Love thy neighbor

Bob Handelman

Bob Handelman

About 140 religious leaders, mostly Christians and Muslims, took part in the conference. View full image

The theological and political are sometimes knotted together. Take the case of Christian missionary work in Muslim countries. Evangelicals see it as a freedom-of-religion issue: people have a right to evangelize and they have a right to choose their faith. Muslims, contend the evangelicals, believe in converting others to Islam.

Muslim participants replied that spreading their faith isn't as central to most modern-day Muslims as it is to most evangelicals. They agreed that no one should be compelled to follow a particular religion. But they said that in the minds of most Muslims, Western evangelizing is inextricably tied to the colonial past. Moreover, tense relations now between the West, especially the United States, and many Muslim countries make evangelizing dangerous for its practitioners and damaging to the reconciliation efforts of Muslim moderates.

"In some of the side conversations" during the conference, "there is a misunderstanding of the Muslim perspective on missionary work," Habib Ali al-Jifri says. "People are under the impression that any restriction has to do with not wanting people to change their religion. But the reality is actually quite different. The principle of Islam is an invitation to open discussion. But our region is inflamed and people are angry, and because of the colonial experience, they feel everything that comes to them from the West is connected to this." Like some other Muslim participants, he believes that perhaps missionary work should be suspended until "the region has moved out of the precarious situation it is in now."

Evangelicals said they did not agree with Muslims on the issue. "I think this is one of the biggest challenges we face," Tunnicliffe e-mailed. "Since both Islam and Christianity are missionary religions, conflict seems almost inevitable. Our concern is that Christian, and specifically evangelical, missionary work is linked" in people's minds "to structures of Western power. It is critical that we delink the perception. In reality, much Christian mission work is rooted [in] the church of the global South."