Christian-muslim dialogue in the eighties; some christian initiatives

By I. Henry Victor

Allan R. Brockway, the Secretary for Christian-Jewish relations in the World Council of Churches (WCC), in March 1987, said that the Christians “who are dedicated to inter-religious dialogue represent a tiny minority within the churches”. (1) By implication this will be true also of those Christians involved in Christian-¬Muslim dialogue. “The Struggling Dialogue”, is how Christian-¬Muslim dialogue is portrayed in a fairly recent book entitled Christianity and Islam (2) “Christian-Muslim dialogue”, Isma’il R. al Faruqi, a chief spokesperson at the Chambesy 1976 Christian-¬Muslim consultation, (3) at the end of the seventies said, “is to this day still in its infancy, struggling desperately to survive”. (4) Further, Faruqi maintained, rightly, that most of the attempts on Christian-Muslim dialogue, so far, “has been a Christian initiative, reluctantly entered into by either side”. (5) What follows here is a sketchy overview of how the Christian-Muslim dialogue started by Christians in the sixties has entered into the eighties. In a short paper such as this, one is bound to be not only sketchy and brief, but also very tentative about issues raised and suggestions made. Moreover, in this paper I restrict myself to the initiatives taken by the WCC and the Secretariat for Non-Christians (SFNC).

Christian-Muslim Dialogue in the Sixties

Christian initiatives of organised, formal Christian-Muslim dialogue began in the sixties soon after the promulgation of the Nostra Aetate which gave an official sanction to the positive and more sympathetic Christian relationship towards the Muslims which Louis Massignon (1883-1962) and others were advocating earlier. The Nostra Aetate, usually translated as “the declaration on the relationship of the Church to non-Christian religions”, declared that the Church “respects the spiritual, moral, and cultural values” of Islam. Further, it reads.

Although in the course of the centuries many quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Moslems, this most sacred Synod urges all to forget the past and to strive sincerely for mutual understanding. On behalf of all mankind, let them make common cause of safeguarding and fostering social justice, moral values, peace, and freedom” (6)

The declaration of this historic document mentioned above was actually preceded by the establishment of the SFNC with a special Bureau for Islam to promote Christian-Muslim dialogue. (7).

However, the first such meeting was at Cartigny, Switzerland, in1969, and this was organised by the WCC. The participants, both Muslims and Christians, on this occasion Affirmed the need for such coming together of Christians and Muslims At An international level, while recognising that such encounter is already “occuring in many places”. At this stage, the participants believed that the common roots between the two religious traditions, the increased mixing of the two communities, and the common responsibility of both Muslims and Christians in solving the global problems provided sufficient reasons to continue such dialogue. (8)

 Christian-Muslim Dialogue in the Seventies

Such interactions, at international, regional, and national levels, increased when the WCC decided to establish a Sub-Unit on Dialogue with People of Living Faiths and Ideologies (DFI) in 1971. (9) Notable among them are the consultations at Broumana (1972), Chambesy (1976), and the two regional meetings held in Accra 1974) and in Hong Kong (1975). (10) Generally the participants at these meetings did not have any special representative status. None of them were seconded by any particular organisations. On the whole they have been individual guests of the WCC. Therefore, no one was officially bound by the results of these meetings. In addition, we may note that most participants at these meetings were from the first world. This was very much true, especially, of the Christian members. And, therefore, it is needless to say that it too had its own impact on ·the make-up and the quality of the Christian-Muslim dialogue in the seventies.

The most difficult, and, perhaps therefore, the most significiant of all these comings together was the Chambesy symposium. Apart from the latter, the rest have been to greater extent polite talks between the Muslim and Christian intelligentsia. Whereas at Chambesy, Maurice Borrmans observes, there were “some useful clarifications which also led “to clashes that were sometimes not very easily resolved”. (11) The theme of this forum was “Christian Mission and Islamic Da’wah”. And one of the issues that came under the greater scrutiny of the dialogue partners at Chambesy was the abuse of Christian diakonia mainly in the Muslim land. To a sensitive reader the report may reveal the stubbornness of both the parties and their reluctance to listen. But, the fact that the conference was saved from breaking down completely, may make us believe that the participants were somehow committed to the cause of dialogue. Moreover, both Muslims and Christians at Chambesy dialogue realised that the abused Christian diakonia in the Muslim world can be detrimental to the Christian-Muslim dialogue movement. (12)

Even at Chambesy the participation of the third world- Christians was minimal. And perhaps this could have been at least one of the causes for Christian failure to hear empathetically what the Muslims were saying at this symposium. Moreover, such situations make one equate Christianity to the Western Christian movement that has been on the whole a hand-maiden of the Colonial powers, and may even conceal all the new attempts that are being made at present by the third world Christians to liberate Christianity from the oppressive colonial culture. Further, an increase in the third world Christian participation in such colloquy may even help broaden the scope of the present emerging Christian-Muslim dialogue.

