Issue 41, July 2003
Interreligious Dialogue, Conflict and Reconciliation
Andrew Wingate

It is easy to understand the now fashionable activity known as Interreligious Dialogue as something comfortable, full of the discovery of what is common and harmonious. It can seem an easy road, exciting because, at least in the west, it is something new. Theological motivation may come out of a pluralist ideology. Differences may be there, but since we are each on different paths up the mountain, or on different spokes of a wheel, there is no reason for these to lead to conflict. At its best, this kind of dialogue can lead to a sharing of spiritual experience, where each can cross over to the other, and important things be discovered by both of us. Doctrine is better avoided, and we search rather for a common ethic, as well as a common spirituality.

This is one side of interfaith dialogue, and it centres on the essential principle that ‘dialogue begins when people meet people.’ This is the first of four principles of interfaith dialogue, as agreed by the British churches in the 1980’s, based upon the World Council of Churches' work in this area. These have stood the test of time, and though they are under review from several directions at the time of writing, I believe they can still provide a very useful framework for balanced engagement across faiths. But there is another side to the enterprise, as suggested by the second principle, ‘dialogue depends upon removing misunderstanding and building up trust.’ Only if this stage has been addressed, is it easy to move to the last two principles, ‘dialogue leads to common service to the community’, and ‘dialogue is a means of authentic witness.’ As the Chief Rabbi, Jonathon Sacks, has now famously written, in his book The Dignity of Difference (Continuum, 2002), Religions are either part of the problem of this world, or they are part of the solution to those problems. This means addressing very seriously the second principle above. In a different field, the explosion of problems related to the debate on homosexuality in the Anglican Church, which we are at present experiencing, arises from a situation where there is little trust between evangelicals and liberals, between Africans, Europeans and Americans. Hence it is difficult to move towards any action, which can be sustained, for the benefit of the whole church. There can be no real critique of the different positions, because there is no real listening.

In the field of interreligious encounter, I will illustrate these issues of misunderstanding, conflict and reconciliation largely through my experience of initiating, leading and participating in dialogue programmes in the last three years, since I have been in Leicester. It depends greatly which religions are involved, and I will therefore write about particular examples.

Context also matters greatly, and therefore the reader needs a few statistics about Leicester. It is a city of 279,000 in the East Midlands of England. The census of 2001 revealed that 36% of the population are not of European origin. The majority of these are of Indian background, with more than 31,000 Muslims, 41,000 Hindus, and 10,000 Sikhs within the city boundaries, discounting those who live just outside, and those who either declare no religion or do not register, perhaps because they are asylum seekers. Jews are now no more than 500 people. Christians are nominally 42%, clearly only a minority being church attenders.

Muslim-Christian Dialogue

This is the most common form of dialogue worldwide, which is not surprising, because these are the two main missionary religions, which now exist in almost every country of the globe. They therefore come into close contact, for good or ill. In countries such as Northern Nigeria or Sudan, there is likely to be little dialogue because there is no basic trust that such will not be exploited for political reasons. But in other African countries such as Tanzania, Ghana or Sierra Leone, Muslims and Christians work well together on common concerns, there is intermarriage without it being a great scandal, and there is a fair trust within the difficult economic and political realities of those places.

In both Birmingham and Leicester, I have initiated intentional dialogue groups. The one in Birmingham lasted about five years in the 1980’s (as recorded in my book Encounter in the Spirit, Muslim-Christian Dialogue in practice, WCC, Risk Books, 1988, 1991). The Leicester group has now been running for two and a half years, and has given birth to a separate women’s dialogue group. The contexts are similar and different.

In Birmingham we were involved with Sufi Muslims. This enabled trust to grow more quickly, with the ability before long to pray alongside each other, and indeed together. Crucial occasions for growth were when as Christians we gave full support to the Muslim members, after two Muslims were killed in disturbances in Handsworth. Memorable was my walking down Lozells High Street with the Muslim leader, hand in hand with his young daughter, as houses smouldered around us after widespread arson attacks, as an expression of solidarity. Another was when we faced potential polarisation, with the first Gulf War, in 1990. We held three hours of readings and prayer, as the United Nations' deadline passed and the bombers prepared to take off. So also, when the Babri mosque was destroyed, we held a meeting for all faiths, when we lit candles, expressed our feelings in mixed groups, read from scriptures and prayed in quiet. These actions in face of conflict depended upon prior knowledge of each other, friendship and trust. This came from meeting monthly over a long period, and much hard work.

In Leicester, we have faced several conflicts together. They have included the Gujarat religious strife in 2002, which resulted in the deaths of 2000 Muslims, the ongoing anguish of the Holy Land, and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. More domestic issues include that at present related to controversy around Halal meat, and the possibility of British National Party marches in Leicester (consequently banned by the police). We have been able to hold together through all these, to discuss them in depth, and to hold public meetings of solidarity. We have also raised about £12,000 for common causes - for Save the Children in Afghanistan, and a joint fund for a Christian hospital in Gaza and a Muslim project in Kosovo. Each community entrusted their money jointly. Most important of all, after 9/11, at our Faith Leaders’ Meeting, we affirmed a doctrine that an attack on one of us would be treated as an attack upon us all, and we were not prepared to allow local Muslims to be scapegoated, for what had happened in the USA. I personally wrote a long article on ‘Muslims who have spoken against terrorism’, in answer to an article in the Church of England Newspaper, ‘Why will Muslims not speak out against terrorism.’ This was much appreciated by Muslims, and I used quotations from local Muslims and also from a challenging publication, over 250 pages long ‘The Quest for Sanity- reflections on September 11th and the aftermath, from the Muslim Council of Britain.

