WASHINGTON, DC – Defying some of his fellow conservative Christian critics, one of the most prominent religious leaders in the country told several thousand American Muslims on Saturday that "the two largest faiths on the planet" must work together to combat stereotypes and solve global problems.
"Some problems are so big you have to team tackle them," evangelical megachurch pastor Rick Warren addressed the annual convention of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA).
Warren said Muslims and Christians should be partners in working to end what he calls "the five global giants" of war, poverty, corruption, disease, and illiteracy.
Warren, founder of Saddleback Community Church in Orange County, California, is the author of The Purpose Driven Life, which has sold more than 30 million copies worldwide. His willingness to show support for U.S. Muslims is a huge gain for the community, which has endured intense scrutiny since 9/11.
A Southern Baptist, Warren has a record of upsetting fellow Christian conservatives by calling old-guard evangelical activists too partisan and narrowly focused. Ahead of his speech Saturday, bloggers who follow Warren had already denounced his appearance at the convention as cozying up to extremists.
Warren acknowledged the controversy during his 20-minute speech.
"It's easier to be an extremist of any kind because then you only have one group of people mad at you," he said. "But if you actually try to build relationships — like invite an evangelical pastor to your gathering — you'll get criticized for it. So will I."
In his speech, Warren also urged Muslims and Christians to speak out against stereotyping of any group and to respect each other even while disagreeing. Addressing Muslims who "have been in America for many generations now," he urged them to help "the newcomers learn what it means to be American."
Based in Plainfield, Indiana, ISNA is an umbrella organization for Muslim groups across the country. The annual convention, now in its 46th year, regularly draws more than 30,000 people for lectures, prayer, and socializing.
Many in the crowd were drawn to the session by prominent Muslim scholars such as Sheik Hamza Yusuf of the Zaytuna Institute in Berkeley, California.
Ann Zahra, 42, said she had never heard of Warren before Saturday but agreed with much of his speech. "The basics are the same," said Zahra, of McLean, Va. "No religion teaches cruelty or disrespect or hatred."