WASHINGTON, May 7 (UPI) -- Top American evangelicals met in Washington Wednesday to begin the daunting process of trying to square a circle.
Here is the problem: How do you dialogue with Muslims without engaging in syncretism -- the mixing of religions traditional Christians eschew?
How do you proceed without minimizing, on the one hand, the difference between Christianity and Islam -- and without trading gratuitous insults on the other, as Diane Knippers, President of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, phrased it?
At a Consultation on Evangelical Christian-Muslim Relations, organized by the IRD and the National Association of Evangelicals, fellow conservative Christians, such as the Rev. Franklin Graham, were gently rebuked for calling Islam a wicked and evil faith.
In an interview with United Press International, Richard Cizik, a Washington-based NAE vice president, also bemoaned the anti-Muslim stridency of a young generation of evangelicals in politics, in whose rhetoric Islam has often replaced the now-defunct Soviet Union as foe.
"If the hard right has its way, we will have a Huntington," said Cizik, referring to the warning by Harvard professor Samuel P. Huntington of a clash of civilization.
The 60-odd participants in Wednesday's consultation all seemed to agree that a dialogue was essential, even though a survey of evangelical leaders in the U.S. revealed that 77 percent had an unfavorable view of Islam.
In a poll commissioned by the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a Washington-based think tank, and belief.net, an Internet publication, 76 percent of the respondents said Islam opposes religious freedom.
Almost as many stated that Islam is against pluralism and democracy and the Sharia legal system (72) violates human freedom. Only 10 percent agreed with President George W. Bush that Islam is "a religion of peace."
According to EPPC vice president Michael Cromartie, questionnaires were sent out to 700 evangelical leaders around the country; 350 responded.
Yet while American evangelicals are -- in Cizik's words -- "unsophisticated" about Muslims, there is a need "to pull down barriers," according to Clive Calver of World Relief, the NAE's humanitarian arm.
In doing so, it would be counterproductive to denounce Islam as evil and Mohammed as a pedophile, as some conservative Protestants have done in the past. "We must copy our lord and wash feet," Calver said.
Proper distinctions must be made between dialogue, which the Bible requires as a form of evangelism (Acts 17:1-4, 17), and interfaith activities, such as joint prayers, in which mainline Protestants engage.
"We would not go to Assisi," declared Cizik referring to the peace summit to which Pope John Paul II invited leaders of most world religions, even though he only prayed with Christians -- Protestants included -- in the same room.
To dialogue well with Muslims, the IRD presented to the consultation Guidelines marked by great theological rigor. These Guidelines hold it "appropriate and necessary to... seek to understand Islam and Muslim peoples."
Christians are to open themselves to "talk with all varieties and stations of Muslims (and) give testimony to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, because it is our duty to do so."
Clearly rejecting the mushy approach by some mainline Protestants to interfaith discussions, the Guidelines advise evangelicals to "make sure that Christians entering into dialogue with Muslims have a firm grasp of an orthodox faith in the mainstream of the Christian tradition."
To avoid the impression that the dialogue between members of both faiths is another "North-South confrontation," Christians from Africa and Asia should be included.
Points of theology and morality Christians and Muslims have in common should be affirmed, especially the concepts of natural law and common grace, thus refuting the claim by secularists that these are narrowly Christian doctrines that do not belong in the public square.
Deep differences between the two religions must be addressed, however, especially those relating to the person of Jesus Christ. At the same time, though, Christians should cooperate with Muslims on mutual concerns, such as the opposition to abortion or the resettlement of refugees.
Furthermore, evangelical churches are to "find ways (to) practically show the love of Christ by being of service to our Muslim neighbors, here in the U.S. and internationally."
At the same time, human and religious rights should be discussed. Christians should intercede for coreligionists persecuted in Muslim nations and "commit themselves to safeguard the liberties of Muslims in America."
But the Guidelines also state what would be inappropriate and damaging, for example, the "attempt to meld Christianity and Islam, pretending that they have the same basic teaching and that the differences between the two are merely trivial points of theology."
From the evangelical perspective, interfaith organizations should be merely forums for dialogue and channels of limited cooperation but "not bodies that pretend to a false unity where none exists."
Common acts of worship are to be avoided. "As Christians who worship God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we find any worship that omits those names and concepts of God (offensive to Muslims) to be impoverished."
The Guidelines warn of elitism. Evangelicals should not only talk to "elite scholars and religious officials... it may be even more important to know the 'popular Islam' as it is practiced in the street."
And there is another warning -- of false illusions. It would be damaging to "assume that dialogue, in itself, is the solution to the theological and political issues between Christians and Muslims."
Dialogue may enable both sides to cooperate more easily where cooperation is possible. The Guidelines remind evangelicals that mutual ignorance is a problem between Christians and Muslims; "however, it is not the deepest problem."
Quoting religious rights scholar Paul Marshall of Freedom House in Washington, the Guidelines point out: "The (extreme Islamist) people engaged in persecution are neither stupid nor uneducated... We will not understand persecution of we think it as a mere misunderstanding to be resolved through more education and chatty conferences."
Marshall told the participants in Wednesday's consultation that extremists like those involved in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington were neither uneducated nor poor but by and large former "graduate students with wealthy backgrounds."
As for the Muslim in the street, the Rev. Gus Al-Khal, a Syrian-born pastor of a congregation of Arab Christians in Bethlehem, Pa., suggested that there are more open ears among them than Westerners are inclined to think:
"A lot of Muslims are searching."