At a time of escalating international strife and discord, an assembly of multi-faith leaders has succeeded in uniting several major religious groups to work toward a common goal: The dismantling of traditional barriers among religious communities and the development instead of a collaborative approach to relationships among them.
Known as the Global Faith Forum, the group of multi-faith leaders met March 6 and 7 in a public event held in the Northwood Church, an evangelical megachurch in Keller, a suburb of Dallas, Texas.
Led by Pastor Bob Roberts Jr., Imam Mohamed Magid and Rabbi David Saperstein—cofounders of the Multi-Faith Neighbors Network—the forum’s speeches, discussions and events were designed to cultivate multi-faith relationships and guide the next generation to a more inclusive future.
The forum was also held virtually at the Church of the Resurrection, a Methodist megachurch in Kansas City, Missouri. Altogether, the gathering attracted several current and former ambassadors of religion, along with hundreds of imams, rabbis and pastors.
The event was titled “Unlikely,” based on “the unlikeliness that leaders so deeply committed to their own faiths and separated by such cultural and religious differences would come together as allies in mutual understanding.”
“This type of gathering has never happened before, especially in the heart of the Bible Belt,” said Roberts, senior global pastor at the Northwood Church. “When Jesus said, ‘Blessed are the Peacemakers,’ that doesn’t mean just in our group; He was talking about the public square.”
Roberts added that he hoped the forum “will open dialogue, build relationships and facilitate understanding, peace and unity.”
Defining itself as a “gathering of unlikely allies that venture down an unlikely path with the goal of building flourishing communities,” the forum states that it is “moving from a conversation about others’ faiths to a conversation with other faiths.”
It’s a conversation that “allows us to hear from those of different faiths, different world views, and different ideas that shape the way we communicate. … This is your chance to understand the realities of faith in the 21st century.”
The event began with songs and prayers offered by each faith. Rashad Hussain, newly appointed U.S. Ambassador for International Religious Freedom, then addressed the gathering.
“Oftentimes, faith leaders are more effective in doing this work than the government,” Hussain said, because they “bring the credibility” that comes from an intimate knowledge of their congregations. “The most powerful way to build bridges is collaboration between government and civil society.”
In his keynote address, Mohammed Al-Issa, Secretary General of the Muslim World League (MWL), provided an overview of the Makkah Declaration, which the MWL conceived and established in 2019.
Written by more than 1,200 scholars, approved by Islamic leaders of 139 nations, and supported by more than 5,000 Muslim theologians, the declaration’s charter encourages peaceful coexistence as well as religious diversity and human rights.
“The Charter is much more than just a document,” Al-Issa said. “It is a roadmap for how we can reconcile our differences, advance peaceful coexistence and create deep and lasting mutual respect. We are stronger when we are together, and we are unbeatable when we stand united and resolved to cultivate lasting friendships and understanding regardless of race, ethnicity, faith, gender or creed.”
“From my travels, I’ve learned that whether I am meeting an evangelical leader or a Jewish person, we share many of the same values,” Al-Issa said. “We have all witnessed the discrimination that many in our communities face, and we also share a commitment to a world where intolerance and injustice has no place in our society.
Magid, who is imam of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society in Virginia and a former president of the Islamic Society of North America, introduced the charter of the Makkah Declaration to the forum’s participants.
He told the gathering that having grown up in Sudan, he had never met a single non-Muslim person until he came to the U.S. along with his father, who needed surgery. “There I met a Christian, and Jewish and Muslim doctors, working together to care for my father,” he said.
His meeting with Roberts was a seminal moment in his life, not least because he discovered that he could trust the pastor. “Trust is everything in the relationship,” Magid said, although he acknowledged that it is also “a delicate issue among evangelicals and Muslims.”
Fellow Muslims “question me about working with evangelicals, and people walk out of church because they don’t trust us. People call us naïve.”
Magid and Roberts agreed that people from within a particular community pose some of the most formidable challenges to interfaith cooperation.
Saperstein, a former U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, concurred with Magid and Roberts. “The battle for the hearts and minds of people—very often that battle has to be fought within each community,” he said.
Religion unplugged reports that Magid and Roberts first met one another when they attended a retreat in Nepal. “I challenged him about his people helping us in America, because evangelical Christians have the most misunderstandings and misconceptions about Muslims,” Magid said.
In 2014, they organized a conference where they brought 12 pastors and 12 imams together at a ranch outside Dallas. It was very strained at first, but as the religious leaders got to know one another and interacted, the tension evaporated and by the time the conference ended they were friends.
The same resistance they experienced at the beginning of that conference, religious leaders continue to experience from others within their own faiths. But those participating are committed to continue building bridges across these divides.
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