Recently, Pope Francis called for more active dialogue with Islam. But the pontiff's envoy to Muslim-majority Malaysia, who called for interfaith dialogue this past week, met opposition from Muslim groups objecting to Catholics using "Allah" to refer to God.
But just how widespread are interfaith-dialogue initiatives? According to a recent report by the Pew Research Center, such efforts occurred in 110 of the 198 countries (56%) in 2011.
Some of these efforts involved multiple countries. For instance, the governments of Saudi Arabia, Austria and Spain signed an agreement to establish the King Abdullah International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID) in October 2011. The center was inaugurated about a year later in Vienna, Austria, with the mission of fostering dialogue among members of different religions and cultures around the world.
Given that Saudi Arabia has among the world's highest levels of restrictions on religion, according to Pew Researchstudies, it is not surprising that the initiative drew mixed reactions. For differing perspectives on KAICIID, see Marc Schneider's “Amid Conflict, King Abdullah Interfaith Center Replaces Fear with Hope,” Elliot Abrams' “Plotting to Celebrate Christmas,” and the Economist's "The politics of inter-faith dialogue: It's (usually) good to talk."
- Indeed, the Pew Research analysis does not attempt to assess the effectiveness of particular initiatives. The study notes that gauging effectiveness is difficult, in part because some initiatives may take years to produce results while others may have a short-term impact but little or no effect over the longer term.
Other efforts documented by the Pew Research study focused primarily on fostering communication and cooperation among leaders of religious groups. In Bolivia, for instance, leaders of the Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Jewish and indigenous communities continued to hold interfaith meetings in 2011. For the first time, a representative of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints also regularly participated in the sessions.
Other interfaith-dialogue projects involved people-to-people contact. In November 2011, for instance, UNICEF and the Global Network for the Religion of Children, an interfaith children’s rights group, brought together more than 2,000 children of diverse religious backgrounds from the Tanzanian mainland and Zanzibar. The children participated in joint prayer sessions and attended music, drama and poetry events.
The purpose of some interfaith dialogues was to develop strategies to combat religious intolerance. In May 2011, for example, 80 Muslim and Jewish leaders from Ukraine and Russia met in Kiev to work on a strategy to fight anti-Semitism and discrimination against Muslims. In 2011, the government of Paraguay established a permanent interfaith forum to promote dialogue between various religions.
Governments sometimes encouraged interfaith dialogue as a strategy to reduce tensions between religious groups. For instance, the Liberian government encouraged Muslim-Christian dialogue in 2011 after mosques, churches and a Catholic school were damaged the previous year during religious violence in the northernmost part of the country.
* As an extension of its continuing research on restrictions on religion around the world, Pew Research counted and categorized (“coded”) reports of interfaith dialogue initiatives during calendar year 2011. Comparable data for previous years are not available.