British Anglican priest to ST: ‘sectarianism’ is an inadequate term to describe the ancient complex communal plurality of Syrian society

British Anglican priest has affirmed that ‘sectarianism’ is an inadequate term to describe the ancient complex communal plurality of Syrian society; that Eastern Christian theological and spiritual frameworks and traditions have much to offer in the field of interreligious dialogue.

He also stressed that both Christianity and Islam desperately need to find a way, in the face of the rise of extremist ideologies, of engaging with contemporary social, political and religious dynamics in order to ensure that communal diversity are embraced and that plural ‘religious space’ is respected. 

Rev. Andrew Ashdown presented the above mentioned ideas during a lecture he gave at an international conference held from 27-29 May, 2019 in Portorož , Slovenia, to discuss new philosophical and theological foundations for Christian-Muslim dialogue.

“My own contribution to the Conference was a lecture entitled:  ‘Contextualising Christian-Muslim relations in Syria prior to and during the current conflict’  - the subject of a PhD thesis that I have recently submitted for examination,” the priest told the Syria Times e-newspaper.

In his lecture, Rev. Ashdown briefly outlined the historic and contemporary plurality of the Christian and Muslim landscapes in Syria. He then explored the different ways in which the interreligious dynamic in Syria has been practised both within society, and how it has been modelled by religious leaders before and during the conflict, illustrating the impact of the conflict on Syrian society with examples from Maaloula, Homs, Aleppo, Deraa and the Christian villages bordering Idleb, but stressing the will of most Syrians to preserve plurality, diversity and interreligious harmony despite loss of trust and the trauma suffered by all. 

The priest, in addition, discussed from a Christian perspective, the strengths of the Eastern ecclesial religious, theological and cultural traditions in relation to their Muslim compatriots as fellow citizens sharing the same culture, history and spiritual roots. 

The importance of the conference held in Slovenia

Asked about the importance of the conference held in Slovenia, Rev. Ashdown clarified that Such conferences are extremely important for the future of Christian-Muslim relations. 

 “Sharing with European academics is a reminder of the importance of this subject in Europe given the growing Muslim presence and the interreligious challenges there.  Meanwhile hearing Middle-Eastern perspectives informs the discourse for all involved.  Too often, the long-standing experience of Christians and Muslims in the diverse Middle Eastern context is under-recognised and understudied.   The academic world may seem by many to be remote.  However, by such conferences, those present, through their universities and faculties around the world, begin to develop new discourses and ideas,” he said.

The priest added that such conferences do filter to faith leaders and interreligious practitioners. “This in turn informs practice ‘on the ground’, and enables broader perspectives and hopefully in time transformed attitudes, understanding and engagement.” 

He pointed out that the conference entitled “New Philosophical and Theological Foundations for Christian-Muslim dialogue.” was organized by the Science and Research Centre, Koper, Slovenia; the Iranian Association for Philosophy of Religion; the Centre for Comparative Theology and Cultural Studies, University of Paderborn, Germany; and the European Academy of Sciences and Arts in Austria.

Academic experts in the field from universities across Europe and also from Iran were present and gave wide-ranging lectures on the subject.

“The Conference was organised in recognition of the profound importance of interreligious dialogue for mutual coexistence, acceptance and peace, in a global context where on the one hand there is increasing secularisation in the western world, whilst simultaneously there is a resurgence of religion elsewhere, and a growth in political extremism, conflict and international migration,” Rev. Ashdown stated.

Genuine mutual respect for and acceptance of, the other

He asserted that the conference explored the challenges of different historical and contemporary theological, philosophical and practical models of interreligious dialogue, from European and Middle Eastern, and Christian and Muslim perspectives.  And it asked how the experience and perspectives of people in Europe and the Middle East, particularly those in particular social and political circumstances (refugees, migrants, displaced persons) might inform contemporary philosophical and theological approaches to dialogue.

 “The conference did not shy away from examining the criticisms of some contemporary dialogue, which some regard as a failed tool for better understanding, or as a western intervention and tool for cultural domination, or as a cover-up for power relations between groups in power, as opposed to empowering those who are often marginalised, such as minority groups, secularists, women, migrants etc,” the priest stressed.

He concluded by saying: “ Delegates recognised that interlocutors of different faiths may have a different understanding of the purpose of dialogue and its goals, and therefore transparency of purpose, openness and honesty are important.  It was generally agreed that both Christian and Muslim practitioners of interreligious dialogue need to be open to discovering new theological and philosophical models of dialogue in order to honestly face the complexities and challenges of the modern world.  This requires the ability to disagree well, a degree of vulnerability and adaptability from all involved, and genuine mutual respect for and acceptance of, the other. “

Interviewed by: Basma Qaddour