As for the Christians from Euro-North America, so far, their involvement in dialogue is mainly to increase religious tolerance and liberalism. Therefore, as Borrmans has already confirmed, the Christian participants in Christian-Muslim dialogue “have always stood aloof from and independent of political power”. (13) But, the newly evolving third world Christian movement, like most of the Muslims who have participated in Christian-Muslim dialogue in the past, is not “apolitical”. Again like most Muslims, the latter groups of Christians are committed to overthrowing the colonial and neo-colonial powers that are operative in the whole world. For them, such activities will also come within the scope of any interreligious dialogue. And, hence, they advocate and affirm, like the Muslims, the political dimension of religion. In short, the third world Christians committed to the third world Christian thinking (14) may become better Christian partners in the Christian-Muslim dialogue by not only broadening the present scope of interreligious dialogue but also collaborating with Muslims even in the political sphere to transform the present unjust world order.

Apart from the meetings there were also many formal visits by the Christian leaders to the Islamic seats of learning such as Al Azhar in Cairo. Such visits were always reciprocated by the Muslims. (15) It was the Catholics, through the 5FNC, who were largely responsible for such visits which, they believe, “would help a renewal of relationships between Christians and Muslims”. (1b) So in the sixties and in the seventies, there was an increase in Christian-Muslim dialogue through formal visits and consultations.

Christian-Muslim Dialogue in the Eighties

A significant international Christian-Muslim colloquy was held in Colombo, Sri Lanka, from 30 March-1 April 1982. This was initiated and organised jointly by the World Muslim Congress (WMC) and the WCC. Sixty three delegates, thirty Christians and thirty three Muslims, attended this consultation whose theme was “Christians and Muslims Living and Working Together”. The focus of this meeting was, as the sub-theme indicates, the “Ethics and Practices of Humanitarian and Development Programmes”. (17) The final statement speaks of the participants’ “understanding of each other and the determination to work together in the interest of peace, justice and humanity, thus exemplifying Muslims’ and Christians’ united commitment to achieve God’s purpose for humanity”. (18)

One of the recommendations made at this conference was that the WMC and the WCC “be requested to establish a Joint Standing Committee”, (19) which could continue to work towards an authentic Christian-Muslim relationship. Christians for their part, in their separate meeting soon after the conference, accepted this suggestion and recommended this to the WCC. (20) The OFI in the last few years has been working towards this goal.

Later, in March 1985, the OFI launched a series of regional Christian-Muslim consultations with a view to promote “intercommunal understanding and communication”. The first of such colloquia was organised for francophone countries in West Africa. This took place at Porto Novo, Benin from 3-7 March 1986, and brought together forty people, both Christians and Muslims. The discussion at Porto Novo was around three themes: (a) religion and the state, (b) religion and education, and (c) religion and the family. The second meeting was for the Asian region which took place in Bali, Indonesia from 6-11 December 1986. The number of participants and the theme at Bali was similar to that of Porto Novo, except that the third theme at Bali was “religion and economics”. (21) The third one was in Kolymbari, Crete from 27 September-l October 1987. And the latter was bi-regional and brought twenty five people from the Middle East and Europe. The discussions were centred around “the place of religious pluralism in today’s social and political structures and the role of believers in promoting mutual trust and community”. (22) While writing this, another symposium for the North American region is just over. Further such meetings are planned for East Africa and anglophone West Africa. (23) But none of these have shown much progress, either in terms of theological thinking or practical living, particularly when one compares them to the earlier “dialogues”.

SFNC, unlike the DFI, does not normally sponsor such meetings. Instead, the members of the former have been participating in colloquia organised either by Muslim or other Christian organisations. However, during this period the SFNC, in collaboration with the Pontifical Institute of Arabic and Islamic Studies, initiated a colloquium on the theme “Holiness in Christianity and Islam”. Muslims, mainly from the Indo-Pakistan sub-continent, sat together in Rome with “Christians dedicated to dialogue with Islam” on the 6th and 7th of May 1985. (24) Again, the Christian participation from the sub-continent was very low. And Rome was chosen as the venue, we are informed, to give the Muslims from the sub-continent an opportunity to see some of Christianity’s holy places! However, at the end of this coming together of Muslims and Christians Pope John Paul II I in his address maintained, “your (Muslims) God and ours (Christians) is one and the same, and we are brothers and sisters in the faith of Abraham”. Therefore, for, him, it was only natural that both Christians and Muslims “have much to discuss concerning true holiness in obedience and worship to God”. (25) 

Major Christian Concerns in the Eighties

Inter-religious dialogue, in Christian official circles, is now accepted as an integral part of Christian life. This would be true also of Christian-Muslim dialogue. But still, as we noted at the beginning, interest in organised dialogue remains an an elitist activity among Christians. Within this context it is possible to identify at least three major Christian concerns regarding inter-religious dialogue. These three would be applicable to Christian-

Muslim dialogue as well.

