The month before the deadly attacks on a Paris magazine office and a Jewish market, a small group of United Methodist and Muslim young adults in Norway discovered they had more in common than they realized.
Interaction with representatives of the Tauheed Mosque in Oslo was a key part of the first United Methodist Ecumenical and Interreligious Training event in Europe.
Sheikh Mahmoud, the mosque’s leader, and United Methodist Bishop Christian Alsted of the Baltic and Nordic Area began by stressing the need for interreligious dialogue, for a peaceful society and respect for all.
Then, two young leaders from both faith traditions — Shaheer Ghulam Nabi and the Rev. Frøydis Grinna — spoke about their experience of being a religious minority in a society where secularism is on the rise. Eventually, all participants had a chance to talk together.
The Rev. Stephen J. Sidorak Jr., who helped organize the training and lectured at the event, noted later that some of the young people had more in common with their Muslim counterparts than with secular friends when it came to faith issues.
Sidorak , top executive for the Office of Christian Unity and Interreligious Relations of the United Methodist Council of Bishops, said he was heartened by “the feeling there’s hope for a younger generation to get together interreligiously.” Building interreligious relations, he added, is one of the main ingredients for a healthy society.
Condemn violence, encourage dialogue
Reaction from faith groups was swift after the Jan. 7 attacks in Paris that claimed 17 victims and prompted massive rallies of solidarity in support of free speech and tolerance in France and elsewhere.
The United Methodist presence in France is very small. In 2005, congregations became part of the Switzerland-France-North Africa Conference of the denomination’s Central Conference of Central and Southern Europe.
The Union de l'Eglise Evangélique Méthodiste en France posted statements on the church’s website from various faith groups condemning the attacks and has followed the issue on its Twitter feed. The Protestant Federation of France, of which United Methodists are a part, called for its members to participate in the Jan. 11 marches and rallies.
The Rev. Ivan Abrahams, a South African who serves as top executive of the World Methodist Council, called for a “fresh commitment” to work for a just peace after the attacks. “This violence serves as an affront to freedom, human rights and the security of all people,” he said.
Promoting interreligious dialogue is an important role of the World Council of Churches, whose officials met Jan. 13 in Geneva with Secretary General Faisal Bin Muammar and other officials from the King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue.
“Through my work I have seen and felt how the vast majority of human beings everywhere are against all the crimes perpetrated in the name of religion,” Muammar said during the meeting. “Therefore, I am a strong believer in dialogue and in building bridges.”
Participants in a WCC communications forum Jan. 12 in the Geneva Ecumenical Center used the Paris attacks as a starting point to reflect on freedom of expression, religious values and the role of churches on those issues.
While participants unanimously condemned the violence, they had a diversity of opinions about freedom of expression in cases where it enflamed interreligious tensions, demonized or stereotyped religious traditions, or conveyed fears of others, the WCC reported.
Religious minorities in secular society
The dialogue started in Norway is expected to continue.
Karl Anders Ellingsen, a communicator and editor for The United Methodist Church in Norway, said in an email that he had spoken with several participants from the December training after the attacks in Paris.
“We all agree that this only strengthens our resolve to carry on this path of dialogue and meetings that we have taken the first steps on,” he wrote. “For us, it deepens our understanding of Muslims and their life in our society, making it easier to interact in a positive and respectful way.”
Ellingsen noted that Mahmoud, the mosque leader, “took a firm position” in the local media condemning the attacks and killings in the name of Islam in Paris. But Mahmoud also pointed out that cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed are painful and offensive to all Muslims.
The past history of discrimination against Norwegian Methodists in a dominant Lutheran society helps the church relate to the lack of voice for Muslims in Norway’s society today, Ellingsen said. “It is a good base for understanding and mutual respect.”