In our regular group meetings, we have discussed contentious theological issues - is Mohammad a prophet? What is our understanding of revelation? Of God? Of Christ? So also social issues have been addressed such as the position of women, and the contentious themes of religious education, and faith schools. On religious education we were addressed by two members of the group, one is a Muslim who is head of religious education in a Church secondary school, the other a Christian who is head of religious education in a state school which is 90% Muslim. In terms of potential conflict, high on the list have been discussions about mission and conversion. We have not only discussed these academically, but heard from converts from both sides. It is not easy for Christians to hear why someone has become a Muslim, but far more trust is needed for a Christian who was formerly a Muslim to speak in an audience including Muslims. But respect was maintained on these evenings, as we struggled to understand the life journeys that were articulated. We have also discussed racism, as we considered how to prevent in Leicester the kind of riots experienced in northern cities in 2001. This discussion did not become an attack on white Christians. Indeed a Muslim lay person challenged us to acknowledge that we are racist in some way or another. An Imam added that he wished to challenge his Muslim colleagues, ‘Why did we not welcome the Somalis to Leicester, in the way that we welcomed the Bosnians?’ Was it because one group were black and the other white?’

The above account shows what can be achieved if sufficient time has been given for trust to develop. Potential conflicts can be faced and trust built up further, leading to common action. Key also is hard work put in between meetings, particularly between leaders. Such groups are normally based on very particular friendships, such as I have had with three Muslims, an Imam, a lay person and an academic, and which other Christians also have experienced. A final example of this trust was a journey that three of us Anglican clergy made by coach to the vast demonstration against the potential war against Iraq in February 2003. The coach was organised by Muslims. We received great courtesy all day, and participated in numerous informal dialogues. On the return journey food was shared with us from all sides of the coach, and I felt a deep sense of gratefulness from them that we had been there for them. Hence, as we ate together, I felt a sense of ‘the sacramental’, if not ‘the sacrament’.

Family of Abraham Group

This was formed between Muslims, Jews and Christians, in 2002. The Israeli ambassador had visited Leicester and I was invited to bring Christian colleagues to meet him. I replied that I would do this, if I could bring a group of Muslims as well. He agreed to this, and we had a forthright, but respectful and honest discussion about Palestine. The ambassador invited us to visit the Holy Land together, to verify some of the areas of dispute. But the ground situation, and the lack of established trust in our Leicester group has so far precluded this.

We decided to spend time getting to know each other in Leicester. Whenever Palestine was discussed in any detail, differences and mistrust quickly arose. I therefore ruled out of order that subject, until we had grown to trust each other more. We had very helpful visits to each other’s places of worship, and I thought trust was growing, as Jews found themselves welcomed in a mosque - the first time most of them had been there - and witnessed the prayers and the warmth of the community. This was reciprocated in both church and synagogue.

However, the situation remained fragile. Unfortunately, a reporter from the Jewish Chronicle came recently to Leicester to interview members of the group. She reported very well on the favourable situation in Leicester for the Jewish community, and commended our group. However, one sentence stood out in a contrary way. A particular Progressive Jew, one of the most dialogical of people and a pillar of the Council of Faiths, as well as of this dialogue group, was quoted as saying that Muslims he knew were very good in Leicester, with the exception of those connected with an organisation based in the city, called ‘Friends of Al Aqsa’. This de facto called for ethnic cleansing of Jews from Israel. He was unaware that most Muslims in Leicester, including key members of our group, are in this organisation, and one is the Secretary. In no time, there were 62 e-mails to the Council of Faiths, from indignant Muslims, and the threat of a libel action.

I was asked by both communities to chair a meeting in the church hall, considered a neutral venue, to talk things through, as well being asked to draft a reply to the e-mails. We had an hour and a half of very tough talking. In the end the Progressive Jewish friend affirmed he was prepared to withdraw his statement, in the terms he had expressed it, and wrote to the Jewish Chronicle accordingly. I hoped that this would be the end of it, and we made a plan for further meetings of the group on ‘neutral subjects’. But I found that the next regular meeting we had could not address the subject we had planned, as feelings resurfaced, and we talked it through again.

Relationships, however, remain good, and I hope and pray, that after a summer break, in the autumn we may be able to move forward, chastened but in touch with the reality of our feelings. Ironically, in the midst of all this, Muslims and Jews have been able to support each other in their thinking about Halal/Kosher meat, where issues are common, and the securing of proper burial facilities for the two communities. As Christians we have been called upon to support them both.