First, is the purpose and goal of inter-religious dialogue. This has been one of the major concerns of Christians both in the Vatican and WCC circles. Among Christians, there has been no agreement until today concerning the purpose and/or goal of dialogue. Generally Christians accept the need for common action and cooperation between themselves and people of other faiths, including Muslims, and people of no faith. Such solidarity is sought particularly in areas related to poverty, basic human rights and dignity, justice, peace, economic reconstruction, and the eradication of disease and hunger. In addition as we have seen above, dialogue is considered as an effective tool to increase understanding and decrease prejudices and caricaturing of one another. Nevertheless, since the Church has always maintained the uniqueness and universality of Jesus Christ, so far, the Christians have not been able to reconcile inter-religious dialogue with this affirmation of the decisiveness of Christ, both in terms of divine revelation and human salvation. Hence, the relationship between dialogue and mission has remained ambiguous, and very crucial in the contemporary Christian theological debates. Questions connected to this were raised at the last two assemblies of the WCC. But somehow they have not been answered adequately.

However, SFNC has made an attempt to face up to this issue in a document entitled, “The Attitude of the Church Towards the Followers of Other Religions: Reflections and Orientations on Dialogue and Mission”. (26) This document was approved by Pope John Paul II and was issued on the occasion of Pentecost in 1984. Here in this document, the SFMC has tried to hold both dialogue and mission in a dialectic tension, affirming both and denying none. As for the wee, these questions were discussed in a recent major consultation that took place at the beginning of this year in Tambaram, Madras. It would be interesting to study the results of this conference as soon as they are available to the public. (27)

Connected to this is the second basic question that has surfaced often in Christian circles. And this is to do with the theology of people of other faiths, It concerns the Christian, negative or positive, justification of the very existence of people of other faiths and ideologies, including Muslims. This again is considered a crucial issue for the very self-understanding of, Christians. It is believed that Christians will not authentically understand themselves unless and until they understand their neighbours.

Third, is a very practical concern. It is to do with identifying the dialogue partners. This question was taken up with greater seriousness at a joint staff meeting of the DFI and the SFNC in March 1987. (28) It is precisely for this reason that the WCC has been trying to establish a Joint Standing Committee with the WMC. We noted that the dialogue partners in, the past, particularly the Muslims, have not been seconded by any Muslim organizations, and, that they have been individual guests of the WCC. In doing so, there is always the temptation to look for easy partners, partners who will readily agree to one’s view point. There are no easy answers for these and many other questions connected to Christian-Muslim dialogue. But the struggle for dialogue with Muslims continues among Christians.


1)            Current Dialogue, no. 12 (June 1987), p.4

2)            Edited by Richard W. Rousseau and published in 1985 by Ridge Row Press of USA.

3)            For details see International Review of Mission, Vol.LXV, no.260 (October 1976).

4)            Trialogue of the Abrahamic Faiths, Edited by I.R. Faruqi, USA: New Era Publications, 1986, p.iv.

5)            Ibid.

6)            Nostra Aetate, section 3.

7)            Cf. Walter M. Abbott and Joseph Gallagen, Editors, The Documents of Vatican II, USA: Guild Press, 1960, p.660.

8)            Christians Meeting Muslims (WCC Papers on 10 years 9f Christian-Muslim Dialogue), Geneva: WCC, 1977, p.67.

9)            Cf ibid., pp.07-157.

10)          Cf. ibid.

11)          M.Borrmans, “The Muslim-Christian Dialogue of the Last Ten Years”, Pro Mundi Vita Bulletin, 74, (September-October 1978), p.29.

12)          Cf. International Review of Mission, op.cit. p.459.

13)          Borrmans, 0p.cit. p.35.

14)          I refer here particularly to the work of the Ecumenical Association of the Third World Theologian.

15)          Cf. Borrmans, op.cit., pp.22-32.

10)          ibid., p.23.

17)          Cf. John B. Taylor, “Christian-Muslim Dialogue (Colombo, Sri Lanka, 30 March-l April 1982)” Islamochristiana, 8, (1982), pp.201-217.

18)          Ibid., p.212f.

19)          Ibid., p.210.

20)          Cf. ibid., p.213.

21)          Cf. Current Dialogue, 12 (June 1987), p.22f.

22)          From information provided by Stuart E. Brown.

23)          Same as above.

24)          Cf. Islamochristiana, 11 (1985), pp.1-98.

25)          Ibid., p.3.

20)          Current Dialogue, 7 (Autumn 1984), p.lo-21, 24.

27)          This may appear in the forthcoming issue of International Review of Mission and/or The Ecumenical Review.

28)          Cf. “Joint staff meeting of the Secretariat for Non-Christians and the W.C.C. Dialogue Unit”, Bulletin (Secretariatus pro non-Christianis), 1987-XXII/3, 00, pp.315-317.

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