The Rt Revd Jo Wells, the recently installed Bishop of Dorking, travelled to the Middle East this week to be part of ongoing peace discussions between Christians and Muslims, at the invitation of the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Bishop Jo joined a global delegation of Anglican leaders to accompany Archbishop Justin Welby to Abu Dhabi and meet with the Muslim Council of Elders on 2-3 November for a dialogue on integration, religious freedom and flourishing societies, called ‘Towards an Integrated World’.
On the evening of the first day, she spoke on “A Christian approach to ethics, principles and values”. She explained:
“I spoke of the lessons learned from the Old Testament experience of exile, where the people of God learn how to live faithfully – indeed, to flourish – as a minority group in an unfriendly context, challenged to seek wellbeing for their oppressors as well as for themselves (Jeremiah 29:4-7). Jesus developed this further in his sermon on the mount, inviting his followers to love their enemies and pray for their persecutors. The flourishing of all people – not just ‘our own’ – is the goal.
“I explained that the West can no longer be described as ‘Christian’ – it is, rather, a secular society. I went on to explore how beneficial this could be for relations between Christians and Muslims, given how both faith groups find ourselves, as minorities in a majority secular world, with all the more in common.
“It was fascinating to learn more of the dynamics of Islam from leaders who represented a range of contexts and countries. On both sides there was an eagerness to understand one another better, not least in some key areas: to correct some misunderstandings, to acknowledge some challenges as well as to seek constructive ways forward in which together we may walk paths that make for peace in our world.”
A video capturing Bishop Jo’s reflections on the meeting can be seen here.
Archbishop Justin gave the opening keynote address at the two-day meeting, in which he spoke of his joy at being able to worship there and the importance of such dialogues. He did not, however, shy away from addressing difficult topics such as the theology behind religious violence and the persecution of Christians in the Middle East:
He said: “For me the key finding was that whereas fundamentalist attitudes with an apocalyptic, imminent end of the world approach, in some groups might lead to psychological harm or isolation for their members, it was the sense of who was responsible for bringing in the rule of God that made the difference. If the answer was that God was responsible, the group was unlikely to be violent. Once they felt that they had a responsibility to do God's work in the place of God, then extreme violence was inevitable.
“In other words the issue is theological. What is the understanding of God that we have in terms of responsibility for a righteous society.
He continued: “It would not be over-stating matters to say that Christianity is both the numerically largest faith and the most persecuted. The historic centre of the Christian Church in the Middle East has never felt so threatened, but is also under attack in countries as diverse as North Korea and Eritrea, where Christians are harassed, imprisoned, persecuted and killed. We are grateful for the protection of the Church and advocacy of the rights of Christians in majority Muslim lands and I want to say thank you.”
Dr Ahmad Al Tayyeb, Grand Imam of Al Azhar, Egypt’s highest religious authority, called for peace and understanding between Islam and Christianity. He said:
“As the very survival of the world itself is perhaps at stake we Muslims and Christians should let the unpleasantness between us become a thing of the past. “I hope we are able to let bygones be bygones, forget hatred and bitter feelings of the past and look forward to a brighter future while assured that one day we will appear before Almighty Allah and answer our deeds towards Him and towards His creatures.”
'Towards An Integrated World' is a continuation of the meeting that took place at Lambeth Palace in 2015, between Archbishop Justin and the Grand Imam Sheikh Dr Ahmad Al Tayyib and his delegation from the Muslim Council of Elders. The Council is an independent international body of Muslim scholars, experts and dignitaries that was established in July 2014 in order to promote peace and to address the sources of conflict, divisiveness and fragmentation in Muslim communities. It is a joint initiative by Grand Imam, The Sheikh of Al-Azhar, and the forum’s chairman scholar Sheikh Abdullah Bin Bayyah.