A Saudi Arabian prince, an ayatollah from Iran and the former president of Portugal are among speakers at an all-inclusive Global Faith Forum that begins Thursday at NorthWood Church.
The Rev. Bob Roberts, pastor of the 3,000-member church, said the goal of the gathering of Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and people of other faiths is to understand and befriend one another.
“Our main purpose is to help people who are passionate about their faith connect with each other and understand one another,” said Roberts, who is known for making friends with Muslims and people of other faiths. “A lot of times conservative persons of faith stay within their own tribe and see world only through their tribe. The world is much bigger than one tribe.”
Roberts added that Christians, Jews and Muslims share similar goals of helping people, but their religious beliefs clash. The forum is an effort to move beyond those differences or conflicts.
Featured speakers at the event include Prince Turki bin Faisal Assad, who was Saudi Ambassador to the United States in 2005-06, and the Ayatollah Ahmad Iravani of Iran, an intrafaith leader who has taught for 10 years at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
Other speakers include Jorge Sampaio, former president of Portugal; Ebrahim Rasool, South Africa’s ambassador to the U.S.; and former South Carolina Gov. David Beasley.
Not without criticism
Similar faith forums have been held in the past at NorthWood, which emphasizes local and global outreach among its members.
Roberts said the effort to connect with people of different faiths has not gone without criticism.
Before a 2011 gathering of different faiths, called Building Bridges with Fellow Texans, Dorrie O’Brien of Grand Prairie and Act! For America Texas said the idea of Christians and Muslims making friends is “repulsive and impossible.”
The event was attended by 1,500 Muslims and 1,000 Christians.
This year, Frontpage Mag — a conservative website that states “Inside Every Liberal is a Totalitarian Screaming to Get Out” — published an article criticizing the event.
“The desire for interfaith credentials seems to surpass the desire to have a standard,” the article stated.
Roberts calls the conference “multifaith” and insists that none of the participants seek to water down their own faiths.
Challenging the culture
The pastor, a graduate of Baylor University and Fort Worth’s Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, said in a recent blog that he believes that “the Bible is God’s divinely inspired word like no other. I believe that Jesus is God in the flesh and the way to the Father. I believe Jesus has called us to be servants and witnesses to the nations and fulfill his Great Commission.”
NorthWood, which regularly sponsors humanitarian trips to Mexico and Vietnam, recently began a worship service in downtown Fort Worth in the Norris Center, a former a movie theater.
When he was a younger minister, Roberts said, he spent much of his time focused on increasing the size of NorthWood.
“I still think that’s important, but I’ve come to realize there are more ways to grow a church,” Robert said. “If you are not challenging the culture, you’ve built a huge tribe that is isolated.’’