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Lockdown and Interfaith Dialogue

By Bishop Brian McGee – Published originally in ‘The Coracle‘.

The pandemic has proved to be a difficult experience for everyone. The lockdown, whose purpose was to save life, inevitably also limited our experience of life. As people of Faith we too felt this keenly. For long stretches praying communally was impossible and when public worship resumed distance, brevity, no singing and masks were the rule. And yet we were delighted to be back!

Naturally, we wonder what the effects of the pandemic will be on Faith and religious observance. Yes, we hope that family prayer and personal reflection will have been rediscovered but what effect will ‘loosing the good habit’ of attending Mass hold for many people? Time will tell. However, the Lord is still with us and he remains our source of hope.

In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic Pope Francis encouraged us by insisting that every crisis also offers opportunities. I have found myself wondering what opportunities have unfolded for Inter Faith Dialogue. I became the Bishop President of the Inter Religious Dialogue Committee not long before the virus struck. I only managed to attend a few events before lockdown began. Certainly online Meetings followed but these, although beneficial, were somewhat awkward as I am not technology minded but, more importantly, had never met the other Faith leaders in person. A certain frustration endured. What opportunities could possibly rise from this crisis?

During May 2020 Pope Francis had called for people of all Faiths to pray and fast for the end of the pandemic. Our Committee got together with Ahl-alBayt Scotland for a short time of prayer on Zoom. The invitation for prayer during this global crisis was certainly well received and the attendance was much higher than typical in-person Inter Faith gatherings. It was an uplifting experience but I presumed that would be the end of it.

Our Muslim friends would celebrate Eid ten days later. By then they had been fasting for thirty days. As we know, Muslims break their Ramadan fast each night at sunset in family groups and within friendship circles. Communal prayers may also be offered. The concept of being with others is integral.

Meanwhile, the Festival of Eid which closes Ramadan also involves great family and communal celebrating. Festive meals are enjoyed together. However, none of these communal celebrations could take place during lockdown. The isolation of lockdown would be felt very deeply by everyone. Even those living in families would still miss their wider family and friends.

What happened next was very beautiful. Many within Ahl-alBayt had felt genuine bonds of warmth and friendship with us as we turned to God for an end to the pandemic. Painfully aware of the isolation they were feeling at this special time of the year they asked if we would join them online! That they would ask us to share in their special day was a great privilege. Once again a healthy number of Catholics and Muslims joined together. Although I had not met of the participants it was still good to support others at that challenging time.

There followed very pointed criticism levelled at our committee for participating in the occasion. To be honest, even at the time, I did think that we rushed a little into the event and more thought and planning would have been beneficial beforehand. Nevertheless, the criticism, although more emotive than based on fact, did make us stop and think. Our committee consists of good, solid and enthusiastic people. We did not want to be doing anything wrong and causing anxiety for our fellow Catholics. We studied relevant parts of Vatican II, more recent Papal and Church documents as well as the example of the Popes. We shared the text with a previous President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. We concluded that we had not done anything wrong but that more preparation should be used in the future. The Committee further discussed our findings and drew up a protocol so that we could participate in future events with confidence. The criticism pushed us to learn for the future and that was a good outcome.

What was more interesting that during Advent the Ahl-alBayt Society wanted to reciprocate our kindness. They knew that Christmas is a special festival for Christians which we celebrate in families and with friends. The restrictions, although lighter than in May, still prevented our usual gatherings. Our Muslim friends wanted to reach out to us. This time we invited two scholars – one Catholic and one Muslim – to share our respective understanding of the person of Jesus. Friendship, a genuine care for those of another Faith and sharing of beliefs. Surely this was true Inter Religious dialogue. After discussion we finished with a prayer composed by Pope Francis to be used by those who believe in One God.

Covid-19 has been so detrimental to human contact in so many ways. In Scotland it has opened new paths in Catholic- Ahl-alBayt dialogue. I wonder where it might lead next?

