone has survived as a nation through faith.”

The inter-religious council began in 1997 and has emerged as the strongest expression of civil society in Sierra Leone. Following an outbreak of atrocities in January of this year, the council worked to bring about the peace talks which resulted in the July accord between the government and the Revolutionary United Front.

President Kabbah paid tribute to the council and said, “religion can play a catalytic role, by devising concrete measures, especially at the community level, to supplement existing secular mechanisms for conflict management.”

Fuad Sahin, of the Council of Muslim Communities of Canada, said the work by the council in Sierra Leone was also important because it began with a lay woman, not an official religious leader. “There are a large number of lay people who have effectively become religious leaders out of conviction and dedication.”

By contrast, he said, “many people are at each other’s throats in the name of religion because so-called religious leaders are not really living up to their responsibility.”

Roman Catholic bishop Remi de Roo said if religions cannot come together “with one common message, they are going to have great difficulty impacting the world.”

Bishop De Roo recently retired as bishop of Victoria and was present in 1970 at the first religion and peace conference in Kyoto, Japan.

“The dreams of innocence converting the world are really figments of the imagination,” he said.


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