Interreligious Dialogue for Human Promotion and Human Rights

Consultation on Human Promotion and Human Rights in the Third Millennium
8-13 February 1999, Pattaya, Thailand

Edmund Chia, fsc 


Parable of the Interreligious Symposium

We were gathered on the third-floor of Crown Peak Hotel for a symposium on interreligious dialogue. We were mainly Catholics, who were scholars, theologians, academics and practitioners of interreligious dialogue. We were told that the symposium would be preceded by an exposure program, organised in conjunction with the Human Rights' Conference which was taking place on the second-floor of the same hotel. So, off we went in an air-conditioned coach to a slum area about 20 km from where our hotel was. 

We arrived at Chikadee slum village and were greeted by our guide, a Catholic social worker. We went through the untarred muddy roads, passing by shacks and broken huts which were home to the thousands who live in Chikadee. And then, an unexpected sight greeted us. It was a vast land of garbage heap. Chikadee was the dumping ground for the city’s waste. 

As we were walking, we met with a funeral procession. We were later told that it was the funeral of a young woman named Flora. She had been working as a domestic help abroad until she was sexually assaulted and when she lodged a report with the authorities, she lost her job and was immediately repatriated. Flora returned home to Chikadee, a broken, torn and shamed woman. She went through serious bouts of depression, could not get her life together again and finally decided to end it all by taking her own life. Her mother and Flora's own two little children were seen crying hysterically as they followed behind the cheap wooden casket. Further down the road, we came across yet another small procession of people who had just come from the burial ground. Our guide told us about the little 3-year old boy who had just been buried. He died of dehydration, caused by severe diarrhea. A thought crossed many of our minds: where were the hospitals?

We then stopped at the village head's home, which also doubled-up as a community centre and prayer-chapel. We were greeted with a huge sign at the entrance which read: "Only Jesus Saves." The village head had with him a fellow squatter, whom he had invited to meet with us. We were introduced to Abdullah, a new resident of Chikadee. Abdullah had just been evicted from his previous squatter land, which was home to him and his eight children for more than twenty-five years. The land had been ear-marked for development into a theme park and golf-course. He shared with us how the developers, many of whom were foreigners, had come with a group of thugs to break down their homes. Immediately after that, the municipal officers brought in their bull-dozers and their homes were in shambles within minutes. Through it all, the police and other law enforcement officers stood by watching, ensuring there was no resistance from the squatters. It was all a violent and merciless exercise, with not the slightest sympathy for those whom they were leaving homeless. Abdullah then turned to Fr. John, an American missionary priest. He said angrily, "And you know what?!" "We know who the developers are. We know where they come from. We know where they live. And we also know that they go to church every Sunday!"

We returned to our hotel to begin our symposium. Chikadee was no doubt fresh on our minds. The experience had captured us and our feelings and emotions were greatly influenced by what we had witnessed. We could almost hear the hysterical cry of Flora's mother and the two motherless children. We conjured up an image of a nameless 3-year old in his last days battling against death from the dreaded diarrhea attacks. Two deaths which did not have to occur, but which we knew were merely symptoms of the prevailing death-culture in our society. Abdullah’s face also kept coming up in our minds. His anger and resentment became as much a part of ours. As the symposium went along, we continued our discussions on Chikadee. Over lunch and at tea, Chikadee kept coming up as a topic of our conversations. The speakers at the symposium even made references to it, and the name of Chikadee could not be be left behind. It's impact on us was too great to be forgotten. 

Some began to feel that maybe it was a mistake to have gone to Chikadee. After all, this was a symposium on interreligious dialogue, not one on social action, human rights or justice and peace. We were here to discuss the different religions, to look at the various belief systems, doctrines, theologies and practices to see how and where they converge and to identify universal truths and common essences. We were theologians and scholars, not social workers or human rights’ activists. Chikadee has its place, but more suited for those who were attending the conference on the second-floor. Our symposium on the third-floor was of a totally different nature, and Chikadee was felt to be out of place. Our minds were filled with doubts and questions. Has Chikadee hijacked the symposium? Are we deviating from the symposium’s objectives because of Chikadee? Has Chikadee been more a distraction than an aid? 

