United Methodists, Muslims Join Forces to Alleviate Suffering
By Kathleen LaCamera
LONDON (UMNS)--Religious leaders, diplomats, British government ministers and members of Parliament are praising the new partnership between United Methodist and Muslim relief agencies as "bold," "significant" and one that "confounds stereotypes."
The New York-based United Methodist Committee on Relief signed a partnership agreement with the London-based global relief and development agency Muslim Aid on June 26 at the House of Commons.
Stephen Timms, the British government minister who hosted the event, said UMCOR and Muslim Aid both were formed out of an "ambition to relieve suffering."
Referring to joint projects already under way, Timms said the partnership is special because the two faith groups have worked together across a divide thought to be "unbridgeable."
UMCOR and Muslim Aid already have put $9.8 million into joint projects in Sri Lanka to provide tsunami recovery and support to displaced civilians affected by renewed fighting between Tamil Tigers and government military forces. The new partnership agreement could result in as much as $15 million more to combat the effects of disaster, war and poverty around the world.
"No one should underestimate the potential for good that Christians and Muslims (working together) can do in the UK and in the rest of the world," said Timms. "This shows what distinctive faiths can achieve when the focus is on shared values."
'Only a Beginning'
Signing the agreement on behalf of UMCOR, United Methodist Bishop Edward Paup said "responding to human need will make this partnership succeed." Paup, who is the agency's president, said the coming together of two organizations from different religions is "only a beginning."
"We hope we have set the table, and we are now inviting others to join us," he added.
The Rev. R. Randy Day, chief executive of UMCOR's parent organization, the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, said that "while we come from different theological positions, we have the same humanitarian values to relieve the suffering of those in need, no matter who they are or what they believe."
UMCOR is part of the 11.5 million-member United Methodist Church and is active in more than 80 countries.
Farooq Murad signed the agreement on behalf of Muslim Aid, an organization with a 20-year history of relief work in more than 60 countries with 500 local partners. As Muslim Aid's chairman, Murad believes that practical cooperative work across religious traditions reduces people's suspicions of faith-based organizations.
"We are responding as partners to human need, not proselytizing," he said.
Guy Hovey, UMCOR's Sri Lanka director, has seen the powerful difference interfaith cooperation makes in that nation. In 2006, when fighting broke out between Tamil rebels and government troops in Mutur, UMCOR workers met with a level of violence and threats that made it impossible to deliver much-needed aid and support to displaced civilians.
Turning to their Muslim Aid partners--who had proved so valuable in tsunami relief and recovery efforts--the two groups joined forces and reached out to Buddhist leaders as well. Together through grassroots community faith groups, they addressed crucial local needs such as irrigation, health care, education and security.
"We were able to walk through villages where before people would have thrown stones at us. Now they were smiling at us," Hovey told United Methodist News Service. "We built unique relationships with faith leaders. Seeing us trusting and working with each other, people felt they could trust local faith communities.
"We didn't look at it as a Muslim/Christian project," he said. "First it was a desire to stand shoulder to shoulder with those working with displaced people. It started on the ground as an effort to bring relief and development to more than 50,000 people."
Improved Credibility and Effectiveness
Faith-based organizations gain credibility and effectiveness when they work across faith boundaries, said British Methodist Relief and Development Fund representatives attending the UMCOR/Muslim Aid launch.
"Government officials as well as individual people can be suspicious of faith-based organizations. They worry about proselytizing. They have an assumption that these groups will only be interested in looking after their own," said Kirsty Smith, the fund's director.
In the wake of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the Sri Lankan Methodist Church, one of the fund's partners, has worked closely with local Buddhists. Like Hovey, Smith said interfaith cooperation has been crucial in identifying and addressing key local needs.
While Muslim Aid and UMCOR don't have all the answers, Day said that working in partnership allows them to deliver aid more effectively without leaving aside the particularities and distinctiveness of their individual faiths. He hopes other non-proselytizing, faith-based organizations will join with UMCOR and Muslim Aid to work for peace and against poverty and suffering.
"Doing this work together we have seen that we can relieve the effects of conflict without being a part of it," Day told those gathered for the launch.
"We are two communities looking at the same problem: the outbreak of global poverty and inequality," explained Murad of Muslim Aid. "We want to increase our effectiveness together. We can do a great deal more. … The Koran says to cooperate in what is right and what is just."
*LaCamera is a United Methodist News Service correspondent based in England.