Thursday, April 27, 2006

Islam’s stormy relations with the West became the main topic yesterday at the 20th annual International Prayer for Peace conference at Georgetown University.

The conference, billed as a way to emphasize peace to those in power in Washington, included a session on religious freedom that turned into a five-way dialogue among a Muslim imam, a Catholic archbishop, an Orthodox rabbi, an Episcopal layman and a Greek Orthodox patriarch.

“There is a battle for the soul of Islam,” said Rabbi Arthur Schneier, founder of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation. “The question is: Who will control the silent majority in the street?”

Audience member Imam Mubasher Ahmad, the leader of an Ahmadiyya mosque in Glen Ellyn, Ill., told how in his view most Muslims consider Ahmadiyyas apostates. The Ahmadiyya movement, founded in 1899, regards its founder, Ghulam Ahmad, as Islam’s final prophet.

“Freedom of religion is guaranteed by Islamic Shariah law, although that has been perverted by political leaders,” Imam Ahmad said. “If you have an opponent, all you need to do [to defeat him] is declare that person an infidel.”

Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the new papal nuncio to the United States, told the imam that he was “impressed” with the assertion that Shariah offers religious freedom, “but is that reality?”

“In present-day Islamic countries, that is very hard to find,” the imam conceded.

Greek Orthodox Archbishop Demetrios, also sitting in the audience, then gave an impromptu lecture on Islam’s view of truth versus Western relativism. “If you are convinced you have the truth, how far do you go toward tolerating anything else?”

He doesn’t agree with the West’s view of all truths being equal, he said, but interreligious dialogue is at least possible in the West’s environment.

Douglas M. Johnston, an evangelical Episcopalian who moderated the panel, reminded listeners that Shariah forbids Muslims to convert out of the faith.

When he reminds Muslims about a Koranic passage promising no “compulsion in religion,” he said, they tell him that religious freedom “seems to work on the way in, but not on the way out.”

The conference attracted about 1,000 registrants and ended last night with a statement calling for “all people of good will to have the courage to live the art of dialogue.”

The conference’s first Chinese Catholic prelate to attend, Bishop Peter Feng of the Diocese of Hengshui in the Hebei province, said he was amazed at the variety of religious leaders present.

“In China, the religious people meet together not so often,” he said. “We are in the beginning of the reconstruction of the church in China.” He cautioned against news reports about the Catholic Church giving up diplomatic recognition of the Republic of China, or Taiwan, in exchange for better relations with China.

“Taiwan is not a problem,” he said of China’s stance toward the church.

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