Context of Interreligious Dialogue

This informal discussion on whether Chikadee had been worthwhile or not continued throughout the symposium. Slowly, perspectives changed and a new integration took place. More and more of the delegates saw Chikadee as not only valuable, but indeed very necessary for the symposium. 

After all, a symposium on interreligious dialogue attempts to talk about religions. But, how can we talk about religions if we do not take the trouble to find out how the peoples of those religions live? Interreligious dialogue, therefore, must take into account the very lives and especially the sufferings of the peoples who live by the religions under discussion. In other words, interreligious dialogue is not just a cerebral or intellectual excercise or text-book discourses void of any human face. In fact, as a science, interreligious dialogue has to draw from some raw data and empirical evidence as starting point for the discussions and theologizing. These cannot be derived from the scriptures, Church teachings or from theological theses. They cannot be deduced from philosophical principles or abstracted from dogmatic assertions. 

They have to be induced from the actual lives and especially the sufferings of the peoples of the community. Indian theologian Felix Wilfed insists that all theologies must begin "from the dusty soils." The slums, the squatters, the garbage heaps, the back-alleys and market-places are the contexts and starting-points for theologies. Abdullah, Flora, the three-year old victim of dehydration and the millions who undergo suffering, oppression and victimization each day are the raw data for our theologizing. They are the "priority voices" and have the "hermeneutical privilege" in any dialogues between religions. Sri Lankan theologian Aloy Pieris suggests that they constitute the magisterium which provides the guiding principles for our theologizing and religious reflections. This magisterium of the poor and the non-peoples and the magisterium of the suffering masses will be the judge to see if our efforts at interreligious dialogues are on track, relevant and in keeping with the voice of the Spirit. They are the ultimate criterion for any theologies, according to him who chose to identify himself as victim-judge (cf. Mt. 25). 

Moreover, if interreligious dialogue aims at finding a "common essence" between the religions, then the suffering of the masses can constitute that essence, the common ground, the unifying factor, and the universal principle for dialogue. In other words, the phenomenon of suffering (duhkha), the experience of pain, and the reality of injustice and oppression and human rights' transgressed ought to be the starting point as well as the guiding principle in determining the goals, aims, and vision of religious conversations. After all, can it not be said that all religions arose out of a context where some sort of injustice, brokenness or suffering reigned? Is it not accurate to suggest that most religions arose specifically to address and respond to these negativities and sufferings, in order to bring about freedom, salvation, liberation (moksha), and deliverance? 

Facilitating liberation or bringing about freedom, therefore, can be regarded as the universal goal and inherent vision of all religions. Ensuring the well-being of all human beings, as well as the other creatures and the planet earth itself, is a universal quest advocated by all religions. This eco-human well-being or soteria can then be the basis and raison d'etre for the dialogues between religions. Interreligious dialogue, therefore, must fulfill this ethical demand of addressing suffering, pain, oppression, and injustice. Only then will it be rendered relevant to the peoples whose religions are under discussion. And only then will it have some form of validity and legitimacy. 

Place of Dialogue in Human Promotion

If the symposium on the third-floor has to take into account the discussions on the second-floor, the reverse must also apply. That is to say, activities on behalf of human rights and human promotion have also to engage other religions in meaningful dialogues. Not only because the victims of human rights' violations cut across all religions, but more so because injustice, oppression and suffering are global phenomena, which demand global responsibility. In other words, it is not the communal responsibility of any one religion to address these problems and, besides, no religion can ever do it alone. The problem is way too massive and will require the joint contributions of all religions for a proper response. It is in pulling-together their resources and it is in acting together in partnership that religions will become a formidable global force that has the power to effect significant transformations. 

