Promoting the Culture of Encounter


During the first week of the New Year, I was invited to speak at the conference “Evangelical Responses to Islamic Revival” held by Manchester University’s Nazarene Theological College in Great Britain, which explored theological issues; the context of Islam; and the role of Christians with a Muslim background. Many leaders from the surrounding area and scholars attended the conference to discuss these contemporary issues facing Christian and Muslim relations hoping it would provide a good resource to engage in beneficial relationships. I was asked to come speak on Musalaha’s work, particularly how we facilitate relationships between Muslims and Christians.

While attending the conference, I had the opportunity to meet with Phil Rawlings the director of the Manchester Centre for the Study of Christianity and Islam. Phil took Musalaha’s reconciliation curriculum and applied it to three different groups of Christians and Muslims in the greater Manchester area with good results from the participants. It is a great encouragement to see our curriculum bearing fruit in a location far from its development and in a context vastly different from the one in Israel and Palestine. At the same time, however, Phil voiced problems and frustrations in his attempts to apply this process to the Manchester area. He and other leaders were having difficulty recruiting Christians in the area to meet with Muslims.

In some ways, this is to be expected. There can be a vast differences between Muslims and Christians in language and culture. Facing someone with a different cultural, geographic, political, and religious identity is intimidating; it creates uneasiness in the participants and often, unbeknownst to them, fear of the other. This fear is innate and raises its head when it senses one’s identity is threatened, no matter how minor the threat. However, there is a particular sense of fear amongst the Christians that by engaging with Muslims, Christians will be forced to change. Many Christians in Britain have integrated their lives fully with the secular lifestyle and culture of those around them. Muslims tend to ask hard questions about this integration, which forces Christians to wrestle with these issues and potentially radically change their identities. This is a difficult and uncomfortable process that many Christians do not want to go through.

When we face mass changes in our home’s physical and cultural identity, we become nervous. This is not a new phenomenon. Receiving countries of mass migrations have always been suspicious of the influx of new peoples especially if the migrants’ appearance, culture, and customs, are vastly different from their own. Countries and history have moved forward most often with societies creating space for the new members.  Now is no different. We need only to realize the underlying fear and allow our identities to work past it. This way as individuals and societies we can create the space necessary for the new members. As Pope Francis states in his message on migrants, “Concern for fostering good relationships with others and the ability to overcome prejudice and fear are essential ingredients for promoting the culture of encounter, in which we are not only prepared to give, but also to receive from others. Hospitality, in fact, grows from both giving and receiving.”

by Salim J. Munayer Ph.D.