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Work with Muslims requires sensitivity, board exec says

5/2/2003 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

NOTE: A photograph of the Rev. R. Randy Day is available at http://umns.umc.org/photos/headshots.html.

DALLAS (UMNS) - The rhetoric of some Christian organizations toward Islam "is not always helpful" for those doing ministry in Muslim countries, the top staff executive of the United Methodist missions' agency says.

The Rev. R. Randy Day emphasized that the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries never ceases to proclaim Christ in its work around the world. At the same time, he said, it's important for Christians to understand Islam, to be "students of the Quran as well as the Bible," in order to understand their faith and work cooperatively with Muslims.

Day spoke May 1 to the international United Methodist Council of Bishops during the episcopal leaders' semiannual meeting in Addison, Texas. The bishops, who met April 28-May 2, had asked Day to address the topic of Islam and evangelism.

The denominationwide mission board has a long history of relationships with people in Islamic cultures, particularly through providing relief following natural and manmade disasters, he said. Agency staff work in many countries in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East "where Islam is sometimes a militant and dominant force." Through its United Methodist Committee on Relief, the church is currently serving in areas that include Afghanistan and Iraq.

Working in those settings is not always easy, he said, noting that Islamic militants have killed many Christians. "The public rhetoric of some Christians is not always helpful in some of those sensitive settings."

Day avoided naming any specific individual or group. In the last two years, some well-known Christian leaders have condemned Islam. Those have included Franklin Graham, whose relief organization, Samaritan's Purse, is planning to work in Iraq.

UMCOR does not mix aid and evangelization, but reaches out to whomever is in need, Day said. The Bible says nothing about feeding, clothing or visiting only Christians, or about using food or any services in love to gain disciples, he noted. "That's why we strive to make sure that in all that we do, people know who we are and the deep Christian commitment of our organization.

"I realize that not everyone understands or agrees with our theology of service," Day said. "Sometimes our approach, which is shared by most mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic relief organizations, places us in tension with groups with which we find ourselves working in emergency situations."

UMCOR's approach "does bear gospel fruit in the long run," he said. Its relief work has been the prelude to the startup of United Methodist churches in Eastern Europe and parts of Asia, he said.

Islam is a powerful force in the lives of millions, and it cannot be ignored, dismissed or treated with contempt, he said. The church should work with Muslims when appropriate for the cause of peace and reconciliation, he said.

"When we offer educational material on Islam to our United Methodist people, it is never done out of a theologically insecure effort at equating Christianity and Islam," Day said. "We do it with a full Wesleyan realization that we, as Christians, cannot expect others - Muslims in this case - to understand who we are in relation to God if we do not bother to learn about their understanding of God in an open and unbiased manner.

The board never gives up its call to proclaim Christ and to offer people the opportunity to receive him as savior, he said. "And we are clear that the Christ we follow and offer is the Prince of Peace rather than an oppressor or colonizer who follows in the wake of guns and violence."

The board's mission evangelism office has organized dialogues in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, focusing on Christian living and witness in countries with a Muslim presence. A similar dialogue in the Philippines has been postponed because of Muslim-Christian conflict. The dialogues have led to two books published by the board.

The board monitors the political treatment of Christians in Islamic and other religious cultures. It participated in a World Council of Churches delegation to Pakistan, where Muslims had lashed out at Christians following the U.S.-led removal of the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan. Day noted that interfaith relations are better in the Islamic country of Senegal, where the denomination has 11 churches, and in Macedonia, whose president is United Methodist.

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