August 23, 2018

Brazilian evangelicals explore new ways of relating to Muslims

Written by  Micah Brickner
The front entrance of the largest mosque in Foz do Iguaçu, the Omar Ibn Al-Khattab Mosque. Photos provided by Andres Prins. The front entrance of the largest mosque in Foz do Iguaçu, the Omar Ibn Al-Khattab Mosque. Photos provided by Andres Prins.

FOZ DO IGUAÇU, Brazil — A first-ever interfaith dialogue gathering for evangelical Christians and Sunni Muslims in the Brazilian city of Foz do Iguaçu was held on July 17. The Centro Cultural Beneficente Islâmico de Foz do Iguaçu and the Eastern Mennonite Missions (EMM) Christian-Muslim Relations Team (CMRT) co-sponsored the gathering with the theme, “Peace: Connecting personal experience with Peace on Earth.”

Andres Prins, CMRT member and catalyst for the gathering, hoped that the approximately 220 participants “were encouraged to invite their Muslim or Christian friend out regularly for tea or coffee to get to know each other.”

Presentations were given by Sheikh Oussama El Zahed, the imam of the largest mosque in the city, the Omar Ibn Al-Khattab Mosque, and by David Shenk, a CMRT member, translated by Prins into Portuguese. In addition to presentations from El Zahed and Shenk, there was a question-and-answer session, followed by an informal time for Christian attendees to watch how Muslims perform their sunset prayers in the mosque.

The gathering was part of a week of engagements in the region for Prins and Shenk. The two CMRT members taught on a variety of themes regarding Christian-Muslim relations in Foz do Iguaçu, as well as in the bordering city of Ciudad del Este, Paraguay.

Eddy Fonseca, sponsored by the Nicaraguan Mennonite Church, accompanied Prins and Shenk. Fonseca shared that Latin American churches need this training, indicating that this kind of education requires the experience of peacemakers who generate dialogue between Muslims and Christians.

Referring to their week of engagements in the region, Prins said, “Students and organizers of the training were very appreciative of the attitude that we bring.” Having been previously exposed to an approach which engages Muslims almost exclusively around theological debate or apologetics, Christians were encouraged to follow Christ in “getting to know and love their Muslim acquaintances as persons.” Prins hoped that these engagements would help Christians reduce any sense of fear, rejection, or indifference toward their Muslim neighbors.

Foz do Iguaçu is part of a three-country region known as the Triple Border, where Brazil meets Argentina and Paraguay. The Brazilian state of Paraná, in which Foz do Iguaçu is located, has a large Muslim population. The entire Triple Border region is estimated to be home to more than 20,000 Muslims. Most Brazilians of Arab descent in this region, both Christian and Muslim, can trace their roots to the Lebanese diasporas during and following the decline of the Ottoman Empire.

A Jesus-centered attitude to interfaith dialogue, witness, and relationship-building is the focus of the CMRT's work. EMM workers Prins and Shenk, along with their team members, seek to faithfully confess Christ, while building bridges of loving and respectful connection between Christians and Muslims. This peacemaking approach to Christian-Muslim relations will hopefully be one that both Christians and Muslims in Foz do Iguaçu will want to continue pursuing.