Bishop Brian McGee

Bishop of Argyll and the Isles

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Dialogue and International Aid

Inter-religious Action and Aid and Development Agencies

by Dr Duncan MacLaren: Former Executive Director of SCIAF and Secretary General of Caritas Internationalis, and member of the Scottish Bishops’ Committee for Inter-religious Dialogue. He is an Adjunct Professor at Australian Catholic University and completed a PhD on Integral Human Development in 2019. He was made a Knight Commander of St Gregory the Great by Pope Francis in 2016.

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One neglected part of inter-religious dialogue is the talk and action between the Catholic aid and development agencies (for example, SCIAF in Scotland) and those from the Islamic faith tradition (such as Islamic Relief). My introduction to this topic was stark.

In my early thirties, I was looking at projects supported by SCIAF in the Islamic City of Marawi in the Philippines. One of them consisted of advocating for free water supplies for the poor. The clean water was supplied by standpipes throughout the town but they had been taken over by local warlords who were charging what was a fortune for the poor. Many people then bathed their children and themselves in Lake Marawi, and took drinking water from the lake with cows defecating just along from them. There was, obviously, a spike in waterborne diseases for all the family.

I was being accommodated by a young, activist Muslim family in their modest flat. They asked me about Catholic Social Teaching and, since they had a blackboard in their living room, I illustrated the principles, where they came from and how they helped us discern the common good. The couple said ‘But we have the same principles in the Qur’an and they told me about them. The trip was cut short when a policeman came to the door and said the ‘American’ would have to leave as his life had been threatened. I was bundled into a car while protesting I was Scottish, and taken down the mountain to a safe house in an Islamic Centre in Iligan City.

Many years later, when I was Secretary General of Caritas Internationalis in the Vatican, this informal ‘dialogue’ led to a partnership between Catholic aid agencies and Islamic Relief, a Muslim aid and development agency founded in 1984 by an Egyptian doctor, Dr Hany El-Banna, and his fellow students at the University of Birmingham. Dr El-Banna came to the Vatican twice to enquire about setting up an international network of Islamic Relief and he established what is now called Islamic Relief Worldwide, partly based on the Caritas model. Caritas Internationalis is a confederation of 165 official Catholic aid, development and social service agencies, SCIAF being the Scottish representative. They are part of the Church not an adjunct to it and work together throughout the world bringing the option for the poor to life. Given that Islamic Relief put its own religious values at its heart, just as SCIAF does, we were also a natural partner for them. SCIAF and other Caritas agencies have worked together with Islamic Relief in humanitarian programmes for earthquake survivors in El Salvador where the Catholic agencies took the lead and in a similar programme in Bam, Iran where Islamic Relief took the lead.

In Christianity, a special place is accorded the poor throughout the Old and New Testaments and becomes solidified in Jesus’ proclamation in the Last Judgement (Matthew 25) that those who stood in solidarity with the poor were ‘Blessed’ while those who did not were condemned. Similarly, in Islam, help for the poor is regarded as a central part of the faith. People who deny religion are even equated with those who neglect the poor. The Qur’an (107: 1-3) says, “Have you observed him who denies religion? That is he who repels the orphan and urges not the feeding of the needy”.

The values of both faiths are the wellspring for Catholic and Islamic aid agencies to move from orthodoxy to orthopraxis (*), as agencies do on the ground in programmes. Increased sharing of those values would enrich both. For Catholics, it would also be fulfilling what the Second Vatican Council document, Nostra Aetate (the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions) encouraged the faithful to do, urging “that a sincere effort be made to achieve mutual understanding [between Catholicism and Islam] for the benefit of all, let them together preserve and promote peace, liberty, social justice and moral values”(par. 3). Catholic and Islamic aid agencies are blazing the trail.

