June 18, 2012

The humid air outside Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque seems thick enough to swim in. The despondent breeze from the Mediterranean coast only 1,500 feet away provides little relief from the sweltering sun. Yet the armed guards in black and gray fatigues seem undeterred in their duty to keep watch over the downtown area where more than twenty religious leaders have gathered in Beirut, Lebanon, traveling from across the Middle East, Europe, and America to engage in three days of intensive dialogue.

The mosque in Martyrs’ Square stands in the center of a city still rebuilding after 15 years of bloodshed, four corner minarets of a yellow ochre color stretching higher than 235 feet each; a brilliant blue dome, rising higher than 135 feet, sparkles with hints of gold above the vast space dedicated to public prayer. Just a few feet away to the northwest, St. George’s Maronite Cathedral stands as a 130-year-old counterpoint to the modern mosque, the ancient Roman columns of its neoclassical façade somewhat diminished by the towering minarets nearby, but its scars from the civil war washed away by recent restoration.

These are the two settings where the second Christian-Muslim Summit will be held over the next few days: a Muslim and a Christian house of worship, side by side. The rolling skyline of this capital city reveals countless clustered spires bearing both minarets and crosses. The ancient city’s architecture epitomizes Lebanon’s religious diversity, showing just how appropriate the gathering here will be.

The setting described in that journal entry differs a great deal from the setting of the first Christian-Muslim Summit, hosted at Washington National Cathedral in 2010. Two years later, four eminent religious leaders from Sunni, Shi’a, Anglican-Episcopal, and Catholic faith traditions have traveled to Beirut with some two dozen delegates to reflect on the theme: “Christians and Muslims building justice and peace together in a violent, changing world.”

The host cleric, Sheikh Malek Shaar, Mufti of North Lebanon and Tripoli, would extol the generous hospitality of his country at the summit while also bearing in mind his own country’s direct witness to the violent world the summit aims to address. His two principal Christian guests were His Eminence Jean-Louis Cardinal Tauran, president of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue at the Vatican; and the Right Rev. John Bryson Chane, eighth bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington and senior advisor for interfaith relations at Washington National Cathedral.

The second Muslim principal, Ayatollah Seyyed Mohammad-Ali Taskhiri, director of the Islamic Culture and Relations Organization in Tehran, represented the Shi’a tradition. The participation of an Iranian Shi’a Muslim would be a significant shift forward in this second of four planned interfaith summits between Muslims and Christians. In 2010, Iranian participants were unable to join at the gathering hosted by the Cathedral due to travel challenges. But in Lebanon, hosted by Sunni Muslims, and with more than a dozen Western Christian leaders taking part, Ayatollah Taskhiri proved to be a key presence in advancing the reconciliation efforts of these religious leaders.

The Right of Self-Determination

Following three days of dialogue, the leaders presented a public forum and a mutually agreed-upon Plan of Action, articulating the intensely negotiated steps the participants would commit to in working toward positive change in their ongoing work. The poignancy of the setting in the Middle East and Lebanon especially was not lost on the summit’s participants. This was framed in the introduction of the Plan of Action: “Because of their belief in one God, Christians and Muslims have so much in common which the very fact of this meeting in Lebanon makes clear. The conviction of the reality of this one God is deeply interwoven in the story of what we now call the Middle East, a story reaching back over millennia.

“Meeting in Lebanon, with its very specific story, at this moment our hearts reach out especially to the suffering of the poor, of the women, and of the children in neighboring Syria,” the plan continued. Participants in the summit condemned the massacres and bloodshed in Syria in the plan and asked “the international community to end such acts immediately and to grant the Syrian people their rights to live in dignity and self-determination.”

Syria was not the only urgent concern debated in the summit. The plight of religious minorities, particularly Christians in the Middle East, received unanimous condemnation among those gathered. The Plan of Action called for all Arab Christians and Muslims to enjoy common citizenship while strongly noting that the emigration of Christians from the countries of the Middle East is “due to many factors, not just for religious reasons.”

Much time was spent discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “One thing is clear, as was affirmed at the end of the first summit,” the Plan of Action stated: “the resolution, through justice for all, of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is an essential foundation to build justice and peace, not only for this region, but for the world.

