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European Bishops Interreligious Dialogue Conference

The headquarters of the Bishops Conference of France in Paris was the venue for the European Bishops Interreligious Dialogue Conference from 13th to 15th September 2023.

This section of the CCEE is headed by Bishop Brendan Leahy and the conference brought together representatives from all over Europe to focus mainly on relationships between Catholicism and Islam. Time was also given to reflecting on relationships with Buddhism and Hinduism.

IMG-20230921-WA0011 (002)Conference listened to presentations and testimonies from academics, theologians and to hear first-hand from representatives of the Muslim and Buddhist communities in France about their experiences of interfaith dialogue and the challenge of building positive relationships between faith communities. Delegates also discussed their own local contexts and discussed potential topics for future conference meetings.

In his welcoming address to the conference Bishop Leahy quoted Pope Francis’ encyclical Fratelli Tutti:

“If we want to encounter and help one another, we have to dialogue. There is no need for me to stress the benefits of dialogue. I have only to think of what our world would be like without the patient dialogue of the many generous persons who keep families and communities together.”IMG-20230921-WA0009 (002)

The importance of this dialogue was picked up in the opening presentation by Fr. Laurent Basanese of the Dicastery for Interreligious Dialogue whose address to the conference mentioned dialogue no fewer that 35 times. He also highlighted the need for faith leaders to lead by example, quoting an Anglican Bishop who said at a recent interreligious meeting for peace in the Balkans:

“If religious leaders don’t ‘walk’ together out of friendship, how can we expect our faithful to do so?”

This emphasis on dialogue and walking together set the tone for the conference and was picked up by Archbishop Turini, President of the French Bishops’ Conference. He noted that the objective of interfaith dialogue was to enrich each other and in doing so deepen our own faith. However, the conference recognised that interfaith dialogue is not without its complexities and difficulties.

What was clear was that the experience of Christian – Muslim interaction varies enormously for both communities depending on the history of their encounter which has in some places been much more challenging than in others. There is a balance to be struck between the need for constructive dialogue and the Church’s mission to proclaim the gospel. The first day concluded with evening prayer and Mass in the chapel within the Bishops’ Conference complex.

On day two of the conference Professor Juliette Galonnier gave a detailed presentation from a sociological perspective on the experience of young Muslims in France. The professor highlighted the fact that the use of the word Muslim can be problematic in itself. She noted that the “Muslim” label covers a diverse reality made up of distinct pathways of religious experiences. Looking at it that way, it is most productive to understand Muslims as a community of debate about Islam, rather than seeing them as a homogeneous community holding similar ideas and practices. Consequently, we need to be careful not to generalise when talking about Muslims or Islam but to recognise the individual nature of each encounter.

Later, Dr Michele Brignone of the Oasis Foundation, an organisation based in Milan that studies the interaction and fosters mutual understanding between Christians and Muslims within the global context, gave a detailed account of the wide variety of ways in which social media is being used to communicate Muslim teaching. One of the complexities that the widespread use of social media creates is the question of authority. Which social media teaching is the right one given that there many and diverse answers to important questions. He concluded that social media is transforming the religious experience of Islam giving rise to new characters and influencers.

Day two continued with a meeting with Rector Chems-eddine Mohamed Hafiz, President of the Great Mosque in Paris. In his talk he highlighted the opportunities that good interfaith dialogue presents to Christians and Muslims especially when it comes to engaging together in acts of charity. However, he did not shy away from some of the challenges that try to separate and break the links that bind the Abrahamic faiths together. He echoed earlier comments of the conference stressing the need to work publicly together to face up to these challenges. He highlighted issues of Islamic extremism and also issues of discrimination against Muslims.

The day’s discussions concluded with small group meetings for the delegates in which potential lines of work for the next conference as well as the opportunity to report on experiences of Islamic-Christian dialogue from within our own national contexts.

20230913_181415 (002)The day concluded with a short walk to the Chapel of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal for Evening Prayer.

