Event Opens New Conversation with Islamic World

Meeting in Amman, Jordan, focuses on "freedom and respect"

Presenters at the "Teaching Respect for Religion" symposium [Photo: IRLA]It may have looked, in many ways, like just another religious freedom conference—a group of scholars, political representatives, and legal experts exploring ways to build respect for different religious traditions. But last week’s “Teaching Respect for Religions Symposium,” held in Amman, Jordan, represented a historic step forward in dialogue between the Islamic world and advocates for religious freedom.

The one-day conference, held March 1 at the Amman College of Al- Balqa Applied University, marked just the second time in the 119-year history of the International Religious Liberty Association that it has convened an event on Middle Eastern soil.

“This conference has opened up an extraordinary opportunity for meaningful conversation with key Islamic leaders and thinkers about what it means to respect different religious traditions, and to live in harmony with one another,” said Dr. John Graz, Secretary-General of the IRLA. In his address to the group, Graz said that “two of the most powerful forces we can use to fight religious prejudice are knowledge about each other and building personal relationships.”

The symposium was co-sponsored by the Arab Bridge Center for Human Rights, a non-governmental organization founded by former Jordanian judge Dr. Amjad B. Shammout. It brought together IRLA experts, Islamic scholars and Imams, Jordanian law-enforcement leaders, youth leaders and members of the diplomatic community. Jordan’s Prime Minister, Dr. Marouf Suleiman al-Bakhit, lent his support to the event and he was represented there by Dr. Jiryis Samawy, Secretary General of the Ministry of Culture.

Dr. Delbert Baker, a vice president of the Seventh-day Adventist world church and vice president of the IRLA, spoke to the group about respect and freedom—principles which he said are held in common by both the Islamic and Judeo-Christian worlds. Yet, he said, too often a gap appears between theory and practice. He challenged his listeners to honestly analyze whether these principles flow into their everyday treatment of other people. When it comes to respect for religion, said Baker, “we must be prepared to both ‘talk the talk’ and ‘walk the walk.’”

Dr. William Johnsson, the IRLA’s coordinator for Interfaith Relations, was a key organizer of the event. He presented a paper, “Beyond Tolerance,” in which he pointed out the difference between “respect”—which actively affirms an individual’s right to religious freedom; and “tolerance—which can imply reluctance to grant someone their religious views.

According to Johnsson, the country of Jordan provided an ideal location for the symposium given its track record as “a moderate Islamic nation that models openness, tolerance and rejection of violence.” He helped facilitate an earlier, smaller gathering of religious freedom experts in Amman in September 2010, which he said helped pave the way for this month’s more public event.  [Bettina Krause/IRLA]