Last week Georgetown University held its annual Global Leadership Forum. Entitled Evangelicals and Muslims: Perspectives on Mission and Partnership, this year’s forum brought together scholars, activists, and community leaders from both religions to discuss how faith affects identity; how the two religions view proselytizing; how consensus could be formed between Islam and Christianity; and how that consensus could be used to forge reconciliation and solve conflicts. All four panels were fascinating, and conversations ranged from the specifics of Bible and Quran passages to overarching questions about the existence and nature of evil.

Two powerful themes particularly stood out from this conference. The first was the importance of forging understanding between faith traditions by actually meeting people from the other tradition. Almost every speaker emphasized that real understanding comes, not from reading academic articles, but from having a neighbor, colleague, or friend who practices another religion. Ahmed Younis, a consultant for Gallup, stressed that the best conversations about religion happen between friends who are drinking sodas together at barbeques, when the primary motive behind the conversation is not to learn about the religion, but to learn about the friend.

Bob Roberts, the Senior Pastor of the Northwood Church in Texas, said that he was terrified of Islam until he was sent to the Middle East and actually met Muslims; now he is committed to bringing together people of different faiths in his community, so that his congregation can learn what he did: that other religions aren’t so scary after all.

The conference’s other overarching theme was the value of respecting diversity while searching for points of unity. Every Muslim speaker quoted a sura from the Quran that states that God created different races, genders, and religions; therefore God must value diversity, or else all people would have been created in the same way. All the conference’s panelists had obvious respect for each other as people of sincere faith, despite theological differences. However, one of the most moving moments of the conference was when Younis described visiting the Lincoln Memorial and seeing the plaque commemorating Reverend Martin Luther King Junior’s “I Have a Dream” speech. He realized then, he said, that being American is a point of unity.

The religious pluralism inherent to the United States is a powerful common ground between faiths, and an important place to begin interfaith conversations. The conference was therefore based on the same principles that guide the Interfaith Alliance: respecting and protecting the First Amendment and the religious freedom that it creates.

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