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Seminary Is Reaching Out to Muslims

An evangelical school launches an interfaith effort to allay tensions deriving from 9/11.

December 06, 2003|Teresa Watanabe | Times Staff Writer

One of the nation's leading evangelical Christian seminaries has launched a federally funded project for making peace with Muslims, featuring a proposed code of ethics that rejects offensive statements about each other's faiths, affirms a mutual belief in one God and pledges not to proselytize.

The $1-million project, initiated by Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, is being hailed by both sides as a pioneering attempt to ease continuing conflict. But, in an illustration of sharp theological divides, some conservative evangelicals are challenging the ethics code and asserting that they do not believe in the same God as Muslims.

Tensions between Muslims and evangelical Christians have been aggravated by a series of negative remarks about Islam by national evangelical leaders since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Those included the characterization of Islam by evangelist Franklin Graham as an evil religion, and assertions by the Rev. Jerry Falwell that the Prophet Muhammad was a terrorist and by the former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination, that Muhammad was a "demon-possessed pedophile."

The Fuller project, funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice, is intended to develop practical peacemaking practices for Christians and Muslims, publish a book about them and train local communities in their use. It is the latest of several efforts that Fuller has launched since Sept. 11 to build bridges with Muslims.

"We hope to lead a large portion of evangelical Christians into a better understanding of Islam," said Sherwood Lingenfelter, Fuller's provost and senior vice president. "After 9/11 there was a great deal of hostility in the Christian community toward Muslims. It is important for Christians to gain a respect for them and treat them with dignity and not assume they're all terrorists."

He said the wary view of Islam by many evangelical Christians was rooted in part in their commitment to Israel. Many believe that the physical presence of the state of Israel is required for Christ's return and therefore vigorously defend Israel from perceived Islamic enemies, he said. Others, including many at Fuller, disagree that Israel would play any special role in the second coming, he said.

Muslim leaders, who regard tensions with evangelical Christians as one of their greatest interfaith challenges, say they are delighted by the Fuller initiative.

"We are changing the course away from accusations and poisoning the well of relations to what can develop into a project in the service of God," said Yahia Abdul-Rahman, who began participating in the Fuller initiative last year when he headed the region's network of mosques, known as the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California.

The project will build on work led by Fuller professor Glen Stassen and other Christian scholars to develop a peacemaking theory that features practical ways to reduce conflict in the United States and abroad.

The project proposes, among other things, to convene two national conferences of Christian and Muslim scholars to develop parallel peacemaking practices based on the Koran and other Islamic sources. It aims to expand the work into an eventual book. And participants will train Christian and Muslim leaders throughout the country on such techniques and encourage interfaith exchanges.

Muslims, many of them associated with the Islamic Center of Southern California, broached the idea of an ethics code after Fuller invited them to join the peacemaking initiative. Maher Hathout of the Islamic center said Muslims needed to be assured that they would be treated with respect because of pain over previous remarks by evangelical leaders and Fuller's own history of proselytizing in Islamic countries.

"The community knows about Fuller and will definitely ask questions" about the joint project, Hathout said.

Some conservative Christians decried parts of the proposed ethics code and predicted that it would bring an uproar from their ranks.

"For Fuller to declare that Christians and Muslims worship the same God would be a radical departure, not only from the evangelical tradition but also the tenets of orthodox Christianity," said John Revell, a spokesman for the Southern Baptists' executive committee. He also questioned whether evangelical Christians who signed the proposed code against offensive statements and proselytizing would compromise their religious obligation to "speak truth in love" and "spread the good news of Jesus Christ."

The controversy over whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God recently flared anew when President Bush affirmed a shared belief with Muslims at a London news conference last month -- a view that was immediately disavowed by conservative evangelicals.

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