MENAFN - Arab News
Saudi- King's interfaith initiative commended
(MENAFN - Arab News) King Abdullah's interfaith dialogue center is a good example of Saudi Arabia sharing global responsibility and demonstrates the Kingdom is playing a major role in promoting understanding among different faiths, according to noted American interfaith advocate Bob Robert in an exclusive interview with Arab News.
Robert is an international speaker and thinker actively involved in transforming people and communities around the world.
He renders humanitarian services and supports international development projects that include building schools, clinics and hospitals, micro-businesses, water systems and student exchange programs.
Robert described King Abdullah's initiative as a wise move, since the Kingdom is home to Makkah and Madinah, the spiritual centers of the Islamic world.
Robert and his family have arrived here as guests of Prince Turki Al-Faisal to gain an insight into Islam and its role in influencing cultural values. His exposure to Islamic thought and culture would be a valuable experience.
"The whole world is connected. Everything we do is global. We live at a time when people of faith should be the pillars of the world holding it together and not allow themselves to push apart," he said.
Robert and his family were amazed to see Saudis' spirit of tolerance, hospitality, openness and a sense of pride in their history. He said Saudis are passionate about what they believe in.
"I have been with imams and with other religious people. No one had shown me disrespect for being a Christian. Nor were they rude to me or told me to stay away when they talked to me. On the contrary, they were highly respectful and understanding. I believe that the best solution to the elimination of Islamophobia lies in building a close relationship with Muslims."
Following is the full text of the interview:
Tell us about your program and the people you met during this visit here.
We have been to Riyadh. We visited Saudi Aramco, but we have not been to places outside Riyadh, as we have a very busy schedule here. But this visit has provided us with really a great experience.
We met imams, government leaders and members of think tanks for useful interaction. Prince Turki Al-Faisal and I have served on the Carnegie Foundation, a think-tank. We have known each other for five years now and every six months we hold a meeting together. He has been after me to visit Saudi Arabia. A few years ago he came and spoke in our church as part of his effort to promote interfaith understanding. He has been doing an incredible job.
I also engage myself in interfaith work or what I call multi faith. I do a lot of work like that and so I am here to meet with clerics, government leaders, imams, and many different people here to see the country and understand the history of Saudi Arabia.
This is my first visit to get to know the country and build relationships with the Saudi people.
What was your first impression during this visit?
I think three things stand out - the hospitality of the Saudi people. It's really exceptional; they are very gracious, kind and warm people. They are proud of their history and very passionate about what they believe in. Another thing that amazes me is the openness of the Saudi people.
I am from America and we do not hear the whole story or a lot of things on different countries in the world, because America is isolated by two big oceans. To be here is a chance to experience the openness and see how your society is progressing and developing.
Do you mean to say that what you are reading in your media does not give you the full picture?
It is not enough. If we just read a little news, it is not going to give you the full picture of everything. It does not always give the complete information. To be here, to talk and ask questions has been so valuable.
Religions stand for love, security and peace, but some elements use them for their political agenda. What is your reaction to that?
When I look at the world today, it makes me sad there are extremists in all religions. They isolate themselves from one another. If you believe that we know God, whatever religion we are from, we should make sure that we are living for God and people can see the presence of God flowing into us. The thing I know about God is He loves us, so if we love God we should also love others. That is the characteristic nature of God rather than anything else. Nothing pushes us apart, we should live together. But what is happening is that the majority of the people usually don't allow the minorities to determine their relationships with someone from another faith or another religion or another country. We have to push back on it and I think those who have an open mind and have relations with people around the world, need to put an extra effort in building those relationships. I think religion is one of those things that somehow pushed Saudis and Americans apart. I need to use it to push them together again and we can do that.
During your stay here have you seen a spirit of tolerance among the people?
I feel I've been treated in that way, from Prince Turki to imams. They showed me a warm relationship and they have been very tolerant toward me and have not made me feel that they are better than me in any way. They have been very humble, kind and gracious.
Have you heard about Islamophobia? What can you tell us in this regard?
In America I do believe there is Islamophobia to some extent and I don't think that it existed that much before 9/11. In America, we left 19 men to discover for the whole country what all Muslims are about.
There was a big mistake because our perspective was that all Muslims wanted to kill Americans and that caused some people to become apprehensive.
Speaking of American Christians and non-Muslims, there are always examples of extremism in the news in my country, and they are negative views. So you do not hear from them (the moderates), only the voices of the extremists.
We are working hard to get our church combat that perception. Just two months ago, we had a gathering of 2,500 Muslims and Christians who came to our church. No one compromised on their faith and all that we did was to state what Muslims believe in and ask what Christians believe. The best thing is to teach us what you believe in and get along.
As a pastor, like my friends the imams, we connect with the people through our congregation and get to know one another. If you build personal relationships with people and you get to know them, you don't feel afraid anymore.
As such, you can talk about differences and explain the differences. I think the best way to combat Islamophobia is to build close relationships with Muslims. This is what we are doing in the Cooking Club.
Robert's wife Niki: We started this project two years ago and now we have a group of women - six Christians, six Muslims and six Jews. We came together in the beginning as members of the Cooking Club, teaching each other different kinds of food that we eat and we cook for one another.
