In January 2014, ICRD and its Pakistani partners convened 19 Pakistani and American religious and civil society leaders in Dhulikel, Nepal to launch the Interfaith Leadership Network (ILN). The goal of ILN is to build relationships among Pakistani and American religious and interfaith leaders and to facilitate collaborative action to address religious intolerance and conflict in their respective countries. It will also provide an enduring network for sharing best practices and lessons learned in addressing the challenges that face religious minorities in each country. The ILN delegates were chosen for their dedication to religious peacemaking, their interfaith expertise, and their positions of influence within their respective communities.
Issues and Perceptions
Pakistani and American delegates outlined common concerns and challenges. Violence, fear, exclusion, and intolerance, especially toward religious minorities, were issues commonly identified by participants from both countries. Delegates also reported on commonly shared perceptions in both countries that the other country (1) constitutes a threat to their physical safety and identity, and (2) has betrayed previous friendship, and is working “against us”. Following from this, a link was identified between the degree to which each country feels threatened by the other and the degree of domestic intolerance/conflict that exists in both countries. Because religious minorities are often associated in people’s minds with foreign countries, they become easy targets when problems develop between those countries (e.g. Pakistani Christians associated with the West/US; American Muslims associated with terrorism or violence in Muslim countries overseas). Thus, it was concluded that improving relations and perceptions between countries could improve the treatment of religious minorities domestically, and vice versa.
Framework for Addressing Challenges
Delegates prepared to address such challenges by examining their religious values and sacred texts as sources of peacebuilding, sharing best practices in interfaith engagement, and engaging in communal prayer and spiritual sharing. A key recommendation that emerged was that addressing problems within one’s own community can inspire others to address problems in theirs. For example, some American Christians noted that if they are concerned about the treatment of Pakistani Christians, they must also work to alleviate prejudices and wrongs done to American Muslims by Christians in America. Likewise, better treatment of Pakistani Christians by Pakistani Muslims can inspire American Christians to take stronger action against Islamophobia in the United States. Thus, examples of American Christians speaking out against Islamophobia and Pakistani Muslims risking their lives to protect Pakistani Christians could provide a powerful counter-narrative to prejudice in both countries.
To address such challenges, ILN delegates formed two working groups focused on (1) Religious Freedom and Religious Minorities and (2) Counter-Narratives to Radicalism, Islamophobia, and Anti-Americanism, and began designing action plans to collaborate in addressing these areas. Projects currently being discussed are focusing on areas such as:
- Reducing Islamophobia in America, improving treatment of Christians in Pakistan, and healing tensions between Americans and Pakistanis through community development projects that involve visible cooperation among and between Muslims and Christians in both countries.
- Developing a counter-narrative to Islamophobia in America and to anti-Americanism and anti-Westernism in Pakistan.
- Deradicalization in Pakistan, particularly among young people.
Pakistani and American ILN members have already begun implementing follow-on projects. In May 2014, two American ILN interfaith leaders—Evangelical Senior Pastor Bob Roberts of Glocal.net and the NorthWood Church near Dallas/Fort Worth and Imam Mohamed Hag Magid of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), the All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS), and the International Interfaith Peace Corps—facilitated a three-day “team-building retreat” in Texas. The retreat brought together influential American Evangelical Christian pastors and Muslim imams from 13 cities across the United States, most of whom had had little previous interaction with leaders from the other religion.
The gathering aimed to break down distrust and spiritual and personal barriers to collaboration; address perceptions, perspectives, challenges, and opportunities; and plan for cooperation in service initiatives for the good of their communities. Program participants identified opportunities for collaboration between imams and pastors from more than eight different areas in the United States. Plans that include service projects, continued relationship-building, and initiatives to address religious freedom have been planned for each area. A number of these participants also expressed interest in developing relationships with counterparts in Pakistan to address intolerance and other community challenges. Pastor Roberts’s report on the three-day program can be read below.
Report on the Imam – Pastor Conference
Compiled by Pastor Bob Roberts
This past month, a profound event took place that included a group of Imams and Christian Pastors who came together to discuss perceptions, perspectives, challenges, and opportunities. Despite the potential backlash from the evangelical community, 15 courageous Pastors both young and old, several from mega-churches and several from new churches, gathered to better understand how their faith can be carried out in the global public square. Bob Roberts, Senior Pastor of NorthWood Church and Imam Mohammed Magid of the Adams Center and head of ISNA (Islamic Society of North America), co-hosted the conference.
Discussions around the perceptions of both Christians and Muslims were rich in dialogue. The Imams were encouraged by the Christian Pastors who took the Bible and their faith literally. False perceptions were uncovered and discussed in great detail. There were many areas of morality, politics and views of society that were agreed upon and a consensus established on how the group could benefit one another by working together in the public square.Candid conversations took place around religious beliefs. Many Pastors learned that you don’t have to compromise your beliefs or share the same beliefs in order to discuss them, nor should you avoid discussions with those that you disagree with. The level of transparency allowed for open and meaningful dialogue.
The issue of Religious Freedom was a primary concern and topic of conversation for those in attendance. The Imams discussed the challenges they face in the US when trying to build mosques and practice their faith while the Christian Pastors expressed concerns about the persecution of Christians around the world in Muslim majority nations. It was consistently affirmed that the Imams and Pastors disagreed with religious persecution of any kind. There was talk about how we should work together to support one another on this issue and how American evangelicals should lead the way.
The idea of multi-faith is not about sharing the same beliefs but acknowledges the differences between faiths, which allow an open and public forum for people of differing beliefs to engage each other in respectful and meaningful ways without compromising their beliefs. In turn, this is the most practical application for religious people to openly engage each other.
As one Imam in attendance stated, “In my years as an Imam, I’ve attended many interfaith meetings and conferences. I just spent the last 2 days at a dude ranch right outside Dallas in a meeting between Imams and Evangelical Christian Pastors. The difference was that instead of just scratching the surface, we really got to the core issues and spoke our minds and hearts, with respect. One of the most profound multi-faith events I’ve attended.”
Lastly, the meaningful discussions that took place and genuine connections that were established had a profound impact on all those that participated. After assessing community needs – opportunities for collaboration between Imams and Pastors from more than 8 areas throughout the U.S. were identified. Plans that include service projects, continued relationship building, and religious freedom solutions were planned for each area. In addition, some of the churches and mosques are open to begin working at different levels with believers in Pakistan.
The takeaways from the conference are difficult to measure but all participants took away a sense of hope and new way of thinking. But, what they left behind was equally important. They left their preconceived notions of what they thought about one another. The conference confirmed that working together and connecting with leaders of other faiths makes our communities, our cities, our nation, and our world a better place for everyone.