The National Council of Churches has called for a “dialogue of civilizations” amid interfaith tensions inflamed after European newspapers published offensive cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, setting off violent riots in a number of countries.

“We strongly affirm the freedom of the press,” Shanta Premawardhana, associate general secretary of the NCC for interfaith relations, said Monday, “but are deeply disturbed by the inability of the press to understand and respect the sensitivities of religious people.”

“In the context of a widespread and growing Islamophobia in both Europe and the United States, the offense is not only an affront to deeply held religious convictions, but an irresponsible case of cultural stereotyping,” he said.

Premawardhana expressed solidarity with North American Islamic organizations for “disciplined restraint” in advocating diplomacy and education solutions. He affirmed the right of Muslim people to protest but “strenuously condemned” violence, particularly attacks on Danish embassies.

Premawardhana called for a “dialogue of civilizations,” bringing together not only religious leaders, but also leaders in politics, academia, media and business.

“Such a dialogue will encourage participants to a common table at which we can educate each other about those parts of our faith and life that are most holy and significant,” he said. “It will also provide the opportunity for people of different faiths to come together on values that unite us.”

The statement came as the World Council of Churches convened its first General Assembly of the 21st century Feb. 14-23 in Porto Alegre, Brazil. The theme of the meeting, the ninth since the WCC’s founding in 1948, is “Transform the World.”

The first assembly in Latin America is expected to bring together about 800 delegates and more than 1,200 other church leaders. The WCC is an international ecumenical body composed of nearly 350 Orthodox and Protestant denominations in 120 countries.

The WCC is halfway through its Decade to Overcome Violence, launched in 2001 to mobilize churches’ peacemaking resources.

“The question for the churches remains: how can we together foster a culture of peace, seeking to restore the authentic nature of our humanity, in a context where violence has become so prevalent,” Samuel Kobia, general secretary of the Geneva-based body, said, quoted by Religion News Service.

In a statement issued before the cartoon controversy erupted, Kobia endorsed efforts to foster inter-religious dialogue.

“The ongoing tension between different religious traditions points to the necessity of deepening our relations with neighbors of other faiths, moving beyond dialogue to active collaboration in areas of common concern,” Kobia said.

Interfaith relations is one of five program commissions of the New York-based National Council of Churches, the leading ecumenical organization in the United States with 36 member communions representing 50 million adherents and 140,000 local congregations nationwide.

Other NCC programs include education and leadership ministries, Bible translation, environmental justice, faith and order, church renewal, public policy research and advocacy, research and communication and work to reduce poverty.

The National Council of Churches’ Commission on Interfaith Relations and Office for Interfaith Relations are charged with coordinating and facilitating the interfaith work of the NCC. Their goal is to help the NCC and member communions explore challenges and opportunities of living among people of other faiths.

Premawardhana, a Baptist minister, was elected to his current post in 2003. A native of Sri Lanka, he served 14 years as senior pastor of Chicago’s Ellis Avenue Church (formerly Cornell Baptist Church).

While there he was president of Hyde Park and Kenwood Interfaith Council, one of the nation’s oldest interfaith organizations, and also worked in a congregation-based community organizing network linking Christian, Jewish and Muslim congregations across racial, ethnic and economic lines to work together for issues of social justice and immigrant rights. He is a past vice president of the Alliance of Baptists.

He has a master’s degree in comparative religion in Buddhism and Christianity and a doctorate in phenomenology of religions, with a specialty of Hinduism of Christianity. Growing up as the son and grandson of Baptist preachers in religiously pluralistic Sri Lanka, recognition of religious devotion among various religions was an early part of his religious formation.

Premawardhana commended earlier calls for global interfaith dialogue, including a recent call by the Philippine government to bring interfaith dialogue to the United Nations. He said such initiatives should “help inculcate new rules of civic behavior respectful of other cultures and religions in the growing pluralism and, indeed, interaction of cultures and religions in most metropolitan areas around the world.”

Bob Allen is managing editor of

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