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26 June 2015

Welcoming the convert

Advanced conversations have been taking place this year between Jim Stewart of Evangelical Alliance Wales and Abdul-Azim Ahmed of the Muslim Council of Wales regarding an exciting religious freedom initiative between leaders of the two respective faiths. The proposal, put forward by Jim a few months ago, was for a joint statement – signed by both Christian and Muslim leaders – to support the right of the individual to choose their faith.To many readers, this may seem surprising. Muslims don't support religious freedom, do they? Here, Jim takes us back to the beginning of the process.

Three years ago, I initiated research on the experiences of Christians in Wales who had come from a Muslim background. Conversion from one faith to another can be a taboo subject, but it is by no means a recent phenomenon: it has occurred throughout the centuries and across all the main faiths, and recent research indicates that the rate of conversion from the faith in which someone was raised, to another is increasing. The subject of conversion indeed merits careful study and, while the topic is interesting in general, the specific focus here on Islam has the potential to provide a more nuanced understanding of the issue.

From the initial research undertaken by the Alliance in Wales, I organised an event in Cardiff during interfaith week 2013 entitled: Welcoming the Convert. This event, which was supported by six Muslim organisations, had two speakers – one a Muslim from a Christian background and the other a Christian from a Muslim background. The attendees all contributed in a sensitive and respectful way, with no one trying to score points for their faith.

In September 2014, I became aware of a joint statement between Christian and Muslim leaders that was signed in Norway in 2007 in support of the right of the individual to choose their faith. This gave me the desire to see if something similar could be achieved in Wales. It was the only such collaboration between Christian and Muslim leaders that I was aware of, and challenged the often-held belief that Muslims do not support religious freedom.

Dr. Usama Hasan, a Muslim scholar who himself believes that the apostasy laws have to be repealed, acknowledged the need for a conversation within Islam on this subject. When speaking in March 2015 on the BBC's The Big Questions on apostasy, he said: "Muslims have to grapple with these difficult issues," and "have an honest discussion about their tradition". A website (apostasyandislam.blogspot.co.uk) created in 2007 by Muslims, provides examples of Islamic voices who have spoken publicly in support of religious freedom. While the debate may be ongoing, there are clear examples of Muslim leaders who have nailed their colours to the mast. In a Welsh context, it's with such Muslim leaders who see religious freedom as being rooted in the Quran that I'm seeking to find common ground and work with.

I drafted a version of the joint statement and circulated it to some Cardiff imams for comments. They were welcoming of it and had three suggested amendments, each of which I thought were positive. A symbolic event has now been mooted for later on this year where Christian and Muslim leaders from Cardiff will sign the statement. Here are five things I've learnt through the process:

1) The importance of good relationships and friendships.
In Wales we have the Faith Communities Forum, a body that meets twice a year with Wales' First Minister and the Interfaith Council of Wales – both of which facilitate the building of strong friendships and trust among leaders of Wales' different faith communities. Friendships were further strengthened last October as Welsh faith leaders spent four days together in Bosnia as part of a delegation, visiting Srebrenica and learning the lessons of the 1995 genocide of Bosnian Muslims.

2) The need to develop a "neutral" language to talk about delicate issues.
Islam has rarely been out of the news over the past year and many Christians have developed views as a result, many of which have been formed by the media and literature that they have read. Often however, Christians are only talking to other Christians about these issues - never more so than on social media! - and so there can be a lot of polarisation and stereotyping taking place. If we want to engage Muslims more in these issues – which we really need to - we will need to tone down the language a bit and establish common ground first. Remember how we as Christians felt when we heard about former athlete Jonathan Edwards no longer practising his faith? Conversations around religious conversion may involve sadness and a sense of loss and so we need to develop language in a gracious, respectful manner.

3) The need for honesty.
A criticism that has been levelled at interfaith forums is that they focus on respect and agreement, but avoid broaching difficult issues. In order to be able to explore issues such as religious conversion, we need to have the trust and friendship in place so that we can, if needed, discuss examples where someone's religious freedom has not been respected. Interfaith culture can actually discourage such conversations from taking place, insisting that we focus on commonality. But if not now, when can we have those conversations?

4) The need for humility.
We sometimes adopt a sense of superiority and arrogance when engaging in some interfaith issues, but we need to acknowledge when people who identify as Christians are guilty of the same things that we are condemning. For example, the practice of female genital mutilation – which some people associate with Muslim cultures - exists in some Christian cultures in Africa, and while we are not saying that it is as widespread as in non-Christian cultures, it is nevertheless important to recognise its existence.

5) The need for transparency.
The phenomenal growth in social media, the internet and other forms of communication mean that the need for transparency is greater than it ever has been if we want to have constructive interfaith conversations on delicate issues such as religious conversion. Understanding our motivation is important; for the joint statement I've mentioned, the main motivation is a peace-making one - for Christians and others to peacefully co-exist in Wales and to enjoy religious freedom. Factors such as human rights, equality and developing a nuanced and informed understanding of Wales' Muslim communities are all important as well.

What are the next steps? Apart from the Cardiff joint statement, discussions have been held with a view to organising meetings around Wales over the next year so that what has started in Cardiff can become a Wales-wide initiative.

We are mindful that within the Alliance there are a range of experiences and opinions about this topic. We are not able to cover all the issues involved in detail, but if you have any questions or comments, do feel free to get in touch by emailing info@eauk.org

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