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(*) Leonardo Boff defines orthopraxis in Christological terms as “correct acting in the light of Christ” as opposed to the “correct thinking about Christ” of orthodoxy. (In Leonardo Boff, Jesus Christ Liberator: A Critical Christology of Our Time, (London: SPCK, 1990, seventh impression). 46)

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The Home We Build Together

From Sr Isabel Smyth SND – Interfaith Journeys

The school summer holidays are over in Scotland and there’s a sense of purpose and industry around. After a quiet few months our interfaith committee has become very busy. In the last week or two there has been an Eid dinner hosted by the Scottish Ahl-alBayt Society, a day with Church students, taking them to places of worship and introducing them to the work of interfaith in Scotland, a meeting with young people from three Catholic schools, working with St Mungo’s Museum to plan a programme which they will organise in their schools during interfaith week and a 24 hour colloquium on faith in public life.

This colloquium has become an annual event but this year it was special. For one thing we planned it in partnership with the Justice and Peace Commission and the Bishops’ Parliamentary Office and we had a Sunni and Shia Muslim and a Baha’i participating. This meant the majority of people attending were Christian but even this small number of people from other faiths made a tangible and significant difference. It was important to have an interfaith dimension, even if small, as we were reflecting on our common civic identity. The inspiration for the event and the title of the colloquium came from Lord Jonathan Sack’s book ‘The Home We Build Together’.  In that book Lord Sacks suggests that the image of a home could be a powerful motivation for people of all faiths and none to work together to bring about the kind of society we would all like to live in – in other words to work for the common good.

The key note speaker, who set the scene for subsequent reflections and discussions, was Lord John Mcfall, a person of faith with long experience in politics. He reflected on the relationship between faith and politics, suggesting that both have the same intention in that they are working for a better world. He had some interesting and challenging things to say. Change, he said was the only reality in life and not to be afraid of it. While we lived in a time of instability and insecurity, people were yearning for answers to the big questions of life, something religion had to offer. It could be that religion might be the only architecture to hold society together – quite a challenge!

Cardinal Newman has a famous saying ‘to live is to change and to be perfect is to have changed often’. But on the whole religions are conservative institutions and not often in the forefront of change. Religious founders were certainly innovators, often challenging the inflexibility of the conservatism of the faith and culture from which they sprung. But the developing tradition has a tendency to institutionalise the charisma and put its energies into maintaining the tradition. Religion, like nations, can look back with nostalgia to a golden age when all was well, stable and secure. But there was, of course, no such thing. Such thinking is a refuge from a world that is frightening in its insecurity and instablitiy. It’s this kind of thinking that has given rise, I think, to what we call identity politics, an attitude which also influences religions. There’s real evidence of a battening down the hatches in both religion and politics – a fear of the other, a sense that others are out to get us and we must look after ourselves and our own interests or ‘they’ will take over and deprive us of our livelihood and identity. In so far as this is the case, religions are in danger of setting themselves against society, rather than being the architecture that holds it together. This is only possible by embracing society, looking for the positive and good and speaking truth in love while inspiring fellow citizens to commit to accepting the human dignity of all and working for the common good.

To do this religion needs to learn a new language – the language of citizenship which Rabbi Sacks suggests should be the first language of us all, despite our second languages of ethnicity or faith. Someone at our colloquium suggested we needed to be bi-lingual. This may well be true but perhaps faith communities need to reflect on how far their language, especially in the area of morals and values, reflects the reality of today and is expressed in language that is positive and meaningful. In my own Church much of the language of faith and morals uses medieval concepts which are no longer relevant and suggest a cosmology and reality that is outdated. No wonder young people cannot take it seriously and are ahead of us in meeting some of the issues facing our planet and its future.

There was much more of course and in due time a report will be published on our website. Recently Pope Francis encouraged us to avoid unproductive discussions. In interfaith no meeting is unproductive if it establishes a  bond of friendship and understanding but it was good to have discourse over matters that are important to all of us. The intention is that this should be the start of many more productive dialogues.

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Farewell to Mary Catherine

In early July we said goodbye to our intern Mary Catherine O’Reilly Gindhart who has worked with us for the past two and a half years.

Mary Catherine has been an enthusiastic addition to our team and has enjoyed all she has learned about interfaith relations. She continues with her PhD work and will teach a course on interfaith for Cabrini University, Pennsylvania  in the autumn. We wish her well and thank her very much for all she has done for us.

         

 

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