“Participants consider that peace will not be achieved unless justice prevails in the world and until all peoples enjoy their full rights, including the right to have their own states and the right of self-determination. … We also reiterate our full rejection of all attempts to alter the identity of the city of Jerusalem and its Holy Places,” the Plan concluded.

The Silence of Broken Spirits

Bishop Chane began his remarks at the public forum by reiterating an overall condemnation of violence. “There are more than five billion Christians and Muslims throughout the world, and although we do not speak for all of them, we are here to say that violence has no place in the teachings of Muhammad or Jesus,” he said. “We are here to say that no one has the right to take the life of another in the name of God.”

Implicitly condemning the actions of religious fundamentalists, Mufti Shaar called for “the revival of positive behaviors in an environment of compassion, love, and security,” explaining that these “could only be done if the religious roots of societies are strong. Only there does each individual discover his own identity—to live out life according to God’s laws and not the laws of the jungle.”

Reflecting on the past two years since the first summit, Cardinal Tauran said, “The climate of inter-religious dialogue has positively changed. But all the great challenges remain to bring this development to the grassroots level.”

Ayatollah Taskhiri agreed in the need to carry work to the level of grassroots communities among believers in our respective faith traditions, an idea he says “has been launched on the foundations of sound logic.” He further explained that dialogue must be capable of “achieving the desired comprehension and understanding, and reducing the conflict areas and providing areas of continuous cooperation in the service of humanitarian issues and the issues of religious and moral values.”

One of the most moving moments came when Anglican delegate Clare Amos read aloud from Brian Wren’s poem “Say No to Peace”:

Say “no” to peace
if what they mean by peace,
is the quiet misery of hunger,
the frozen stillness of fear,
the silence of broken spirits,
the unborn hopes of the oppressed.

Tell them that peace
is the hauling down of flags,
the forging of guns into ploughs,
the giving of the fields to the landless, and hunger a fading dream.

Amos, the inter-religious program executive of the World Council of Churches, was one of only three women participating in the summit. In fact, the Plan of Action called out the importance of the participation of women in future work, and participants of this summit encouraged more involvement of other women leaders in subsequent gatherings. “Women must play a key role in peace-building at all levels of society, since they often bear the greatest burden of violence, poverty, discrimination, marginalization, inequity, and exclusion,” the Plan of Action stated.

Convening Dialogue

Roman, Armenian, Melkite, and Maronite Catholics made up the Catholic delegation led by Cardinal Tauran, including His Beatitude Michel Sabbah, patriarch emeritus of Jerusalem, and His Eminence Theodore Cardinal McCarrick, archbishop emeritus of Washington.

In addition to Amos, among those also assembled from the Anglican Communion were the Anglican bishop in Jerusalem, the Right Rev. Suheil Dawani, whose diocese includes Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the Palestinian Territories, and Israel. Other delegates included the Right Rev. and Right Hon. George L. Carey, former archbishop of Canterbury; the Right Rev. Michael Ipgrave, bishop of Woolwich, England, and former interfaith relations adviser to the Archbishops’ Council of the Church of England; and the Rev. Chloe Breyer, executive director of the Interfaith Center of New York.

Two years of planning were undertaken by a steering committee made up of the Rev. Canon John L. Peterson, director of the Cathedral’s Center for Global Justice and Reconciliation; Rev. Msgr. Robert J. Vitillo of the Vatican; and Mufti Shaar’s son, Anas Shaar, a Lebanese businessman. Evan Anderson, who managed the 2010 summit, worked on behalf of the Cathedral as the summit coordinator. Nicolas Haddad served as an advisor. The Cathedral was also represented by Canon Kathleen A. Cox, executive director, and the Rev. Lyndon Shakespeare, director of program and ministry.

When asked why the Cathedral would play a part in such a gathering, Canon Cox explained it as “part of our commitment to being a leader in convening people of all faiths to examine and respond to important issues in the world. Interfaith dialogue at this level is what makes the National Cathedral an international cathedral, and it strengthens our capacity to minister as the spiritual home for the nation.”

Participants are discussing the possibility of convening a third summit in Rome, although they must first address the need to obtain necessary funding.