Evangelicals, Muslims Have Milestone Meeting A meeting between evangelical Christians and Muslims might have been unthinkable several years ago. But recently, some followers from both faiths came together for a historic talk about healing their conflicted relationship.
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Evangelicals, Muslims Have Milestone Meeting

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Evangelicals, Muslims Have Milestone Meeting

Evangelicals, Muslims Have Milestone Meeting

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I'm Cheryl Corley in for Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, the influence of Motown and James Brown.

But first, it's time for our Faith Matters segment, where we explore issues of spirituality. Evangelical Christians and Muslims breaking bread in the same room seems an unthinkable event in this post-September 11th climate.

Five years ago, the late Reverend Jerry Falwell and other evangelical pastors were very public in their criticism of the Islamic faith and the Prophet Muhammad, but since then the rhetoric has been tempered.

Earlier this month, leaders of the evangelical Christian community, which included Falwell's son, and Arab diplomats met publicly to discuss how to lessen tension between Christian and Muslim groups.

Joining us to talk more about that meeting and the relationship between evangelical Christians and Muslims are Richard Cizik, the vice president for governmental affairs at the National Association of Evangelicals, and Aziz Mekouar, the Moroccan ambassador to the United States.

Welcome to you both.

Mr. AZIZ MEKOUAR (Moroccan Ambassador to the United States): Thank you.

Mr. RICHARD CIZIK (Vice President for Governmental Affairs, National Association of Evangelicals): Thank you.

CORLEY: Mr. Cizik, I mentioned earlier how really incendiary language was used in the past by some evangelical leaders when referring to Islam and especially after 9/11. But I wanted to know if what we're seeing is - if we talk about less combative language, for instance, is that simply a change in style or is there really something substantive going on here?

Mr. CIZIK: I think there is both. There is both a change in style, a need to be diplomats, if you will, diplomats. We evangelicals understand that words that are said here or even in the church basement can end up in the Middle East, broadcast widely.

When those incendiary comments were made in the past, it often impacted the Christian communities overseas. And for that reason, for example, in 2003, the National Association of Evangelicals challenged evangelists, missionaries, pastors and others to speak respectfully toward Islam, not attempting to minimize the differences but rather to simply say out of respect and out of this new world of globalization that we live in where communication can go around the globe in a virtual second, we have to learn to be a lot more circumspect.

And many of the individuals who had previously spoken, I think unwisely, were appropriately chastised, if you will. And they've not spoken so undiplomatically, let's put it that way, in recent years. But there's also a change that's occurring on a more substantive level, which is to say we have been typecast as evangelicals - particularly, I think Ambassador Mekouar would admit, in the Middle East - as universally, for example, as Christian Zionists. And that's a stereotype that won't hold water; we're not.

Now do we have a conviction as evangelicals about the right of the state of Israel to exist? Yes. But does that mean we are unalterably opposed to a two-state solution in the Middle East? Of course not. Do we as evangelicals care, for example, about the rights of Palestinians? Most assuredly. And so there is a change that's occurring as well substantively in our community that needs to be recognized.

CORLEY: Let me ask you both this question, and it's something that Mr. Cizik was speaking about when he talked about the support for Israel among evangelical Christians. What kind of response do you think this - in the broader community, outside of the groups of leaders that are meeting, is going to have? What's been the response so far and what are you hoping? Ambassador?

Mr. MEKOUAR: I think that what my friend Rich said about the two-state solution, the rights of Israel, the rights of the Palestinians, I think that today there is a common - the view on this here in the United States and the big majority, the government itself and the administration itself, President Bush speaks about it. He was the first to speak about two-state solution. I think that's a common view of almost everybody.

CORLEY: There have been similar dialogues between evangelicals and the Jewish community. There have been also with the Catholic community. I was interested in knowing, Mr. Cizik, if you thought that there were any impediments to foster some kind of greater understanding in this particular dialogue?

Mr. CIZIK: I think you have to look at the dialogue in the context of even today as opposed to, say, three or four years ago. Nearly all evangelicals supported the military response to the 9/11 attack, myself included, but have, many of us, millions of us evangelicals, begun to rethink the question, specifically the question of whether there is justifiably an unending war on terror here. And we perceive it as a rather amorphous and unending war on terror.

And what we are seeing within even the American evangelical community, which presently supports President Bush about 44 percent, which is down from 78 percent when he was elected the first time, what you're seeing is that yes, we do believe in a certain American exceptionalism and that we have a right and an obligation, a responsibility, a commitment you see to defend freedom.

But we also recognize, I think, that since the war in Iraq has gone so badly that there is a greater need by our policymakers here in Washington to understand the underlying religious world views, and the sectarian tensions even within the Muslim world, that requires maybe a different approach.

Mr. MEKOUAR: I would like to stress one fact, is that in the Muslim world and - let me talk about Morocco. If you go to Morocco, you will see a church, a synagogue and the mosque side by side and people living together very, very peacefully. And they have been living peacefully forever. And what I used to say is that we don't need to build bridges. The bridges are there. And the only thing that we need is to cross the bridges.

CORLEY: Aziz Mekouar is the Moroccan ambassador to the United States and Richard Cizik is the vice president for governmental affairs at the National Association of Evangelicals. Thank you so much.

Mr. CIZIK: Thank you, Cheryl.

Mr. MEKOUAR: Thank you. Thank you so much.

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