Evangelical Christians Reach Out To Muslims

Nearly a year ago, evangelical Christian leaders gathered in Washington to try to moderate their rhetoric toward Islam and begin a more respectful, positive dialogue with Muslims around the world.

This week, a handful of evangelical ministers announced the first fruit of that effort, a plan to put on a Christian music festival, establish humanitarian relief projects and hold a theological conference in Morocco.

The goal, they said, is not to proselytize but to break down hostile images. “We have stereotypes of Muslims, and they certainly do of conservative Christians. They’re both caricatures we need to dispense with,” said the Rev. Richard Cizik, vice president for government affairs at the Washington-based National Association of Evangelicals.

The meeting of about 40 evangelical leaders last May followed highly publicized statements by the Rev. Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham, that Islam was an “evil” religion, and by the Rev. Jerry Vines, a past president of the Southern Baptist Convention, that Muhammad was a “pedophile.”

“We don’t want the whole Islamic world to think that a couple of spokesmen, though well-intentioned perhaps, speak for everyone. We’re taught to love people,” said the Rev. Harry L. Thomas, a Medford, N.J., producer of Christian concerts. “I don’t know anyone who has been won over by hate talk. We prefer to reach out and build some bridges.”

Cizik and Thomas were part of a nine-member delegation, including five evangelical clergy, that visited Morocco from Feb. 29 to March 8. They met with the North African nation’s prime minister, several cabinet ministers, regional governors, and top Muslim, Jewish and Roman Catholic authorities.

“I think a great deal of mutual trust came out of this first visit, which surprised me,” said the Rev. Rob Schenck, president of the National Clergy Council, an association of 5,000 U.S. clergy.

Cizik said top Moroccan officials enthusiastically agreed to a series of exchanges, partly because the pro-Western government wants to combat rising anti-American sentiment among young people.

Schenck said Operation Serve International, an evangelical relief organization based in Hamilton, Ohio, that has worked in Mexico, Egypt and Southeast Asia, will dispatch medical and dental teams to staff free clinics in rural areas of Morocco beginning later this year.

In addition, Schenck said he will coordinate a “theological exchange” to bring Muslim philosophers and evangelical Christian thinkers together for conversations that are “not just academic but spiritual.” The first session is tentatively scheduled in Morocco this fall, and the second meeting in the United States in 2005, he said.

Thomas said he was invited by regional officials in Marrakech to put on a one-day Christian contemporary music festival there next spring. He is the co-founder of Creation Festivals, which produces three-day outdoor Christian concerts with multimillion-dollar budgets in Pennsylvania and Washington state. But the Marrakech event will be on a smaller scale, and the musicians will be asked to forgo payment so that admission can be free, he said.

Cizik said none of these activities is a “ruse” for proselytizing.

“One thing the evangelical members of the delegation agreed on is that any Christian witness in the Muslim world must be a passive type of witness — by our lives, our actions, our disposition,” he said. “We did say to the Moroccans that it’s very important that Christians feel free to explain who we are and what we believe, and they assured us that would be no problem. But active proselytizing is a different question.”

Aziz Mekouar, Morocco’s ambassador to the United States, said his government is taking the evangelicals at their word.

“My point of view is, there are lots of misperceptions on both sides, and I think it’s good that people get together,” he said. “Here in the U.S., people have absolutely not the slightest idea what Islam is. It’s coming from the same revelation, the same scriptures, and they don’t know that. . . . On the other side, people didn’t know what evangelicals are, and they saw a bunch of nice people wanting to do good.”

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
Washington Post, USA
Apr. 10, 2004
Alan Cooperman

Religion News Blog posted this on Monday April 12, 2004.
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