This simple club made us so close to each other that we became friends. As a result, we launched a simple humanitarian project. We cook and make food for senior citizens...We serve meals to them and we serve together.
You are wearing the hijab now, what does it mean to you?
Niki: I understand that it is part of their dress. Muslim women feel honored when we show them respect."
Robert: Why should we tell someone how they should dress or what they should wear? I don't like that. In America we don't make that distinction. I would be very sad if people ever said you cannot wear hijab. People have the freedom and the right to express their cultural values.
You have heard about Florida preacher Terry Jones, who wanted to burn a copy of the Holy Qur'an. What is your opinion on this kind of act?
We have extremists in Christian circles like what you have in Islamic circles. In doing so, this man wants attention, he wants recognition, he is a very small man and if he can get people to look at him, he feels good.
It angers me because such a small man can create so much trouble. The reality is that the whole world is connected. Everything we do is global. In New York City, they want to build a mosque not far from the 9/11 site. Many people oppose the idea saying we don't want to build that mosque there. But the Washington Post did an article in which basically I supported the mosque personally. They asked me why?
I said, because America believes in the freedom of religion and I want the freedom of religion all over the world. So how can I promote religious freedom in the world by not allowing it in my own country?
At that time many Christians agreed with me, while there were some who did not obviously. We have to remember that there is no privacy because when we speak the whole world is listening. We have to think about what we are saying-building the world up or tearing it down.
"I don't understand why people want to turn down someone else's way. What I tell young pastors in America, you should never ever turn down another religion. Just teach them your way correctly. You see the differences in yourselves and you can just disagree, but doing something in a hateful and arrogant manner, why should I do that?
So I do believe that if you have the truth, you should not be arrogant, but you should be humble. You should be kind, because you want people to hear the truth and they are going to listen to you. The humble man is the man who most likely carries the truth."
The King Abdullah interfaith dialogue center seeks to revive the role of religion in promoting interfaith understanding. What do you say about this initiative?
When I heard that (Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques) King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia was promoting interfaith dialogue, I was so excited. I do remember hearing it in 2008 and thought this is truly impressive that the king of Saudi Arabia takes so much interest.
I've just met the new director of the center. We are going to work on some projects together, which makes me excited.
I think this is a great opportunity. Saudi Arabia has a global responsibility, as it is the center of the Islamic world, where Makkah and Madinah are located. Saudi Arabia has to lead the way in Islamic world. The king and the imams, including ourselves, can go together on this project.
I want a dialogue that leads to action like our cooking club, which brought the Muslims and Christians together. I want to connect Christian pastors in America with imams in Saudi Arabia to do humanitarian projects together in the name of God. I would love to do that so we can serve together in the world.
Talking about Saudi Arabia and the application of religion teaching here, have you noticed anything unusual, such as people walking on the street drunk?
Saudi Arabia is a very clean and moral society, free from the evils of alcohol. I did not see anything that brings shame to this country.
You are with Muslims everywhere and what we are doing together is to meet with more Muslims and make friendships. They live around you, maybe in the same blocks where you live or work together, go and eat together. They need to understand what your faith teaches. But I would not discuss about God. I think it is important that pastors and imams encourage members to befriend people and learn about their faiths.
Let me be candid with you. I used to be very afraid of Muslims, when I read news that made me apprehensive about them. But when I worked with imams during my humanitarian work in Afghanistan I got to know the Muslims properly in their true perspective.
I began to realize that they are like any other human being. They are kind, gracious and love God. They want to be friendly.
We religious leaders need to work hard to build relationships with them and encourage our members to do likewise. But some may be reluctant to do so out of fear that they may be influenced by another religion. I would say if that is the way to keep someone in your faith isolated from someone else, then this is not a strong faith."
As you have seen and heard, there are now Islamists in some Arab countries who are emerging victorious in elections after toppling their governments. Please comment.
I would say there are two kinds of Islamists -those who are people of faith and believe in the principles of God. They love God and their people. Those are the right Islamists and I feel very comfortable with them. I am so proud of the Muslims in Egypt who protected the Christians last year. It moved me very deeply.
There are other Islamists who want to be very narrow-minded and harsh. They are not tolerant of other people. Those people want to force their views on everyone and I don't like that. I like to have freedom of choice.
It does not bother me that someone is an Islamist as long as they are open with other people. In fact, I am friendly with some Islamists and I am their friend. Some of them are members of the think-tank. These men want peace much more than anyone else.
Do you agree with others' views that Islamists may pose a threat to other religions if they finally become leaders in these countries?
I cannot see that Islam is a threat. I do know that some Muslims are a threat. We know that but not all Muslims are a threat. It depends on individual situations.
My biggest concern about what is taking place in the Middle East now is as I heard; those people triggered the revolution in order to govern. What I know is that they did that because they had a bad government. We are seeing in many of these countries that they did not have good governments. Now people are protesting because they want good governance.
My only desire would be that the people should get leaders who will not be corrupted. When religions get politicized and try to bring down other religions, this will not be acceptable to anyone.
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