Rabbi, Bishop and Islamic Scholar Honored for Work in Interfaith Dialogue
By Jonathan Hayden
Washington, DC

In his book The Dignity of Difference, Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom Jonathan Sacks says that there is a dire need for religious leaders to take part in conversation. There are questions that must be answered if we are to avoid a “Clash of Civilizations.” “Can we live together? Can we make space for one another? Can we overcome long histories of estrangement and bitterness?” He goes on to ask, “Can we recognize God’s image in one who is not in my image?” The world is faced with a “supreme challenge”, says Sacks.
At least three men have stepped up to the challenge to answer these questions that have been ignored for too long. Senior Rabbi Bruce Lustig, Bishop John Chane and Dr. Akbar Ahmed have started a dialogue between the Abrahamic faiths that started in simple friendship. Ahmed says that this is the most important ingredient to a successful dialogue, “Dialogue with out friendship is just conversation, empty words”.

From left to right:The Reverend Clark Lobenstine, HE Ambassador Nabil
Fahmy, Dr. Akbar Ahmed, Bishop John Chane and Senior Rabbi Bruce Lustig

The three met when Lustig’s wife Amy introduced herself to Ahmed, then to Rabbi Lustig at a dinner in 2002. Shortly thereafter, the Rabbi and the Bishop met at a neighborhood gathering. The Rabbi then invited both over for a dinner at his home, and the three instantly connected. Their friendship was born and has been nurtured ever since. They have made many public appearances to educate, encourage and offer a paradigm to their ever-growing flock. But, it is important to note that this is not for show. They meet regularly in private to advise each other, find a common ground between their respective religions, and, equally as important, to embrace their differences. They have been able to see each other’s religions in a whole new way, and in turn grown deeper in their faith without compromising. As Sacks says, dialogue is “not a threat to our identity but a call to a moral and spiritual generosity”.
To each of them, the dialogue is something bigger than themselves. They each feel they are called to participate and that God, in a way, ordained the dialogue and their friendship. Ahmed believes that the three of them are “called to this discussion to bring our hopes to the table and challenge each other to realize them.”
Chane paints a picture of a world in need of dialogue, “Now more than ever, such work is essential in a world too often defined by vindictive violence, religious hegemony, and an utter disrespect for human life”. He goes on to speak of their friendship as “a work that attempts to build the bridges that can connect these three great world religions to the dialogue that must occur if we as God’s sons and daughters can ever hope to live in peace and harmony.”
“Bruce, Akbar and I represent the dreamers and visionaries of our global community who witness to the love and acceptance of the God of Abraham as we experience that God through Isaac, Ishmael, Moses and Jesus”, says Chane. He says that although there are some who are afraid dialogue with someone of a different faith means that you compromise you own faith, “Nothing could be farther from the truth. By coming to know each other more fully, we have come to know and respect each others religious traditions and practices and have found our own pathways to God strengthened and our commitments to our own religious traditions re-affirmed.”
In February, Dr. Ahmed was honored at a special Evensong, held at the National Cathedral. He has described this as the highlight of his career. In his speech, the Rabbi spoke of their relationship being an “I-Thou” relationship. In an “I-Thou” relationship, Lustig says, “We are transformed. We see the divinity in the other and the other is changed forever as well…God is present”.
Earlier this month, they were invited to engage in a dialogue in front of a nationally televised audience on C-SPAN’s Close Up hosted by John Milewski. The session had 200 students, who had traveled form the Muslim World, asking questions to the three panelists about US policy, conflict between the faiths and general public affairs. Educators around the country will use it as a teaching tool.
What is amazing is that after these public dialogues, the love that is so obvious between the three spreads throughout the crowd. It is beautiful to see the example set by the three. After watching these engaging speakers it is not uncommon to see men and women from all different faiths with tears in their eyes, embracing each other, regretting the failures of the past, vowing to continue dialogue and hoping for next generation.
So, it was only natural that when the Interfaith Conference of Greater Washington decided to give its First Annual Interfaith Bridge Builders Award on June 14 that they chose the three close friends and leaders. Ambassador Nabil Fahmy, who has been involved in a dialogue along with Dr. Ahmed, was also honored for his commitment to the cause. Nearly three hundred people showed up at The Egyptian Embassy to honor the eminent scholars. Not only the ”Abrahamic” faiths, but also many others were represented at the event. Ambassador Fahmy welcomed everyone and spoke of the importance of dialogue. Rev. Bob Norris, head of the Royal Poinciana Chapel in Palm Beach flew in from Florida just to make the presentation to Dr. Ahmed. The two had first become acquainted when Rev. Norris invited Ahmed to be the first Muslim to speak in his church. The messages of the speakers were, as usual, well received by the audience.
The large number of attendees is impressive, but when you take into account that this was a fundraiser and people were paying to come and see these men, it is remarkable. It speaks to the thirst for leadership, the desire for peace and the fears for the future. Muslims, Jews, Christian, Sikhs, Hindus, Zoroastrians amongst others could be seen milling around the beautiful Embassy affectionately talking, trading business cards, ultimately embracing the dialogue. On this evening, the dreams of the three honorees were realized.
In a time where religions are unfairly defined by the extremists, what role can moderate leaders play in healing the world of its brokenness due to the fighting? To some, religion itself is the problem. These three men would disagree. As Bishop Chane has said, “Religion is not a problem, individuals are the problem.” These leaders see a return to their respective religious traditions as the answer. Their hope is in the common set of values between the religions – compassion, justice, human solidarity and respect for one another.
Christians, Jews and Muslims are commanded to love one another (Matthew 19:19, Leviticus 19:18, Surah 49:13). As it’s most basic, this dialogue allows them to do just that. The fundamental outgrowth of the dialogue is that it makes them better followers of their own faith. It is much easier to love someone when you know what they look like, when you have been in their house, eaten at their table. This is a gift that they have given to each other and allowed others to see and emulate.
Chane sums it up best when he says of the three, “We are brothers on a journey. For me, it is the hope of the world.”


Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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