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Learning in the lowest place on earth

13 February 2015

Richard Chartres reports on the recent gathering of religious leaders in Jordan

THE King of Jordan recently promised an uncompromising military response to the Islamic State (IS), but he recognised that there was also a battle to be fought for hearts and minds on the theological front.

This week, a gathering of Muslim scholars, cardinals and leaders of various interfaith networks was brought together by Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad, under the aegis of the Hashemite monarchy. The Hashemite line claims descent from the prophet Muhammad himself, and has a proven record of promoting high-level interfaith dialogue.

In 2007, "A Common Word" was an appeal from the Muslim side, which has now been endorsed by 300 scholars who set out the basis for a fruitful dialogue between Christians and Muslims. It was a valuable initiative. Many recipients, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, responded sympathetically, and there have been many follow-up conferences. But the situation in 2015 is much worse than it was in 2007, and a large number of monologues about the importance of dialogue have failed to generate much energy where it counts, on the street.

Any representative of the various wisdom traditions in the world needs to approach the subject of "dialogue" with urgency and humility. The fact that we were meeting in the lowest place on earth - close by the Dead Sea, and near to the place of Jesus's baptism, 1300 feet below sea level - was a good place to start. It is humbling to recognise that scientists and economists have succeeded to a much greater extent than leaders of wisdom communities in establishing genuinely global conversations, addressed to issues that do not respect national or regional boundaries.

Pope John Paul II's decision to call faith leaders together in Assisi in 1986 showed what could be done (and, incidentally, the global convening power of the Petrine office), but, apart from the valiant efforts of the St Egidio community, there has been little effective follow-up.

The Pope's initiative went beyond the Abrahamic religions and was genuinely global; and it was encouraging that the Jordan meeting included significant Indian representation, as well as messages of support from China.

The agenda was more practical than theological, and focused on co-ordinating the efforts of those already in the field of interfaith relations, in four main areas.

The issue of protection for Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East was perhaps the most urgent one, but there was recognition that any long-term strategy needed to be supported by practitioners skilled in mediation. Some relevant organisations were represented in the meeting, and mediation is one of the themes identified by the Archbishop of Canterbury as high on the list of his own priorities.

Inevitably, education was seen as a key to improving the situation. A plethora of courses and curriculum material already exists, but there was realism about the limited success in the past of introducing such resources without sufficient political will. In many ways, the fourth area of "common service" is the most hopeful, and there are already good examples of attitudes changing as young people work together on development projects.

Prince Charles expressed the hope, during his visit to Jordan at the start of the week, that interfaith dialogue, which is "vitally important", would reveal that the "sum of our shared values is greater than our differences"; and the gathering disproved another fear that some people have about interfaith encounters - that they result in watering down particular faiths. Listening deeply to people with different faiths, and drawing on my own, I discovered once again that you can grow in your own conviction while deepening your respect for partners in the dialogue.

The Rt Revd Richard Chartres is the Bishop of London.

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