During the annual gathering of the Baptist World Alliance (BWA) in Ocho Rios, Jamaica, several speakers urged Baptists to understand and engage Muslims to advance the common good in the Middle East.
The presentations came during a joint session on Monday of two BWA Freedom & Justice Commissions – the commissions on Baptist-Muslim Relations and Human Rights Advocacy.

In addition to presentations from six speakers from four nations, three dozen participants from around the world attended the discussion and joined the dialogue. Similar discussions will occur later in the week.

According to the speakers, relations between Muslims and Christians remain caught in a complex web of historical, sectarian, relational, political and geographical factors. Yet, the speakers offered hope for greater engagement that could help provide more stability for the struggling and oppressed Baptist communities in the Middle East.

“Our role is to stay in the area as minority, born-again Christians,” stated presenter Nabil Costa, executive director of the Lebanese Baptist Society. “We believe that we need to stay in the Middle East. This is something for prayers. We don’t want to leave, although we are always tempted to leave. God has something special for us.”

During his presentation, Costa provided rich background of the “Arab Spring,” including looking at differences in various nations, competing groups and interests involved, and changes in the nations as a result of the political shifts.

Once contextualized, Costa explained the responses of the local churches where “the evangelicals or the Baptists are the minorities of the minority.”

“Christians, they wanted the regime to stay [in countries like Egypt and Syria] because they gave us assurance that they are not killing the Christians,” Costa explained, before adding that as a minority, Christians are an “easy target.”

Quoting Psalm 75:6-7, Costa added that Christians in these nations are less concerned with forcing regime change than they are with protecting human life and pushing key values like freedom and human dignity.

Despite the difficulties mentioned in his talk, Costa ended on an optimistic note by noting that there exists for Baptists and other Christians in the Middle East “a very genuine dialogue with Muslims.”

Donald Berry, professor of religious studies at Gardner-Webb University in the United States, similarly noted concerns arising in the post-“Arab Spring” Middle East.

Connecting the issue of Baptist-Muslim relations to human rights advocacy, he noted the current problem of “atrocious human rights abuses” and that such abuses “have skyrocketed in the Middle East and North Africa.”

“Basically, these groups are targeting minorities,” Berry added, noting that this includes Christians.

Tony Peck, a British Baptist now from the Czech Republic, echoed the concern for Baptists in the Middle East as a small minority group. Speaking on the issue of Israel-Palestine relations, Peck noted that some Baptists in that region refer to themselves as “a minority of a minority of a minority.”

Peck serves as general secretary of the European Baptist Federation (EBF), a regional group of the BWA. Among the member unions in the EBF are the Association of Baptist Churches in Israel and the Council of Local Evangelical Churches in the Holy Land (Palestinian Territories). He shared stories from Baptists in both groups, calling the individuals “bridge voices.”

As Peck moved from talking about Baptists in “Israel Proper” to Baptists in the Palestinian territories, he used pictures to help the audience move through a checkpoint at the Israeli wall that cuts through the land. He added that one reason there are two different Baptist bodies in the area is because the wall that separates the communities makes fellowship difficult.

Peck ended his presentation by critiquing Christian Zionism, a belief that Israel must receive all the “promised land” to pave the way for the second coming of Christ. Peck noted this theology creates for the religious and political problems, including causing difficulties for evangelical Christians in Palestine.

Other Palestinians, including some other Christian groups, sometimes react negatively toward evangelical Palestinians because of concerns about Christian Zionism, which is popular among some evangelical groups in the U.S. and parts of Europe.

David Kerrigan, general director of BMS World Mission based in the United Kingdom, also expressed his concern that Christian Zionism hampers Israel-Palestine relations.

After talking about historical and contemporary changes in the region that led to the “small but vibrant Christian community” in Palestine “being squeezed out,” Kerrigan added that he disagrees with Christian Zionism. “To reconcile a God of justice with these events is impossible,” he explained. “So I would read the Scriptures in a different way.”

Kerrigan’s remarks came in the midst of a vigorous discussion in the room regarding biblical interpretations about God’s promise of the land to Abraham’s descendants. An individual who voiced support for Christian Zionist interpretations left the room after being challenged to reread Genesis to see how the texts describe the land going to many nations who are descendants of Abraham.

Kerrigan also connected the discussion about Israel-Palestine relations to the larger focus on Baptist-Muslim relations.

“Near to the heart of our relationships between Christians and Muslims lies the issue of Israel and Palestine,” he explained.

Paul Fiddes, professor of systematic theology, and Nicholas Wood, director of the Centre for Christianity and Culture, both at Regent’s Park College in the United Kingdom, talked about the follow-up efforts to the “Common Word” Baptist-Muslim dialogue efforts.

After a group of Muslim scholars issued a document on the shared teachings of love for God and love for neighbor (called “A Common Word between Us and You”), BWA leaders crafted a response that affirmed the call for dialogue to find common ground.

The “Common Word” documents served as the starting point for the first national Muslim-Baptist dialogue in the United States in 2009.

Offering their perspectives as British Baptists, Fiddes and Wood both expressed optimism that dialogue efforts between Baptists and Muslims will continue to spread.

While Wood provided a historical look at Muslims in Europe, Fiddes talked about current efforts to continue the dialogue through an endowed chair at Regent’s Park College in Oxford (a Baptist school).

For a session with as weighty a goal as urging Baptists to better understand and engage Muslims, only the clock could bring the discussion to a close. Although clearly explaining how much more work remains, the presenters at least accomplished their goal for those in the room by providing new information, context and motivation.

Brian Kaylor is a contributing editor for EthicsDaily.com.

Editor’s note: The “Common Word” documents became the foundation for EthicsDaily.com’s 2010 documentary, “Different Books, Common Word: Baptists and Muslims,” which aired on 130 ABC-TV stations.

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