Wednesday, February 23, 2005

On the desert sweeps of Morocco, a cross-cultural conversation is well under way. Evangelical Christians, long viewed as hostile to Islam and its followers, actively are participating in conversations with the Moroccan government, businesses and community leaders.

The goal is to develop understanding between the two very different perspectives.

Friendship Caravan is the flagship organization for this conversation. Founded by photojournalist Michael Kirtley after the September 11 attacks, it is now headlining an unprecedented effort focused on helping American evangelicals and Moroccan Muslims understand each other.

But it wasn’t evangelicals — eager to spread the Gospel and proselytize the nonbelievers — who first pursued the relationship, says Mr. Kirtley; it was the Moroccan government.

“In March 2003, when I had spoken to the Moroccan ambassador just about America in general, he happened to mention that he was kind of concerned about some of the rhetoric coming out of the evangelical Christian community,” Mr. Kirtley says.

That concern was legitimate, Mr. Kirtley says. In the wake of September 11, Muslims became the focus of many derogatory statements from Americans, particularly Christians. Wishing to help the Moroccans bridge the gap, Mr. Kirtley spoke to the now deceased Ed McAteer, founder of Religious Roundtable, to find out what was happening concerning Muslims on the evangelical scene.

“I immediately called up Ed,” Mr. Kirtley remembers. “I sort of challenged Ed and said the Arabs and Muslims here around the embassies think that evangelicals do not like or look down upon Arabs and Muslins.”

Mr. McAteer’s response was that that was in no way the case, and accepted an invitation to speak to a group of Arab ambassadors.

Meanwhile, the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), run by the Rev. Richard Cizik, was discussing how to better relate to Islamic countries. Friendship Caravan and its developing relationship with the Moroccan government seemed like the perfect vehicle for communication with the Arab world. Thus Friendship Caravan and the NAE joined forces, creating an unprecedented ongoing conversation between the two cultures, Mr. Kirtley says.

Beginning with the delegation to Morocco in March 2004, the NAE, Friendship Caravan and the Moroccans are moving hand in hand to create better relations and understanding among the faiths.

Morocco’s citizens are almost entirely Muslim. Like most Muslim societies, the country maintains laws restricting evangelism. Evangelicals had reason to be surprised when their delegation experienced a warm welcome in Morocco, both from the government and the people.

“The delegation came back with the willingness on the part of the Moroccan government to allow … Christianity in that county,” Mr. Cizik says. “In everyone’s estimation it’s a breakthrough of sorts. It’s never been done before. We see it now as we saw it before — as an overture by the Moroccan government not to be ignored.”

Despite what have been seen in the past as insurmountable differences between Christian and Muslim societies, says Mr. Kirtley, Moroccan Muslims have begun to recognize the common ground the two groups hold.

“On both sides there is a feeling of a lot of common ground, especially with the evangelical Christians because Morocco is a conservative society,” Mr. Kirtley says. “When Christians and Moroccans get together, they find things they have in common [such as] feelings against abortion, gay marriage, family and faith in terms of public life. I think this is one of the reasons that the two groups have hit it off so well.”

Behind Morocco’s pursuit of friendship, says evangelical leader Josh McDowell, is the desire for peace.

“They want sincere, healthy relationships with evangelical Christians. They believe as I do that the greater the understanding of people of faiths of each other, the greater chance of peace in the world,” Mr. McDowell says.

As follow-up to the Moroccans’ interest, Mr. Kirtley and his evangelical colleagues are planning a week-long trip to Morocco for the beginning of May. During their stay they will hold a three-part program called Friendship Fest with the Moroccan people and government. Included in this, Mr. Kirtley says, will be a cultural dialogue, a discussion over possible humanitarian outreach and a Christian and Moroccan rock concert — featuring contemporary Christian music acts like Delirious and Out of Eden — that both Muslims and Christians can attend and enjoy together.

While humanitarian aid and the concert are considered important, the focus of the summit will be on the cultural dialogue, Mr. Kirtley says.

“This dialogue is the premier event from a world-understanding point of view because it will be the first time ever that there will be a dialogue between Moroccan leaders and American Christians,” he says. “It is not a dialogue between religions; it is a dialogue among people of religious faith.”

Among the topics to be discussed, he says, are humanitarian issues, women’s issues, international questions and possible business ventures between Moroccans and American Christians.

In the end, organizers hope this relationship between the two worlds will result in a better understanding of American Christians in more than just Morocco.

“Part of the reason for this dialogue is to discuss how people should talk about each other to create a more peaceful world,” Mr. Kirtley says.

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