The last day of the conference began with a brief report from Bishop Leahy on a seminar that had taken place in the Dicastery for Interreligious Dialogue between Catholics and Hindus. However, the bulk of the morning was given over to Professor Dennis Gira, a specialist in Buddhism and the testimony of Lama Jigme Gyatso, Co-President of the French Buddhist union. Just as the diversity of Islam had been highlighted in earlier sessions it was made clear that breadth of the Buddhist experience is something that needs to be taken into consideration as part of any dialogue. It very much depends on where we are, what branch of Buddhism we will encounter. But again, the focus was on the need for dialogue. Dialogue that is based on cooperation and action, religious experience as well as dialogue between academics and theologians.

The final contribution from Lama Gyatso gave an insight into his own personal religious journey to Buddhism before he went on to reflect on the experience of Buddhist in France and the challenges they face being properly accepted and engaged by the authorities in vital areas including prison and hospital chaplaincy.

20230913_181415 (002)As is often the case with conferences, the networking that took place outside the main hall over lunch and coffee was just as enlightening. In my conversations with delegates from Sweden, Germany, Austria, Malta, Lebanon, France, Italy and Croatia, I learned huge amounts about the diversity of experience and engagement in interreligious dialogue across Europe.

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Scottish faith leaders speak out against assisted suicide

On Thursday 18th May Bishop John Keenan, Bishop of Paisley and Vice-President of the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland, joined the Rt Rev Iain Greenshields, Moderator of the Church of Scotland and Imam Shaykh Hamza Khandwalla, Imam of Dundee Central Mosque, at the Scottish Parliament to sign a statement urging MSPs to vote down a proposal to legalise assisted suicide in Scotland.

The joint statement expresses “deep concern” that assisted suicide “inevitably undermines the dignity of the human person” and that it could “put pressure on vulnerable individuals to opt for assisted suicide.”

The statement ends with a firm commitment by the Church of Scotland, Roman Catholic Church, and the Scottish Association of Mosques to oppose assisted suicide and euthanasia.

Bishop John Keenan said: “Assisted suicide attacks human dignity and results in human life being increasingly valued on the basis of its efficiency and utility. Implicit in legal assisted suicide is that an individual can lose their value and worth.

“Evidence from countries where assisted suicide or euthanasia is legal shows that vulnerable people feel pressured to end their lives through fear of being a burden. In such situations the option of assisted suicide is less about having a ‘right’ to die and more about feeling the full weight and expectation of a duty to die.

“When vulnerable people, including the elderly and poor, express concerns about being a burden, the appropriate response is not to suggest that they have a duty to die; rather, it is to commit to meeting their needs and providing the care and compassion they need to help them live.”

Later this year Liam McArthur MSP is expected to present a bill before the Scottish Parliament proposing the legalisation of assisted suicide.

In their Joint statement the faith leaders said: “On behalf of the faith communities we represent, we wish to express our deep concern about the proposed Assisted Dying for Terminally Ill Adults (Scotland) Bill, which will shortly be considered by the Scottish Parliament.  Our faith traditions are united in the principle that assisted dying in itself inevitably undermines the dignity of the human person, and to allow it would mean that our society as a whole loses its common humanity.”

“The ways in which similar laws in other countries are being applied, and the effect that its introduction would have on some of the most vulnerable in our society, including the disabled and the elderly, would be extremely detrimental.” The statement ends with a call to “Members of the Scottish Parliament to consider carefully the implications of this Bill, to express their concerns, and to vote against it.”

Bishop John Keenan
Rt Rev Iain Greenshields
Imam Shaykh Hamza Khandwalla


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International Human Fraternity Day

A report on our Conference marking International Human Fraternity Day, by Joseph Sikora

In February we marked International Human Fraternity Day, celebrating the signing of the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together by Pope Francis and the Grand Imam from Al-Azhar University, Ahmed el-Tayeb in 2019.   The document led to the setting up of the Higher Committee on Human Fraternity, composed of Christians, Muslims and Jews and was instituted to promote human fraternity values in communities around the world.

