Cairo (AsiaNews) - The Muslim world "has yet to learn mutual respect and to listen to others because violence and aggressiveness are not even useful roads even if one wants to proselytise. I learnt from Christians that we can be together, faithful of different religions or traditions, without condemning or damning each other to hell," this according to Idris Tawfiq, a professor at the prestigious Islamic university of Al Azhar, who attended the assembly of the World Council of Churches, which took place recently in South Korea. Here is his full testimonial.
The Geneva-based World Council of Churches (WCC) was founded after the Second World War as a forum for Christians to try and bring the different branches of Christianity closer together after centuries of division.
Since that time Anglicans, Lutherans, Orthodox and Evangelical Christians, all with their different histories, traditions and beliefs, have all worked for the day when there will just be one Christian Church. Since then, every seven years the WCC has held a global Congress where participants of the member Churches come together to discuss the faith they have in common.
So it was that in November 2013 around four thousand Christians from all across the globe gathered in Busan, South Korea, for the 10th. such Assembly of the World Council of Churches.
The choice of venue was itself significant since Korea has been physically divided in two for the last sixty years. Under the Assembly theme of "God of Life Lead Us to Justice and Peace", the participants prayed together, talked together and even argued vigorously together for ten days of meetings and workshops.
Many of the World's religious leaders attended. The Archbishop of Canterbury, for example, the spiritual leader of the world's eighty million Anglicans, brought a message of greeting and urged the delegates to work passionately for greater unity for the sake of the world.
In all this, then, I was present at the gathering as the Muslim guest of the General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, the Rev. Dr Olav Fykse-Tveit, a Lutheran Pastor from Norway. We had first met in Edinburgh, Scotland, and had spoken from the same platform about our respective faiths. Since then I had also visited the headquarters of the WCC to discuss with him the issue of Muslims and Christians in the Middle East.
So what was I doing there?
It took a little persuasion on facebook to convince some of my friends that I hadn't "gone over to the other side." In fact, far from it. I was there as a Muslim. I was there to listen and to learn, but more importantly to witness quietly to Islam. Speaking on the same platform as the Archbishop of Canterbury, for example, I was able to tell one workshop group that although they believed Jesus to have died on the Cross, the Quran tells me that he didn't and although they believe Jesus is the Son of God the Quran tells me that he isn't.
Having different beliefs, though, is no reason for us to fight one another. People believe different things and in a world torn apart by religious violence it is desperately important that people of faith can get on well together and work together for the poor in their midst. Respecting your neighbor's right to believe something different to you in no way compromises your own belief.
Indeed, as people of faith, we should never be afraid of goodness, wherever it comes from, and in Busan I met many good people. They remained good people, even though as a Muslim I believed that their own beliefs were mistaken and their understanding of God was wrong.
Not all Christians, just like not all Muslims, believe in dialogue between faiths and the Assembly was not without controversy as there were some local Christians protesting outside the Assembly venue with placards and posters, claiming that the WCC has strayed from what they believe to be the teaching of Christ by talking to people of other religions and promoting modern interpretations of scripture. This group, though, was a tiny distraction.
Throughout the week, I did hear talk of Christians being persecuted in the Middle East. These words were painful to me since I live in Egypt and know that this is not true. At every opportunity I tried to make clear that whilst some people are suffering terrible things in the Middle East, Islam is not the reason for this since Allah Almighty allows people to believe whatever they want and Muslims are commanded to protect the Christians in their midst.
I found that whilst some were intent on spreading this message of persecution, many people were open to listen and to hear all sides of the story.
So what did I learn in South Korea?
Was it worthwhile traveling halfway across the globe to listen for ten days to Christians debating with one another? I would say that it was worthwhile, although ten days is a long time and it was heavy going. Halfway through I was missing home!
First of all, I was very humbled to have been invited in the first place and I was impressed by the way the Assembly was organized. For months beforehand, the organizers were sending me emails with information about what was to come. The logistics of holding such a large gathering over such a long period were enormous, but it was all done very efficiently and well and I was made to feel very welcome and that my contribution was valued.
Secondly, I was deeply impressed by the way the participants were concerned about justice. As a Muslim, there were areas of injustice in the world which I thought were not addressed by the Assembly, but there was nonetheless a real thirst for improving people's lives across the globe, either because of poverty, exploitation or disease. I reflected that at Muslim gatherings we are not always seen to be concerned about the poor. There was also a very impressive concern for the earth itself and the way we treat the earth. Again, I wondered if as Muslims this is not always one of the themes closest to our hearts, even though we clearly believe that Allah created the earth and everything in it. I was certainly impressed by the respect the delegates showed to one another. This is clearly an area where we, as Muslims, can learn.
Many of the traditions represented at the Assembly were so different from one another that they almost seemed like different religions, yet people were prepared to listen to other opinions and ideas with respect. I do wish that as Muslims we could listen to other Muslims with the same respect, without condemning them or damning them to hell. So even though as Christians and a Muslim at this Assembly we started from very different backgrounds, there was much to learn.
An Ambassador for Islam
Inshallah, the Christian delegates learned a little from me as I talked to them about Prayer in Islam and Freedom in Islam. The delegates prayed together each morning and then spent time in Bible Study. Of course, I didn't attend either of these daily events. Instead, when it came time for Salah I would find a quiet corner and pray. Whilst not making a big song and dance about this, I could nonetheless be seen praying as a Muslim.
There are some who would witness to Islam differently, and I respect their opinions. For me, being in South Korea was about being an Ambassador for Islam - and Ambassadors don't shout, but do their job in a very quiet way.
As I was getting on the plane to fly back to Egypt, one woman minister who had been at the Assembly came up and spoke to me. "Thank you," she said, "for being yourself. I enjoyed your contributions this week more than anything else." None of us will ever know the effect our efforts have in telling others about Islam.
Some, certainly, will accept Islam and become Muslim. Countless more, though, will come to see Islam in a different light to the one portrayed on TV and in the newspapers by our good manners and the respect with which we listen to others. It is possible to tell others that what they believe is wrong, but we don't have to do that by shouting or by aggressive language.
In the process we, too, might learn something. Our world would be a lot better if only we could listen to one another.