Christians are struggling to know how to engage with Muslims in the wake of the Paris and Beirut bombings and the influx of refugees from Syria.
Should believers actively seek to develop relationships with Muslims and foster better understanding? Or should Christians approach followers of Islam with extreme caution?
Those who take the first route are onside with Brad Chilcott, founder and national director of Welcome To Australia, who works closely with a team of Muslims on fostering a more positive attitude towards Muslim refugees.
However, his standing with Muslims on a range of issues such as Halal certification and a multi-faith prayer vigil in a mosque has caused widespread discomfort in his congregation of Activate Church in Adelaide, where he is senior Pastor.
He has been pilloried with abuse in his Facebook inbox, with one person writing: “I’m going to come to your church and pull your tongue from your throat so you can no longer blaspheme the name of Jesus.”
But he believes greater understanding of the diversity of beliefs and practices in the Muslim community will overcome such antipathy.
“In the Muslim faith just like the Christian faith there are a range of traditions and expressions and also a range of lovely people and jerks,” he says.
“Meeting so many people and listening to their personal stories and their actual grief and thoughts, there’s a richness and diversity in the Muslim community just like there is in any other.”
Pastor Chilcott encouraged about 20 members of his congregation to join him in visiting their local mosque as part of National Mosque Open Day on October 31, which was held jointly by the Lebanese Muslim Association and Welcome to Australia.
“Members of my own congregation said things like ‘If you’d asked me a year ago if I would have ever visited a mosque I would have laughed at you, but it was a great experience. I took my kids, and I actually understand what’s going on at a place I’d never set foot in before’,” he said.
“For us on a personal level,” says Chilcott, “we think you don’t win someone’s heart by winning a policy argument, but you can win by facilitating relationships among refugees and other minority groups – we see the success of that all the time.”
Pastor Chilcott accepts that it’s natural to be afraid of people who are different, especially when fears are amplified by world events and media coverage.
“But Jesus doesn’t say ‘Love people when you’re not afraid’; he says ‘Love people and we don’t need to be afraid.’ So from every theological perspective there’s every single reason for us to stand on the side of love and oppose those on the side of fear and rejection.”
Sam Green, of AFES Tasmania, believes both sides of the argument are correct. Mr Green, who runs the Answering Islam website and an Engaging with Islam course, agrees that Christians are called to love their enemies but says they also need to recognise that fear of Islam is entirely rational.
“I think we have to be welcoming to people. Jesus says to love your enemies and we need to be welcoming refugees. I can’t see how as Christians we don’t do that,” he says.
But Mr Green holds strong beliefs about Islam, saying, “it’s equally true that Islam is an aggressive religion, particularly against Christianity … so when Muslims become a significant proportion in Australia that will bring problems with it.
While there is diversity in the Muslim community, Green believes it is untrue to call Islam a religion of peace.
“Yes, among the diversity of Islam there are peaceful Muslims but it also has radicals,” he says.
“What Brad Chilcott needs to be able to say is ‘yes, Islam is an aggressive religion, yes, it persecutes Christians’, and he needs to be very clear on the suffering Christians endure and the way they have been wiped out from whole areas.
“He needs to be able to acknowledge that Islam is the enemy of Christianity and then say ‘but we’re to love everyone’.”
Green argues that a close reading of the Koran reveals that while Muhammad was favourable towards Christians early in his life, he later urged Muslims to curse and conquer Christians under Islam.
As a result, Coptic Christians had been subject to more than 1200 years of subjugation and discrimination by Islamic violence and aggression.
Mr Green says the challenge for Australia’s leaders is to understand how to care for people who are “nominally associated with a religion that is hostile to us”.
The answer, he says, is trusting in God and developing a new area of spiritual growth that the Western world hasn’t needed before.
“As Christians we haven’t really had to love our enemies before in the West.
“We need to grow in that trust in God in the same way that we might grow in our prayer life, or Bible reading or serving of others. Now we’re going to have to learn how to trust God in the face of our enemies.”
Bernie Power of the Centre for the Study of Islam and Other Faiths at the Melbourne School of Theology pursues a more moderate middle line.
He believes the two sides of the argument need to be clearly separated. While as Christians we need to take a compassionate stance on those forced out of their countries, refugees who go to any country must also abide by its laws, he says.
“Some have conflated refugees with Islam, and this is a mistake. An estimated 80 per cent of the world’s refugees are Muslim, although they are only 25 per cent of the world’s population. This suggests the inadequacy of Islam in general to provide safe, stable and prosperous societies.”
He says while most Muslims come to Australia desiring to fit in, others do come as colonisers seeking to establish Islamic law either by violence or political advocacy.
“They will struggle to find Australia a welcoming place because they want to change the nature of Australian society. Such colonisers, even if they are refugees, would be more comfortable in one of the 55 Muslim majority countries which offer some sort of Islamic law.
those Muslims who come to Australia seeking to contribute to the common good, Christians should have no problem welcoming them.”
Richard Shumack, the new director of the Centre for the Study of Islam and Other Faiths, believes there is no grave and present danger in Australia from a rise in Muslim immigration.
“The government needs to be astute and aware about people who are coming in and not wanting to buy into Australian ways of doing things … but I don’t think there’s any need to be fearful of any Muslim takeover in the foreseeable future,” he says.
Dr Shumack estimates only 10-15 per cent of Muslims adhere to an exclusive form of Islamism that says Islam needs to rule Australia and only a tiny percentage of those would see it as a violent takeover.
“But 85-90 per cent have no interest in that whatsoever; they just want to buy into Australian culture and get a job and send their kids to school and play football.
“The real question for Australia is ‘Are we in any danger here, and how does the risk of letting a few people in who buy into an Islamist ideology balance against an urgent and real and desperate human crisis that you see in Syria or in Iraq or Afghanistan or Bangladesh?’
“There’s some risk involved but the risk is tiny compared to the call as Christians to be compassionate and serving and welcoming and loving our neighbours and enemies.
“So I think love drives out fear. You need to be astute and wise and shrewd but at the same time we need to be gentle and caring.”