Held in the Archdiocesan Offices in Glasgow, the event was hosted by Bishop Brian McGee, who heads the Committee for Interreligious Dialogue and facilitated by Brett Nichols. Brett is a Christian and is interested in all religions and how they influence the way we think, live and care for each other. He has worked with the Craighead Institute as well as serving on its Board.

This year we invited three members of the planning group, Duncan Maclaren, Ahmed Khweir and Sr. Isabel Smyth, to say three things that stood out for them in the document.

Duncan MacLaren

Duncan MacLaren began by noting that the Document tells me about how we should see one another- Christian and Muslim. “Faith leads a believer to see in the other a brother or sister to be supported and loved”. A move away from self-centredness to other-centredness, then act to improve the lot of the Other – orthopraxis (correct acting) over orthodoxy (correct thinking). In practical terms he argues this means “we in the Christian community must call out the casual racism that so many people of this peely-wally colour seem to think it’s their privilege to indulge in.” He concluded his observations by highlighting that, “we must take seriously in our lives the option for the poor and marginalised, reacting against those who believe desperate people fleeing persecution or poverty in boats should be sent to Rwanda or pushed back to sea. And we must show pride, not just tolerance, in having ‘New Scots’ in this country which we share and who enrich us all in so many ways.”

Ahmed Khweir

Ahmed Khweir reminded us all that, “dialogue isn’t just about exchanging pleasantries, it is actually about getting to know someone and seeing something from their perspective and actually understanding it from their perspective.” A culture of dialogue he pointed out “is seeing your brother and sister striving for peace and wanting to be part of it. Is seeing your brother and sister striving for justice and wanting to be part of it. Is seeing your brother and sister seek the beauty of God’s creation and wanting to share and reflect it.” In conclusion he said: The human being is created from the unity of God and our challenge is to show unity in God both spiritually and rationally.”

Sr. Isabel stressed that the document encourages the adoption of a culture of dialogue while avoiding unproductive discussions.  She said: “I do believe that interfaith dialogue is a worthwhile activity in itself. But I sometimes wonder if those of us who are engaged in interfaith issues sometimes find ourselves in dialogue about matters in which we have no expertise just because we are interfaith activists.

Sr. Isabel and B Brain
Sr Isabel Smyth, Bishop Brian McGee

“What we want is that social action, justice and peace groups develop an interfaith approach to their work, working alongside others interested in the same things from different faiths and none.  This is what Jonathan Sacks called ‘side by side’ engagement and the focus is on the issue.”

She concluded by asking the audience, “Do we have a special and unique contribution to make, not just to mutual understanding and respect but also to social issues?”

This was followed by three open questions:

The challenges in society that particularly concern me as a person of faith are…

The challenges facing interfaith relations are…

As a person of faith and someone interested in inter-religious dialogue, the ways in which we can foster fraternity and help us live well together are…

This led to lively discussion and there was much to ponder and consider. It was important to reflect a little on the nature of interfaith relations and the place of interreligious dialogue within that. The two are not the same thing.

The feedback from the groups of course showed a great variety of responses, including the importance of working together on issues such as climate change but also the need to understand and value the religion and cultural heritage of others and the ability to dialogue with each other with humility and a willingness to learn from another’s religion in a way that will enrich our own faith tradition and take us out of our comfort zone. There was still a call for education about other faiths – “we lack understanding of the other, we need more dialogue. This will add to respect for each other and overcome being prejudiced about other religions”. 

The Human Fraternity document, which was signed in the name of God and suffering humanity, covers a broad sweep of social issues which is something that we have come to expect from Pope Francis. It is truly aspirational and envisions a world free of poverty, violence, injustice, and inequality, and recognises the importance of faiths working together to establish this.

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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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Duncan Mclaren Team Member

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.


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.

____________________________________________________________   .

(*) 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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Unity In Diversity

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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