News has been published today that His Highness Shaikh Hamad Bin Mohammad Al Sharqi, Supreme Council Member and Ruler of Fujairah, has arrived in New York to participate in the interfaith dialogue. This event has been initiated by King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz under the sponsorship of the United Nations. The Saudi King has also arrived and enjoyed cordial talks with President-Elect Obama.
Congratulations is expressed to the Fujairah ruler not only for being chosen to participate in this event but to be asked to lead the UAE delegation and to address the international gathering on Wednesday.
One can only hazard a guess at why HH Shaikh Hamad Bin Mohammad Al Sharqi has been chosen to serve in such a key role at this historic three day event. The Fujairah Ruler is known as a man of welcome, hospitality and tolerance. In his own emirate he has followed the example of his father and shown welcome to all peoples. He has generously fostered the establishment of Christian churches, hospitals and other places of religious worship and activity in Fujairah. He will thus speak from his first-hand experience of many decades of extending peace to people of other faiths and cultures.
Some of the basic rules for participants at interfaith conferences are the following:
1. An interfaith gathering is a dialogue not a debate (as it has been called). Debates are about taking sides, scoring points and declaring winners and losers. Dialogues are about talking, listening, learning and understanding what others say and feel.
2. A three-day event has time limitations so expectations must be realistic. Those coming from eastern cultures like the Middle East will know only too well the importance of establishing and building a relationship before any business can be adequately discussed or transacted. A three-day conference can only begin to establish relationships and must necessarily point to other occasions for further discussion and learning.
3. Large numbers of people generally are invited to attend these gatherings because people of faith are people of diversity. All members of Islam do not think the same or share the same commitments. This is true for followers of Judaism and Christianity. Each of these religions have the same joke—‘Get two Muslims/Jews/Christians together and you have three opinions’! Moreover the countries from which participants have come to New York will shape and color their religious emphases and expression.
4. While the record of history will provide all too many instances of intolerance and violence between people of different faiths, effective interfaith dialogue never begins with the recalling of wrongs and debating areas of disagreement. A better starting point is to discover and discuss the issues and commitments that participants have in common. Seeking to find ‘common ground’ gives participants a place to stand together.
5. One of the paramount values that Islam, Judaism and Christianity share is the commitment to peace.
Arabs greet people with the expression السلام عليكم As-Salāmu `Alaykum ‘Peace be upon you’.
Jews greet each other with the greeting שלום עליכם Shalom Aleichem ‘Peace be upon you’.
Christians don’t have the word 'peace' in their everyday greeting but the concept of ‘peace’ is central to their understanding of God, human relationships and that state of wellbeing that includes the whole environment.
At an interfaith conference peace must begin as participants greet but peace must be the goal of the gathering and of all relationships in the places where participants return home.
Dr Geoff Pound
Image: The Ruler of Fujairah, H.H. Sheikh Hamad bin Mohammed Al-Sharqi, meets several years ago with Kofi Annan, the former Secretary-General of the United Nations.