We must respect Muslim beliefs, even when we strongly disagree with them

The burning of the Koran in a small independent church in the USA is a vivid instance of how relations between people of different faiths, and especially Muslims and Christians, can quite suddenly deteriorate because of the actions of extreme groups or individuals on either side.

It is all the more important, therefore, that there should be regular contact between leaders and scholars of the different faiths. Good neighbourly relations are also important as they reduce the chances of misunderstanding.

So what can Christians say about this sad event? The first thing to say quite clearly is that mindless violence, murder and barbarity must be condemmed by all right-thinking people of whatever faith and background.

It is particularly horrifying that the United Nations' peace-keeping and developmental operations have been attacked and its personnel killed or injured in the most blood-curdling manner. While it is welcome news that the UN has agreed not to pull-out from Afghanistan ( at least for the time being ), these actions have attempted to destroy the work of an agency that is charged by the international community to maintain order in such a dangerous world.

Secondly, the importance of freedom of speech must be upheld in any society, with claims to being free, and also for the sake of a free world. People should be prepared to disagree, even disagree strongly, with each other and there must be room for vigorous debate and discussion.

People of different faiths need to learn how to take criticism of their faith from others, to respond to this with words and not brick-bats and to be self-critical of themselves and their own tradition.

At the same time, the media and others should develop conventions of respect for people's beliefs, which may constitute an aspect of their own identity. Not everything can be settled by law and this should be restricted, in line with international protocols, to prevent incitement to hatred which can lead to violence or discrimination against individuals or groups, in, other words, which is a threat to public order. This, by the way, may be an approach to prevent future madness in the USA hiding behind free speech legislation.

Wisdom, restraint and charity can take us a long way even, and perhaps especially, when we disagree strongly with one another.

It is no part of Christian belief or practice to insult other people and what is dear to them. We seek faithfully to commend the good news of God in Jesus Christ. We aim to do this with love and respect for everyone, inviting them to respond to that love which is at the heart of the universe and which gives each one of us the value which cannot be taken away.

As far as Muslims are concerned, for the sake of the Gospel we must love them. We respect their beliefs, even when we strongly disagree with them and believe things about the nature and will of God which are radically different from those of Islam.

We seek the freedom to preach and to practice our faith, with sensitivity but also with a firm commitment to the truth. Where extremist Islamist ideology prevents such freedom, we must struggle against it and, particularly, to protect our sisters and brothers who may be suffering because of this, and other, totalitarian ideologies. We need to do this by promoting dialogue among people of different faiths, by advocacy of people under pressure with their own governments, especially with reference to how the law, in a particular country, deals with fundamental freedoms, and also in international fora and through the work of voluntary agencies.

I have heard and read of this tragic event with great sadness. In the past, I have warned that a deed of this kind would create a deadly backlash against Christians, churches and international relief and development workers. This has now happened. Christians should immediately distance themselves from such madness and any that follow it. Governments have a duty to uphold freedom but also the public order which makes it possible. All along we bring the Gospel of peace, rconciliation and freedom to a needy world, praying that those engaged in doing this will be protected by the mighty hand of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.