Response to the lecture by President Sayyid Mohammad Khatami
WCC general secretary Rev. Dr. Konrad Raiser
Ecumenical Centre, Geneva, 11 December 2003

We are greatly indebted to President Khatami for his thoughtful and penetrating lecture which has manifested so clearly his profound commitment to the dialogue of civilizations and in particular to an open and truthful encounter between the Islamic culture of the East and the Western culture shaped by Christianity. He has spoken to us not so much as the State President of the Islamic Republic of Iran but as a scholar who is familiar with both traditions and whose present political responsibility is shaped by the awareness that Iran is a neighbour to Europe on one side and to Asia on the other. For this reason – he once said – “Iran is the confluence of the cultures of the East and of the West”. This awareness is the root of his commitment to dialogue which he understands as “a prologue to peace, security and justice”.

With his convictions and insights he finds an open and affirmative response here in the context of the World Council of Churches. The World Council is dedicated to promoting visible unity among the Christian churches world-wide. At the same time, it has been engaged in inter-religious dialogue for more than thirty years and has been active in promoting an order of international relations based on justice and peace. Its members are more than 340 Christian churches from all parts of the world. They have accepted a commitment to one another in the search for unity and common witness. They live in very different social, cultural and political contexts and cooperate in the effort to build just, peaceful and sustainable communities. Most of them are exposed to the situation of growing religious plurality and acknowledge the need to develop ways of harmonious living together with neighbours of other faith traditions.

The World Council of Churches as a fellowship does not aspire to creating a unified global Christian organization, nor do its governing bodies have any authority over the individual member churches. Thus the guidelines of the WCC for inter-religious dialogue are meant as an encouragement for the churches “to assist each other (as the Constitution puts it) in their relationships to and with people of other faith communities”. Most of the efforts of the WCC have therefore been directed at accompanying and facilitating inter-religious dialogue and cooperation in given local or national situations rather than focusing on high-level academic or institutional encounters. From the perspective of the WCC, Muslim-Christian dialogue, like all inter-religious dialogues, is based on mutual respect and seeks to further mutual understanding. It is motivated for both partners in dialogue by a profound faith conviction and the acknowledgement of religious values. For Christians, the engagement in dialogue is a response to the teachings of the Bible which presents the commandment of love of neighbour as the supreme expression of God’s will.

Muslims and Christians share a long history where strained and often confrontational relationships seem to overshadow experiences of mutual enrichment. Both communities have been engaged in spreading their faith and have contributed to the emergence of religious plurality in hitherto homogeneous societies. While there are many examples where Muslims and Christians have lived alongside each other for generations or centuries, sharing each other’s lives and cooperating with each other for the common good, attention today is focused on contexts, especially in Asia and Africa, where Muslims and Christians have found each other locked into communal conflicts which are aggravated by religious differences and rivalries. The experience of inter-religious councils involving Muslim and Christian leaders especially in West Africa shows that inter-religious dialogue can have a mediating influence on communal conflicts building on the common religious commitment to peace and justice. On the other hand, we witness increasingly examples of active discrimination of Muslims and Christians in countries where they are a minority in traditionally Muslim or Christian communities. The mobility of people as refugees, migrants or in search of better opportunities has opened up hitherto homogeneous communities, giving rise to attitudes of xenophobia and exclusion.

The process of globalization has further aggravated the situation. After the end of the period of European colonialism to which many of the Muslim nations were subjected, new nation states were established based on the western understanding of the secular state. Christians whose churches, for centuries, have learned to adapt to the secular understanding of the state, of citizenship and of the principles of religious liberty have actively shared in the process of nation-building. Through the process of globalization, the role and authority of the new nation states has been seriously weakened. Less and less they can deliver on the expectations of their citizens. In search for a meaningful common identity and for a viable order of community life, more and more people, Muslims and Christians, turn to their religious traditions. Islamism and Christian fundamentalism can be understood as responses and as ways of resisting the influence of the secular spirit of modernity and its global impact.