Moreover, while previously human rights' violations are in the main trangressions by the state or a particular government against an individual or community, today much of these transgressions are committed by transnational corporations and multinational institutions. These are transgressions which cut across national boundaries and whose blame cannot be put on any one single country or government. Therefore, because human rights' violations have been globalized, a globalized response involving globalized institutions is in order. In this connection, it is without doubt that religion is the one transnational institution which cuts across political and geographic boundaries which can represent a potent force and power for change. We all know that it is in the name of religion that many have structured their lives after. For many, religion provides meaning and purpose and sets the directions for one's existence. We also know that many are even willing to die for their religion, and many are also more than willing to kill for their religion. Such is the power and force of religion. It's potency is beyond doubt.

But, unfortunately, religion has more often been used, misused, abused and manipulated in the service of politics, greed, selfishness and other less than noble causes. It is in this context that the power of religion has to be harnessed for more worthy causes, such as human promotion and the enhancement of human rights. Hence, it only makes sense that social activists and human rights' advocates enter into dialogue with their counterparts from other religious traditions who share in their ideals and visons for the transformation of society. After all, it is the same global phenomenon of suffering and oppression that the various religions are concerned about. Such dialogues, it is hoped, will lead to authentic partnerships, so that together, this multi-religious force for change can be rendered more effective. 

Moreover, the culture and climate in multi-religious Asia suggest that dialogue with our neighbors of other faiths is the only way we can continue our works of human promotion and human rights. To refuse relationships with other religions is to invite suspicion, enmity and fear. Even if ours is the most noble and humanitarian cause, we cannot expect that all our neighbors of other faiths will perceive it that way. The sight of a fully and solely Christian organization rendering social service in multi-religious Asia cannot but invite suspicions that there might be hidden agendas behind the noble humanitarian motives. It doesn't help that Christianity continues to be associated with the West and Christians perceived as neo-colonizers, serving Western imperialism. It also doesn't help that other factions in Christian circles have often proclaimed that Christianity aims to conquer and convert the whole of Asia. This is further compounded by the fact that Church documents and pronouncements have urged the Church to bring all peoples to the knowledge of Christ. 

So, even if our services and contributions are genuine and without any proselytizing motives, it would be hard to convince the neighbor of another faith who makes no distinction between whether we are from the Justice and Peace Commission or from the Evangelization 2000 Commission or from some evangelistic Pentecostal Christian sect. As far as they are concerned, there is only one single Christian network and, by default, we are all associated with one another. And, where one part of the body has been aggresive in its proselytizing efforts towards peoples of other faiths, the entire body will have to bear the brunt and responsibility for it. Hence, our actions on behalf of human rights and human promotion, if kept isolated from other religions, risk being looked upon as instruments for conversion. Indirectly, therefore, they are regarded as instruments for the destruction of the peoples' religions and cultures. Even if the common people don't perceive it that way, a fully-Christian organization renders itself vulnerable and susceptible to being used by unscrupulous forces especially in regions where interreligious relations are not at their best. A truly multi-religious organization, on the other hand, where the benefactors and beneficiaries are also multi-religious, will probably have greater credibility in facilitating authentic human promotion and enhancing human rights in Asia's pluralistic context. 

The Process of Interreligious Dialogue

Because interreligious dialogue is often misconceived as intellectual discussions amongst scholars, it is important now to delineate some basic steps for dialogue. If it helps, perhaps the term "interreligious dialogue" could be changed to "interreligious relations" or "interreligious cooperation." In other words, what is prescribed is not just about academic discourses but about genuine interactions, relationships and partnerships with other religions. For that to become a reality, the respective players have to take some basic steps. One possible approach is suggested below:

Attitudinal Change

Acknowledging the need and importance of partnership and cooperation with other religions is a positive first step. In other words, "we've gotta want it." This must not be seen as something we have no choice but to do, but as something we really believe is the right thing to do. We will have to be convinced that such relationships and partnerships are not only an option but an imperative. Our understanding of Church and how her evangelizing mission is to be carried out has also to change, in order to accommodate this dialogical imperative. Implicitly, this attitudinal change will include the fact that we recognize the place of other religions in God's economy of salvation. Moreover, it will also help us to cultivate a more positive attitude towards peoples of other religions, and look upon them more as co-pilgrims with respect and not so much as competitors to be overcome. 

