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Evangelicals reach out with help from Muslim

Suhail Khan is a US-born Muslim of southern Indian parentage who sees no contradiction in working for an unabashedly Christian organisation.

NEW YORK // Suhail Khan is a US-born Muslim of southern Indian parentage who sees no contradiction in working for an unabashedly Christian organisation that promotes religious freedom around the world. Since February, he has worked as a senior fellow for Christian-Muslim understanding at the Washington-based Institute for Global Engagement (IGE), which he described as "non-proselytising, non-partisan and non-profit". Already this year, he has travelled to Syria and the Palestinian territories to engage with religious, grassroots and political leaders in multi-faith forums. The IGE does not want to be yet another non-governmental organisation engaged in wishy-washy, interfaith talk and its mission statement acknowledges that "Christians were too often part of the problem" in previous efforts to address religious freedom. The appointment of Mr Khan serves to provide an example of how practising Christians and Muslims can work together. "Authentic religious leaders should be included in talks everywhere," said Mr Khan, who would like to see Hamas included in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. "The Camp David accords, Oslo, Clinton parameters, Annapolis, none of these peace processes included any religious leaders who need to be included because they have important constituencies. There needs to be a voice in negotiations from entities like Hamas. They were elected and have widespread support." The IGE hopes that including Mr Khan's opinions in its outreach work will help to counter the view that a large part of the US policymaking elite is in thrall to an evangelical Christian worldview that sees Muslims as the problem, not part of the solution, in many of the world's conflict zones. The IGE was founded in 2000 by Bob Seiple, who served as the first US ambassador at large for international religious freedom in 1998. Chris Seiple, his son and the IGE's current president, is also well-connected in Washington, as befitting a national security expert and former marine infantry officer. The younger Mr Seiple hopes to convince more military and security leaders that US interests are best served through respect for and engagement with religious leaders. As part of this mission, he teaches army and air force chaplains about inter-religious dialogue ahead of their deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan. "Our national security became militarised during the course of the Cold War, but there is no such thing as a pure battlefield any more so we need to teach US personnel how to engage with all elements in a society," he said. The separation of church and state in the United States had left much of the public feeling uncomfortable talking about God and religion, but he felt it was of vital national interest to learn about religious dialogue if US battles in Iraq and Afghanistan were to succeed. "I'm a Christian and believe God is sovereign, but he's better served when there's a separation in our society. However, religion has a legitimate seat at the table and we need to be able to use pluralism, not just secularism," he said. "In my teaching, I talk about basic stuff. How in our worldview of society government is seen in the middle, whereas in much of the world God is in the middle." Following several trips to Afghanistan, Mr Seiple was particularly keen to persuade US military planners of the need to include a "Pashto-Islamic understanding of justice" without which reconstruction efforts would be doomed to failure. "The idea of 'justice' - of orderly, moral governance - is deeply appealing to the 40 million Pashtun Muslims who live on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border," he wrote in a recent article for The Christian Science Monitor. "Unless the American counterinsurgency strategy understands and respects this principle, no amount of troops or drones will prevail." Mr Seiple said he often met with suspicion and even claims that he was a US agent seeking converts to Christianity during his travels to countries such as China, Pakistan, Syria and Vietnam. But he said he usually managed to convince people of his desire for dialogue based on understanding and respect for each other's beliefs. "Interfaith dialogue is seen as touchy-feely, watered-down and irrelevant and I like to talk about multi-faith respect," he said. "I take it as the highest compliment if people try to convert me and I say thank you for caring about me, but I believe Jesus is the truth. Let's have a conversation because we can be friends and have different views." Mr Seiple said he had spoken with Saudi officials about his dream of the Gulf kingdom one day hosting an interfaith dialogue conference similar to the one it sponsored in Madrid last year. "Prince Turki [al Faisal, a former director of Saudi intelligence] told me it was something to consider," he said. "Evangelicals and Wahhabis share similar negative connotations and we need to talk about everything, without yelling or polemics." sdevi@thenational.ae

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