WASHINGTON - They sat facing each other, 14 evangelical preachers on one side, 12 U.S-based Arab diplomats on the other. Nabil Fahmy, the Egyptian ambassador to the U.S., listened as introductions began, and he found himself amazed.
--"Robertson, Falwell, Youssef. ... I had heard these names before," Fahmy later recounted, "and I have to admit I was surprised they were here."
The initiative launched at that July 2 meeting came as a surprise to many. The evangelical community is known for its support of Israel, and many of its most outspoken leaders, such as Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell, have made incendiary comments about the Muslim world. But in recent months, an unusual rapprochement has begun between these two powerful communities, and the sons of some of those same pastors are participating.
Both sides have a lot to gain from a thaw. At a time when the evangelical leadership is seeking new outlets for influence, both domestically and abroad, it provides the possibility of an entree into the Arab world. For the representatives of the Arab-Muslim world, it offers the potential for improving relations with a previously hostile community as well as with Americans in general.
Whether this dialogue will lead to any concrete changes in an increasingly tense environment remains to be seen.
"These interfaith dialogues often take a long time to produce any tangible results," said John Green, a senior fellow at The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. "The evangelicals have had similar dialogues with the Jewish community and with Roman Catholics. The impediments to cooperation between evangelicals and Muslims are much larger, but more understanding could have a much greater effect."
The Bush administration publicly disavows any connection to the rapprochement, saying it was a private meeting about which they had no comment. But privately, officials express enthusiasm. "It could be tremendous added value to us," said one senior official who asked to remain anonymous.
"I heard from some officials of the administration that they found it quite positive," Fahmy said. "However, they didn't try to impose their opinion."
The initiative grew out of a private meeting between Benny Hinn, a televangelist who draws millions of viewers to his dramatic faith-healing campaigns, and a handful of Arab ambassadors this year at the Washington home of Nasser bin Khalifa, who was then Qatar's ambassador to the United States.
At that session, Hinn told Fahmy he would gladly bring other evangelical leaders to meet Arab representatives, and Fahmy volunteered to host such a get-together at his home.
'New generation' of leaders
Those who attended included Gordon Robertson, son of Pat and co-host of "The 700 Club"; Jonathan Falwell, whose father, Jerry, died in May; Paul Crouch Jr., whose father, Paul Crouch Sr., founded Trinity Broadcasting Network; and Joshua Youssef, son of Michael Youssef, an Egyptian-born evangelist.
They are part of what is being identified as a new generation of evangelicals with a less confrontational style and a broader political agenda. Richard Cizik, vice president for governmental affairs of the National Association of Evangelicals, which represents 60 denominations and 45,000 congregations in the United States, attended the meeting and said it demonstrated the generational changes.
The Arab representatives "were assessing the new generation of evangelical leaders who have operated in the shadows of their fathers," Cizik said. "As someone who has observed both sides, there is a change occurring here. It may only be stylistic at first, but that's important. They are more diplomatic, more willing to acknowledge that the words they use can be incendiary."
The Arab ambassadors at the meeting included Lebanon, Bahrain, Algeria, Libya, Iraq, Kuwait, Yemen, Oman, Morocco, Egypt and the Arab League. The evangelicals included Ralph Reed, the former head of Christian Coalition; Vernon Brewer, founder of the Christian relief organization World Help; and Don Argue, former president of the National Association of Evangelicals.
Hinn compared the meeting to Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's historic visit to Israel in 1977, the first by an Arab leader, which was opposed by many in the Arab world. "I told them, we've had our arm around Israel for years. It is time for us to put our other arm around you," Hinn said. "It's time for us as Christians to show the love of God to all people."
In the course of the two-hour lunch, participants agreed on some subjects and disagreed on others. The Arab representatives wanted to talk about their image problems in the U.S., as well as evangelicals' support for Israel.
"We from the Arab side asked if they'd help bring a better picture of Muslims living in the West," said Nabeel al-Dakheel, deputy chief of mission for the Embassy of Kuwait. "We wanted to explain that we were not all terrorists."
For their part, the Christian leaders were interested in getting Arab countries to be more tolerant of their Christian populations and to let more evangelicals in.
"My prayer is that we would be allowed to go and minister the gospel to Christians in that part of the world," said Hinn, who has held healing campaigns in Jordan and Dubai, United Arab Emirates, the latter of which he said drew 27,000 people, though he does not ask if they are Christian or Muslim. He has gained permission to preach in largely Muslim countries by promising, as he put it, to "not preach politics, not preach religion, but to preach the love of God."