BE with them

The next thing to do is to be in touch with peoples of other religions. Not only can our active presence with them help dispel prejudices and misconceptions we might have had about peoples of other religions, it can also help us to really learn more about them, and see them as equally sincere in their search for truth and meaning and concerned about justice and human rights. This active contact need not be formal as informal associations are as important and relevant. For instance, attending one another's festive celebrations or a sports event or an opening ceremony are just as important towards building relationships. Likewise, going out to lunch together or participating in a picnic or outing together is just as useful. Important is the fact that relationships are enhanced and barriers are slowly being broken down. 

Collaborate with them

After having developed relationships with peoples of other religions, the next step is to work together on behalf of justice and peace and human rights. This collaboration should not wait until times of crisis or when communal and interreligious tensions are prevalent. Instead, they should be integral to all programs and efforts of service to society. Put another way, all human rights and human promotion programs ought to have an interreligious component built into the system. The ideal would be that these programs will eventually become identified not so much as Church-based programs, or as Christian services, but as interreligious programs run by a multi-religious organization and for the benefit of a multi-religious clientele. 

Deepening the relationship

In our association and collaboration with peoples of other religions, it is important that we do not lose track of the fact that all of these are inherently religious and spiritual activities. They are not to be likened to a group of non-governmental organizations coming together for collaborative action. We therefore make it a point to come together to share and reflect upon our relationships and working together, and especially in light of our respective scriptures and belief systems. In so doing, we will have opportunities to deepen our knowledge of one another's religion as well as broaden the perspectives of our own religious traditions. Put another way, as we open our minds and hearts to learn from our dialogue-partner, we also open our minds and hearts to reframe our own beliefs and value systems. We trust that just as we are learning from our dialogue-partner, our dialogue-partner is also learning as much from us. The end product is for both of us to go away richer and transformed by each other and deepened in our own faith as well as deepened in our understanding of the other's religion. 

Challenges to Dialogue

Some of us will probably express doubts and suggest that what has been delineated above is too idealistic to be realizable. Some are probably of the view that interreligious dialogue is more theoretical than practical. Some probably have had experiences with peoples of other religions that have been more negative than positive. Some probably have come across interreligious relations which turned sour and perhaps even tragic. Such is the baggage we carry with us as we attempt to entertain the idea of interreligious dialogue. Our prejudices and fears are very real, as are the negative experiences we've had with peoples of other religions. The painful events of extremists and fanatics perpetuating violence in the name of religion come to mind. Also, the intolerant attitudes of the more fundamentalistic peoples, including our own fundamentalist Catholics, caution us against being too optimistic about interreligious dialogue. 

While not discounting these opinions and experiences, we must at the same time acknowledge the fact that many other people have had tremendous success in interreligious relations and cooperations. It is up to us, therefore, to decide whether our decisions are to be made on the basis of the more negative experiences we've had with perhaps the more narrow, fanatical, and bigotted people or our decisions are to be made on the basis of the more positive experiences we've had with the more genuine, open and accommodating people. We can, of course, opt for the more secure and convenient path and continue to be pessimistic and conditioned by our fears and prejudices, or we could, on the other hand, be more daring and optimistic and develop a more positive attitude towards interreligious dialogue. 

Others will also be quick to point out that to be engaged in human promotion and human rights activities is already a very demanding enterprise. To expect them to add to this burden by collaborating with peoples of other religions might be asking too much. In other words, by itself, human rights work is already difficult enough. To suggest that this work has to be done in collaboration with peoples who come from a whole different orientation and spirituality is to increase that burden a hundred-fold. Such sentiments, of course, have to be acknowledged. They are true and very real. Human rights and human promotion is a very trying and thankless activity. By itself, it is stressful enough. Moreover, interreligious dialogue is also a very difficult and inconvenient activity. Combining the two would make the task almost insurmountable. But then, no where is it written that being authentically Christian is an easy task. Also, no where is it written that interreligious dialogue is easy and effortless either. But, it is precisely because it is not easy that we have to put in even more efforts to see that it becomes a reality. 

