Paul Knitter almost didn’t make it to the conference he was scheduled to attend two years ago. It was in Indonesia, and just before leaving he realized he had a serious passport problem. It’s not that he didn’t own one. Quite the contrary. It’s that the one he did own was so filled with stamps and visas from his travels over the years that there wasn’t any more room. India, Nepal, Thailand, Japan, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Korea, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, England, Israel, Mexico. He had so many stamps that he had sent it to the U.S. Passport Agency in Chicago to have 10 additional pages inserted.
“I almost didn’t get it back in time,” says Knitter, a professor emeritus of theology. “The morning I was supposed to leave for Indonesia, I stopped by the post office to see if it had come in yet. They told me it had, but that the driver already had it. We had to call the driver to find out where he was, and I drove out to meet him.”
Fortunately, his most recent trip went a little more smoothly. Knitter was traveling to Macedonia as a member of the Trialogue Group of International Scholars, a group comprised of Jewish, Christian and Muslim scholars. Formed 15 years ago by Leonard Swidler, a professor of theology at Temple University, the group originally met annually to talk about theological issues amongst themselves. A few years ago, however, they began to use their yearly meetings as a chance to provide dialogue in parts of the world experiencing interreligious conflict, such as Israel and Indonesia.
The president of Macedonia, Boris Trajkovski, heard about their work and invited them to come to his country to try to alleviate the religious tensions present there. Located in the West Balkans, Macedonia used to be a part of the former Yugoslavia. After the fall of communism, however, it assumed its own identity. Here Slavs, Albanians, Bulgarians, Rumanians, Serbs, Turks and Greeks all live side by side.
Even though the population is evenly divided between the two major religious groups—Greek Orthodox and Muslim—the government representation is 90 percent Greek Orthodox. Recently, the country has been experiencing religious/political struggles and violence between the two groups. Leaders from the two religious groups met with members of Trialogue during the five-day conference.
“We talked about the need to dialogue, the value of dialogue and how to dialogue,” says Knitter. “We talked about how to genuinely listen to someone, and to understand that they have something to learn from him or her. How to enter into the experience of the other person and see things from his or her perspective, and the danger of absolute claims.”
During the gathering, there were presentations made by the Greek Orthodox, Muslims, Jews, Catholics and United Methodists.
“It was then that things started to flare,” says Knitter. “The Muslims talked about how they were angry there were crosses on the city’s watchtowers. The Orthodox Greeks were telling how they were angry because Muslims had beaten up some Orthodox Greek workers. Others came in and reminded them that everything done in the name of a certain community is not in the name of that certain community.”
Knitter led a group on conflict resolution. One speaker was an American Mennonite who had worked in Bosnia and talked about nonviolent solutions. “They really started to listen to each other,” says Knitter. “I saw them come to a better understanding of the fears the other had and the pain.”
One day during the conference the group visited the Orthodox Theological University. It was the first time this university had ever entertained Muslims. The next day, the group went to the Muslim Theological University. That was the first time that university entertained Greek Orthodox.
While they were at the Orthodox Theological University, the deans of both universities stood up to talk. When the Muslim dean finished, he reached across the moderator and shook the hand of the Orthodox dean.
“There was a hush in the room because everybody knew that this was something historical,” says Knitter.
Knitter feels that they made progress in getting the two groups to open up to one another and created a basis for future dialogues.
“I’m surprised we were able to accomplish what we did,” he says. “Now they know each, and they’ve got a better understanding of each other. It was a big accomplishment.”