The relationship between religion and the political order as well as between law and morality has become one of the sources of conflict, in particular in countries with both Muslim and Christian populations. Both communities seek to impose on the whole of society their understanding of the foundations and principles of a viable public order. Many Muslims, in faithfulness to their tradition, cannot separate the order of the state and of the legal system from the principles of the religious community. While the protection of religious minorities under tutelage has traditionally been made, full citizenship, involving equality and participation, is demanded by the said minorities. For Christians, on the other hand, the very aim of enabling Christians and Muslims to live peacefully and in mutual respect as neighbours in the same society requires a distinction in the legal order between the general principles applicable to all citizens and those with specific validity for the different traditional communities. Can the notion of co-citizenship and the recognition of basic human rights help us to move beyond this difficulty?

The events of 11 September 2001, the subsequent efforts of the USA to form an international coalition in the “war on terrorism”, and in particular the war in Iraq have placed Muslims and Christians in a very uneasy relationship. Both faith traditions have an ambivalent relationship to violent conflict and can be misused as a source of legitimation of unscrupulous political leaders. The climate of confrontation which has developed since 11 September has brought to the surface ugly sides in both communities. Both have succumbed to the temptation of bearing false witness against the other, allowing distorted presentations of positions and convictions of the other community to go unchallenged. In both communities, religious sentiments have been mobilized and instrumentalized in order to unite forces in what is perceived to be a sacred struggle. Arguments from Holy Scripture and sacred tradition have been used by both Muslims and Christians which present a one-sided picture of the other community. It is therefore of utmost importance, as has been pointed out before, that the internal dialogue within the Muslim and the Christian communities be promoted, confronting the undeniable ambiguities in the respective traditions, e.g. regarding the ethics of war and violence. Ultimately, it is only from within that the fanatics and fundamentalists can be challenged and the legitimacy of their position be called into question. We in the World Council of Churches are committed to seeing the voices of faith defeat those of bigotry, fear and nihilism. Voices of fraternity are called to drown those of hostility, racism and ignorance. We reject the tendency, not uncommon in many Western countries, to perceive Muslims as a threat and to portray Islam and some Islamic nations in negative terms.

It was against this background that the consultation on “Christians and Muslims in Dialogue and Beyond” was called by the World Council of Churches in October of last year. It benefited from the active participation of high-ranking representatives of the major international Muslim and Christian organizations as well as of scholars and people active in the work of local Christian and Muslim communities. It clearly condemned the exploitation of religious sentiments by self-serving politicians and extremists on both sides and joined in condemning terrorism, the use of indiscriminate violence and the oppression of the weak, regardless of the source. The participants affirmed the reality of dialogue and cooperation between Christians and Muslims and acknowledged the contribution that these experiences had made to reconciliation and cooperation in many places. The concluding statement adds: “The mutual stereotypes which still pervade many communities and cultures can often lead to mindless and collective violence by one community against the other. But in other places this has been replaced by mutual trust and working together for the common good. These experiences need to be spread more widely.”

Based on the discussion in one of its working groups on “Fostering Co-citizenship and upholding human rights” the consultation was able to say the following in its concluding statement: “Our Muslim and Christian beliefs lead us to share a common understanding of the dignity of the human being and on that foundation together we affirm the fundamental rights of individuals and groups as expressed in the UN Declaration of Human Rights and the reciprocal duties which flow from these rights. We assert that all, regardless of religion, race, ethnicity, gender or class, are entitled to full and equal citizenship rights and freedom of expression and religion in whatever country they may belong to. We especially confirm that the equal participation of religions and religious communities in public affairs locally, nationally and internationally is not only a right but also a duty which flows directly from our commitment as people who believe that our scriptures and core teachings have an essential message to society today. It follows that we also affirm the freedom of the individual to adhere to the religion of his or her choice, and that it is the function of the state to protect the full and equal rights of all religious communities to organize themselves and to participate appropriately in public affairs.”

These are encouraging affirmations made together by Muslim and Christian leaders.
Many inter-religious encounters on the international level have taken place in recent years. Their statements and declarations seldom have a direct impact on international relations. However, they are important steps in the effort of re-building confidence and help to promote a culture of dialogue and mutual trust. This encounter today with President Khatami strengthens our resolve to persist in the commitment to creating the conditions where we no longer talk about each other but with each other. We thank you for this encouragement, Your Excellency.