Of course, the temptation is for us to ignore interreligious dialogue since it can become too burdensome. It cannot be denied that working together with peoples who come from different religious traditions can be a gigantic and even threatening task. It cannot be denied that approaches might differ in how we see a problem or how we think the problem should be addressed. It cannot be denied that our different philosophies of life, worldviews, epistemologies and value systems could come in the way of effective collaboration. It might happen, too, that serious disagreements and tensions could arise. But, again, no where has it been suggested that interreligious dialogue is a pleasant, enchanting or enjoyable activity. It is precisely because it is challenging that makes it even more crucial for us to keep promoting it. It can only be hoped that in the face of serious tensions and conflicts, the respective partners-in-dialogue are reminded of the greater good that can result if they are able to overcome the immediate crisis. 

Furthermore, there is also the problem with our own co-religionists, or fellow Christians, who might not agree with our collaborating with peoples of other faiths. The more extreme amongst them might even allude to the advent of the anti-Christ when they see religions cooperating and working together. Our partnership with other religions may be regarded as anti-thesis to authentic Christian mission. The benefactors amongst them might refuse to support some of our projects for human promotion, since they prefer to give only to specifically Christian projects. Such are the problems which could arise if we decide to participate in interreligious dialogue. The matter is extremely challenging and the struggles might seem extremely hard to bear. But then, isn't that the lot of anything which is authentically Christian? 


New Way of Being Church

As can be seen, interreligious dialogue is not an easy activity. It is difficult, arduous, and challenging. Moreover, it requires tremendous patience, energy, as well as courage. But most of all, it requires a great deal of commitment and perserverance. It is no different than two persons from radically different backgrounds intentionally coming together to build a relationship. Tremendous time and energy have to be invested into the relationship before it can bear any fruit. The same is true of interreligious dialogue. Lots of sacrifices and patience have to be invested if the long-term effects are to be seen. 

In view of the immediate difficulties and pains arising from interreligious dialogue, the temptation for many is to give up or not even want to try. Retreating into our own backyards is certainly much more comfortable as we will not have to bear the burdens or confront the risks which accompany interreligious dialogue. But then, if we are convinced of the New Way of Being Church, that is not an option we can afford to take. For, interreligious dialogue is integral to the New Way of Being Church, especially for a church located in Asia. 

It is important, then, that we re-orientate ourselves to see how best we can be engaged in interreligious dialogue in our own little small way. Perhaps, the first step is to undergo what Bernard Lonergan calls a "personal conversion." This is a conversion which goes beyond "intellectual conversion" and "moral conversion." It is a conversion which is more like "falling in love uncondionally." It is a conversion where one is empowered to pursue and live the truth in a new way, even as one is not sure about what lies ahead, or what exactly one is in love with. Such a conversion will empower one with the vision and courage to pursue interreligious dialogue, despite the pain and sufferings, trials and burdens, risks and threats, which may result from one's engagements. Such a conversion will also enable one to live the good news that the road to a new life, a new vision, a new way of being church, or the path to the resurrection, is none other than the road to Calvary and the way of the Cross. 


Amaladoss, Michael. "Dialogue as Conflict Resolution: Creative Praxis" In Vidyajyoti, Vol 63: 1, Jan 1999. 

Knitter, Paul. One Earth Many Religions: Multifaith Dialogue & Global Responsibility. Maryknoll: Orbis Books. 1995.

Mercado, Leonardo & Knight, James (eds.). Mission & Dialogue: Theory and Practice. Manila: Divine Word Publications. 1989. 

Pieris, Aloysius. An Asian Theology of Liberation. Maryknoll: Orbis Books. 1988.

Wilfred, Felix. "Human Rights or the Rights of the Poor?: Redeeming the Human Rights from Contemporary Inversions" In Vidyajyoti, Vol 62: 10, Oct 1998. 

From the Dusty Soil: Contextual Reinterpretation of Christianity. India: University of Madras. 1995.



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