My book Why Religions Work explores religious tolerance issues. It could not be more relevant at the moment with the world in its present state.
This blog has concentrated recently on the wonderful pilgrimages I have been on - to the Holy Land and to Turkey and more recently to Holy Georgia , Greece "In the Steps of St Paul" , Ethiopia and most recently my experiences in Iran.

"If I was allowed another life I would go to all the places of God's Earth. What better way to worship God than to look on all his works?" from The Chains of Heaven: an Ethiopian Romance Philip Marsden

Sunday, 22 September 2013

A Common Word...and World Interfaith Harmony

In September 2005 Pope Benedict XVI gave an address at the University of Regensburg, where he had once been Professor of Theology, on Faith, Reason and the University: Memories and Reflections. Part of this Regensburg address, as it became known, was taken as provocative and insulting by certain parts of the Muslim community, and sparked mass street protests in many Islamic countries. Pakistan called on the Pope to retract what it called “this objectionable statement.” The Pope apologized to Muslims and assured them that the passage quoted did not reflect his own views. 

Relations between Muslims and Christians at that time were stormy and deteriorating. Into this climate a letter was launched, printed in The New York Times in October 2007, signed by 138 leading Muslim intellectuals and scholars. It extended a hand to the leaders of the world’s Christian churches and denominations, including His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, in a call for peace and harmony between the two religions worldwide. The letter, “A Common Word Between Us and You”, outlined the basis of this offering, in the spirit of the shared doctrine of love of God and love of neighbor on which dialogue could be opened.
The handshake was symbolically returned within just over a month, in a letter known as the Yale Response, also published in The New York Times (accompanied by the release of an Arabic translation in the United Arab Emirates). It was written originally by four Christian scholars, and then endorsed by more than 500 Christian theologians and leaders, representing many hundreds of millions of Christians across the globe. 

From this exchange of handshakes has grown an organization based on the expressed purpose to find common ways, in Christianity and Islam, to work together for the social good of all. Grievances are recognized on both sides of the faith divide; it is acknowledged that there are some irreconcilable differences of interpretation on both sides, some difficult questions to deal with.

Sixty leading Christian figures including H.H. Pope Benedict XVI responded to the document in the two years following its issue. A Common Word has been the subject of major international conferences at Yale University, the University of Cambridge, Lambeth Palace, Georgetown University, and other venues. University and college courses have been built around the initiative, it has spawned hundreds of articles and books, won various awards and led to the launch of the UN World Interfaith Harmony Week. Nearly half a million people have visited its official website to date. However, while millions will view the latest YouTube frivolity within hours or days, less than 13,000 have signed up on the Common Word site since 2007 to endorse its intentions and less than 600 people "like" its Facebook page. Now isn't that a tragedy?

We must all hope and pray that the momentum of this initiative is not lost and that the movement continues to fulfill its promise of ever more understanding and respect between these two religions.

Recent events yet again remind us that relationships between the Muslim and Christian worlds are undoubtedly of the greatest importance in forging a more peaceable future for us all, given the sheer numbers involved, and the grievances, differences, prejudices, and caricatures forged out of misunderstandings, which both religions can claim. Nonetheless, other faiths and belief systems must not be ignored. As Professor David F. Ford, Director of the Cambridge Inter-faithProgram has said:
“Our society is not simply secular; nor is it simply religious; it is both religious and secular in complex ways. If it is to work well there need to be huge numbers of conversations and collaborations across religious and secular boundaries.

From the founding of the World Parliament of Religions in 1893 to the latest A Common Word initiative in 2007 and beyond, has much changed? We have certainly failed to prevent dreadful wars and mass genocides, and we live under greater threats than could have been conceived possible a century ago. We have to continue promoting and forging peaceful dialogue between religions, so that we may come to understand that we are as one in our beliefs to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves. This will need plenty of work by religious leaders, who bear an awesome responsibility for ensuring that this unifying message of love and peace trickles down to the mass population: because trickle down it must! And it will need responsible media. We need their cooperation and support in spreading awareness of the good work being done by religions across the world, in informing the general public of this huge social capital that seems to be largely unappreciated.

As individuals we are not let off the hook either. We have an equally vital role to play: in building on empathy and compassion, and love for all, seeking our own ways of bridging gaps, building up from grass roots. Think of stalactites and stalagmites meeting, of ideas trickling down through the hierarchies, and growing upwards from the masses, until we reach a point of coalescence, where there is a total fusion of ideas and actions, coming from different directions: 

all working towards the same common good.


  1. It is often hard to bridge the gap of mistrust between religions when many are so certain that theirs is the only way, truth, and light. It's important not to become hateful when others behave in a disrespectful way to one's sincerely held beliefs and practices.

    1. Oh that is so so true - which is why I always call for respect not just tolerance - and respect comes from understanding and understanding comes from education - but oh what a long long road ahead!!...

  2. BTW, have you seen the YouTube video, "In One Voice" on mysticism in many religions?