REV Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, general secretary of the World Council of Churches (WCC), was recently in Kuala Lumpur for the 13th general assembly of the Christian Conference of Asia. Tveit has been heavily involved in interfaith dialogue as moderator of the Church of Norway-Islamic Council of Norway. He was also co-chair of the WCC Palestine-Israel Ecumenical Forum core group, and has called on churches to support a just and sustainable peace to the conflict.
In an exclusive interview on 15 April 2010 in Kuala Lumpur, Tveit shares with The Nut Graph his experience in crafting a joint declaration on religious freedom together with his Muslim partners in Norway.
Tveit during the Christian Conference of Asia’s general assembly
TNG: Tell us about the joint declaration on freedom of religion and the right to conversion. How did this document come about, and why was there a need for it?
Olav Fykse Tveit: [The right to change one’s faith is central to freedom of religion.] In this context, we raised the question: is missionary activity disturbing or even a problem for religious freedom? Can missionary activity be conducted in a way that doesn’t really give people a free choice? Are there unethical methods used to try to convince people to change their faith?
As we were doing this, some of our Muslim partners [in the Oslo Coalition on freedom of religion] said they knew of some Muslim groups conducting missionary activities in a non-ethical way. And they also knew of Christian groups doing the same. So we realised that this was not just about us being self-critical as Christians, but also a theme that many of us were interested in.
[In developing this declaration], we saw it as a national Norwegian issue and also an international issue. In Norway, it is not so much legal issues, but more of attitudes and behaviour. Whether families accept their children making another choice of religion, whether as Christians or Muslims … But if we want Norway to be a society where we can live well together, we as religious leaders have to be very clear in saying we have to accept the individual’s choice.
This is in accordance with our different faiths. Neither for Christianity nor Islam is there legitimacy in trying to make people hypocrites. We want people to be honest followers.
From a more international perspective, we also wanted to challenge the international context and discussion on this. Is religion really something you can regulate by laws? What kind of religion will that be in the end? We found that we had a common understanding of this as Muslims and Christians.
What was the international response to the joint declaration?
It received a lot of attention. Some responses have been, “This is very important, and also theologically right, thank you for raising this.” In some Muslim contexts, there have been discussions on whether [religious freedom] is possible or advisable.
In many other cultures, conversion is seen as disloyalty to the country, and not only a matter of faith. So some have said, “In Norway you can have this declaration, but in other countries it’s more complicated.”
Still, I think, both Muslims [and Christians] in Norway find it appropriate to say, “Well, this is how we see it, why are you not willing to discuss it?”
How does interfaith dialogue occur when one party is dominant in the dialogue? For example, if they are a majority in the country or have more political power?
My conviction and my experience is if the majority does not understand that the value of the dialogue is dependant on how valuable it is for the minority, then there is no sense in it. Otherwise, as long as it is seen as another expression of majority ruling over the minority, it makes no sense, and can also be devastating and destructive.
That means the majority has to believe in the power of humility, and not in the power of majority. To have another dimension in dialogue, not about numbers, but about what our values are, what kind of fellowship we want to have together, and what kind of solidarity we need if we want to live together in one society.
Another dimension is that we really have to apply the golden rule. What we want others to do for us, we should do for them. So we need to try to imagine ourselves in the others’ shoes. Muslims in Norway need the same rights as Christians to have their prayer rooms in public buildings, to express their faith publicly, to have access to halal food in the military service — all this is important.
If we as Christians say, “Well, that’s their problem”, we are not really following the golden rule. If we follow it, because we are also believers, we should fight for Muslim rights to have their religious expression.
I was very concerned about the debate and referendum on the right to build minarets in Switzerland. I realise that some argued, “Well, Christians don’t have the right to build churches in many Muslims countries either, so why should they have these rights in our countries?” It’s exactly that attitude that’s not bringing us further. Even if someone else is doing something wrong, we should not do the same.
I think Muslims also hear and see if you try to express that — that you are welcome here, be yourself, there is a way we can live together. Maybe that is also the best help for Christian minorities [in Muslim-majority countries]. Then, Muslims [in these countries can] see that Christians are really supporting Muslims and their rights in other cultures.
Ceiling of a church (left) and a mosque (Pics by beriliu and ctkirklees / sxc.hu)
What would your response be to those who say that having interfaith dialogue is legitimising other faiths and putting them on the same level as your own religion, and diluting claims of truth in your own religion?
What is the alternative to dialogue? That we don’t speak to one another? That we fight, or ignore or hurt one another?
If we are going to live together as human beings, we have to try to understand one another. We dialogue because we are different, not because we have the same thoughts and principles. It’s also important to identify what we have in common. These are ways to build fellowship.
I don’t see that the aim of dialogue is to agree on everything. Sometimes, it’s more important to understand: well, this is your perspective, I have another one. Sometimes, through dialogue, I can have a better understanding of my own religion because some things become clearer to me.
I don’t think that we should be in dialogue as a [method] of evangelism. Of course evangelism always means that we talk to one another and share with one another. But if dialogue is used as a kind of effort to convert, then it’s not real dialogue. In any dialogue, we have to be open to being convinced that there is something else I should know, and understand that I haven’t understood before.
Some say that only experts should talk about religious issues and the rest should not. Who should participate in interfaith dialogue, and how does this occur? Does the government have to initiate attempts at dialogue?
Everyone should participate in interfaith dialogue. The leaders have the responsibility to bring theological expertise and reflection into dialogue, and also to take leadership and show that dialogue is important. [Leaders should] try and stimulate people who live together on the same street to talk to one another.
I’m quite sure [such people] are very qualified to dialogue. They have their faith, conviction and experiences. They also know what the conflicts and problems are. In some way, sometimes they are more qualified to dialogue because they experience the daily life of being together or being in tension with one another.
On the other hand, some political problems have dimensions and perspectives that are related to religion. So politicians should involve religious leaders in their dialogue; otherwise they may not be able to understand and get the best ideas to solve their conflict.
The most obvious problem is the Israel-Palestine conflict. If there’s no dialogue about the holy places, who should have access to them, and the values held by the three main religions there, how can there be a political solution? This is an outstanding example, but there are many other examples where if this dimension is ignored, it causes more problems than you need.
What incentive is there for the majority to want to dialogue, especially if the laws and the state are in their favour?
Is it a good society if there are minorities in that society which are suffering? Is that the society we want to be? I think the quality of a society is defined by how it treats its minorities.
If minorities are suppressed on the basis of religion, how can this be according to the principles of our religions?
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