In general here, we have faced the conflict, and are in a period when we wait to see whether there can be real reconciliation, and building of trust. A hopeful sign is that both the Secretary of Al Aqsa, and the President of the Synagogue have offered to resign from the group, if it will help the rest to continue. I hope neither will leave.

Hindu-Christian Dialogue Groups

I am involved with two Hindu-Christian groups, and they have followed different patterns. Nationally, I am co-chair of the Hindu-Christian Forum of UK. This was formed about two years ago, and we began by considering areas of difficulty between us. Immediately prominent was the difficult issue of mission and conversion. This agenda came, before we knew each other, yet alone trusted each other. We proceeded over several meetings to try to agree a common statement, in an area which has divided Christians and Hindus since Gandhi’s time at least, with his deep suspicion of Christian mission. This has recently become far more high profile, with Hindutva ideology now so strong in India, and the BJP government in power in Delhi.

We went through a tortuous process of drafting and redrafting seemingly endlessly. When we seemed to have got near agreement, from the Christian side we experienced new Hindus coming to the meeting, and blocking things, by introducing fresh issues. In the end we had to suspend the meeting for six months. We jointly agreed that only named members should come, only two from any one Hindu or Muslim organisation. We then had a positive meeting, where we began again by considering positive stories of co-operation, arising from our local contexts. At our recent meeting, we were able at last to agree quite a significant statement about conversion, and agree that it was for the UK and not for India. Even at this meeting, there were attempts from the Hindu side to remove particular words or to de facto rule out even genuine conversion. However, by allowing all to have their say, and by agreeing to one or two small changes, we were able to complete the statement. Christians adhered to what they felt was a fundamental freedom to change faith, while Hindus felt that their concerns about pressured conversions were heard and included. It was important here to remember the rules of conflict resolution, that we should seek a ‘win-win’ situation, and in the end all felt they had won something.

At the local level, we have run a very different group, started a year ago, with the help of the Teape Foundation, established in Cambridge for encouraging Christian-Hindu dialogue in India. India has now come to Leicester! We meet for a meal, in a temple or church, have prayer, and then discuss agreed topics, arising from a joint planning group. These topics have tended to be of an undivisive kind; festivals and our understanding of God, mysticism and prayer, non-violence, mixed marriages. There has been a good atmosphere, and we have been getting to know each other well, and to respect each other. We have not yet tackled the difficult issues - such as mission, caste, racism etc.. This is an alternative model to the other group above.

What is clear from both these groups, is that we are in a very different world from the Muslim-Christian-Jewish world. It is east meeting west, different kinds of religions meeting, with different sets of agendas. It is also a dialogue with polite and gentle people, but underneath there are very real agendas. These are harder to reach than with the ‘religions of the book’, in my experience.

Muslim-Hindu Dialogue

As a result of the above groups, a Muslim approached me one day, and sought my advice in establishing a Muslim-Hindu group. I suggested whom he could contact, to enable a good beginning. Suspicions are many, not least because of the deeply divisive Gujarat situation, and Kashmir. Since most of Leicester’s 36% non-white population is Gujarati Hindu or Muslim, this is right at the heart of potential conflict. So far, they have only met to decide the agenda. Rightly they have said that it will be a confidential meeting, without allowing the media to be reporting on it. At the height of the Gujarat crisis, the Muslims had called an open meeting; 40 or so Muslims came, 6 Christians, and only one Hindu. Now at least they are beginning to talk together. Here the problem is not that of not knowing each other, they have lived happily in the city together for years. But it is a breakdown of trust, such as we have also seen on a bigger scale within the settled communities of the former Yugoslavia.

Final thoughts

Clearly there are parts of the world where interreligious dialogue at times of conflict has become a matter of life or death. Kaduna in Nigeria, Palestine, Burma, Sri Lanka would be examples. But here in Britain, we have a chance to enable a model for Europe and further afield. Our relatively free context can enable us to meet without fear of being misunderstood, except, in each case, by our own more conservative colleagues. Our very engagement in dialogue may bring us into conflict with our own people. Here comes the need for education of our own communities, and I have been much involved in that. But at their best, these dialogue groups have enabled conflicts to be faced, and struggles to be faced together. They have provided examples of what St Paul has called ‘the ministry of reconciliation’ that is at the heart of the Christian gospel, but also at the centre of each of these religions in their core. ‘Loving our neighbour’ does not mean agreeing with each other, but respecting each other and what each believes, with our differences. As Rowan Williams put it in his recent keynote lecture on the relationship between Christians and people of other faiths, delivered at Birmingham University, dialogue is as important, as to learn to search for truth, to acknowledge our differences, and to rejoice in how we handle those differences. Such a description of dialogue summarises what we have discovered in the encounters described in this article.

Andrew Wingate is Director of Ministry, Inter Faith Adviser and Canon Theologian, Diocese of Leicester.

This is an edited version of the short paper given at the conference of the British and Irish Association of Mission Studies, held in Edinburgh in June 2003.

Next article: Opportunities and Challenges for Muslim Peacebuilding after September 11A. Rashied Omar
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