Some are a cover for 'missionary dialogue' and aim at promoting one faith over the others. It is easy for one to compromise his/her beliefs when taking part in events of this type especially if one does not have a solid understanding of his/her own faith.
Others are meaningless, superficial gatherings to exchange smiles and handshakes and pretend that all religions are created equal. Those are a complete waste of time, and I would go as far as saying they make a mockery of religions and their followers because they do not allow a true exchange of ideas.
Then there is a third type which is the truely fruitful one. Those are the dialogues based on respect, which seriously tackle the issues, stereotypes, misunderstandings...and create an atmosphere of trust and genuine love and understanding.
Of course, there are always the interfaith debates but those are a different story. My favourite comment on those is one I heard from Sheikh Yusuf Estes: Debates bring a lot of heat, but not much light.
Going back to dialogues, I think all interfaith dialogues, whether between faith leaders and scholars or student activists, fall into one of the above categories.
Having said that, I greatly respect the stance taken by American Muslim leaders towards the Pope's visit to the US and dialogue with the Catholic church. In order for this dialogue to be meaningful, it should be based on trust and respect and not attempt to cover the differences but rather help shed the light of knowledge and understanding on them.
Excerpts from letter by American Muslim leaders to Pope [emphasis added]:
"We have always sought and will continue to seek harmonious relations with our Catholic neighbors and fellow citizens. This requires that we engage each other in honest and serious dialogue that does not overlook real differences, but always remains respectful and truly sincere, and gives each side ample opportunity to express its views. Thus, we reiterate our commitment to actively work with the Catholic Church and American Catholics on all issues of common ground, whether it is creating justice for all, ending poverty, or preserving human dignity and human life. Should you wish to engage Muslim Americans in a serious exchange of views; the Muslim American community stands ready to participate."
For full text of letter and more coverage of Pope's visit, click here.
Also, check out John Esposito's thoughts on the Pope's trip here.