NEW HAVEN, Connecticut (Reuters) - Two prominent evangelical Christians praised their dialogue with Muslim leaders on Thursday at the end of a three-day conference seeking ways to ease tensions between the world's two largest faiths.
Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, and Geoff Tunnicliffe, World Evangelical Alliance international director, said some in their ranks had criticized their participation as a concession to Islam.
But both told the final session they were able to openly discuss their religious differences with Muslim participants while agreeing to work to find more common ground with them.
"Our differences are deep and real," said Anderson of the Washington-based association.
"But I have been especially impressed this week with the comfortable candor with which Muslims and Christians have clearly stated their own doctrines to one another."
"It has been good to sit together and build new friendships," said Tunnicliffe, who is based in Vancouver.
Evangelicals and Muslims are not natural partners. Some Muslim preachers charge U.S. evangelicals with waging war against Islam and trying to convert them. Some evangelical preachers accuse Muslims of worshiping a false god.
Evangelicals have also generally been less active than other Christians in dialogue with Islam. "This is not part of our normal repertoire," said David Neff, editor-in-chief of the widely read evangelical magazine Christianity Today.
But the conference, organized by Yale Divinity School and the Common Word group of Muslims scholars who invited Christians to the groundbreaking dialogue, let participants explain their beliefs without trying to reconcile them.
"In this dialogue, we are not discussing doctrines or creeds," said Mohammed Bechari, secretary general of the Islamic European Conference. "We are just trying to find common ground for religions to work together as intended by God."
In their final statement, participants affirmed their support for freedom of religion and mutual respect, important points for Christians who say Muslim-majority countries curtail rights of religious minorities and for Muslims who accuse Western societies of widespread prejudice against Islam.
In the statement, the 140 conference participants said they wanted to organize an annual week in which Christian and Muslim clergy would preach to their congregations about the positive aspects of the other faith.
They also plan further such conferences in the Common Word dialogue project, which was launched last year by 138 Muslims scholars of varying sects and nationalities who wanted to speak up for mainstream Islam and against Islamist extremism.
"The intention behind the Common Word is not to foist the theology of one religion upon another or to attempt conversion," the statement declared.
It denounced a recent statement by al Qaeda that Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah should be killed for hosting an interfaith conference this month in Madrid.
Tunnicliffe said evangelicals and Muslims share the common fate of being "stereotyped and stigmatized in the media."
"Just as we promise to seek to move beyond the stereotyping of Muslims found in the media, can I ask you, my Muslim friends, to get to know us beyond what is reported in the newspapers and television programs?" he asked.
Reporting by Tom Heneghan; Editing by Xavier Briand