Christianity

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Common Ground in Dialogue

A Blog Post by Sr Isabel Smyth, Secretary of the Bishops’ Committee for Interreligious Dialogue

Last week I was introduced to the work of Dr Peter Admirand who is the Director of the Centre for Interreligious Dialogue at Dublin City University. Dr Admirand was the keynote speaker at a colloquium on ‘Interreligious Dialogue in the Time of Pope Francis, organised by the Scottish Bishops’ Committee for interreligious Dialogue.

While acknowledging the change and development in the Catholic church’s attitude to interreligious dialogue and the strong bond of friendship between the Pope and Rabbi Skorka, Dr Admirand widened our understanding of dialogue to include not just believers but also those who, as atheists, do not believe in God.

Dr Admirand’s most recent book is an account of such a dialogue, his own with Dr Andrew Fiala, the Professor of Philosophy and the Director of the Ethics Centre at California State University, someone who has an interest in religion but is a declared atheist. The dialogue contained in their book Seeking Common Ground: An Atheist-Theist Dialogue is refreshing in that, like so many of these kinds of dialogues, it is not polemical with one side or the other trying to prove or disprove the existence of God.  Rather it focuses on the common ground of a set of virtues which allows for an honest conversation and a common search for understanding without suspicion and resentment. 

 Having learned something of the faith journey of each of the writers, the rest of the chapters focus on a virtue, suggested by one of the writers and then responded to by the other. There are seven virtues in all – harmony, courage, humility, curiosity, honesty, compassion and honour.  While the writers explore each virtue from their own perspective there is a learning for all of us in considering their role in interfaith relations.  Some, it would seem to me,  refer to the attitudes necessary for dialogue – a desire for harmony so that we are willing to set aside, at least for the time of dialogue, judgements and prejudices; a humility in listening to the truth as another sees it while recognising and acknowledging the terrible consequences of the failings of religions and ideologies; a compassion that recognises our shared humanity in its seeking for truth, even if we come up with different answers; an honour that  respects and values the integrity of the other and an honesty that allows us to see how others might interpret and understand our words and actions. Recently Pope Francis, a great advocate of dialogue, found himself challenged when he suggested that the Torah does not offer fulfilment but is in fact a journey that leads to an encounter with Christ, seemingly undoing advances in Catholic – Jewish relations from the days when Christianity was thought to supersede Judaism and render it irrelevant.  Now the Vatican is having to clarify that the Pope was speaking within the context of Christian scripture and stating “the abiding Christian conviction is that Jesus Christ is the new way of salvation. However, this does not mean that the Torah is diminished or no longer recognized as the ‘way of salvation for Jews.”

When such a thing happens to a Pope it is newsworthy, but such misunderstandings can happen in dialogue to all of us though if the dialogue is based on friendship, as is the case with the Pope’s relationship with the Jewish community, the upset can be talked about openly and be a moment of learning for everyone.  But it is fear of such incidents that can keep some people from engaging in dialogue. Courage is then needed to break out of our sense of self-sufficiency and comfort and enter the world of another. For those of us who have done it, the journey is transformative and enriching but taking the first step can be difficult. Perhaps it is at that point that curiosity is something to be valued as a motivation for setting out on what is truly an adventure.

At our colloquium Dr Admirand highlighted curiosity as the value he hesitated over and some attending the event agreed with him. He noted that the Catholic tradition, based as it is on the certainty of Revelation, was suspicious of curiosity believing that it could undermine religious belief and, in their book, Dr Fiala states his belief that progression in science, psychology and other disciplines has done just that, especially since the Enlightenment.  It certainly has taken many people beyond what Fiala calls naïve religion and that surely must be a good thing. There is of course a dangerous curiosity and today we are aware of the dangers of the internet, experimentation with drugs and other substances for example that can lead young people to play with fire – metaphorically if not literally. Pope Francis has warned against idle curiosity that is empty and superficial, but he has also said “the secret to joy: never suppress positive curiosity; get involved, because life is meant to be lived”.

Within the context of interreligious dialogue curiosity is surely a value which, if strong enough, gives us the courage to enter into the world of others and come back to our own changed and enlightened not just about the other but also about ourselves, our beliefs and the world we inhabit.

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The Father in Abrahamic Religions

By Anthony MacIsaac

Inter-religious dialogue has often touched upon the topic of Motherhood, and there has been a wealth of reflection on this, even unto the apparently radical idea of God as Mother. Not so often, it would seem, has Fatherhood been discussed in this way. In this “Year of St. Joseph” – inaugurated by Pope Francis, and ending this December – it seems pertinent to consider what Fatherhood means more deeply. 

To begin with St. Joseph himself, Christianity generally considers him the “Foster-Father” of Jesus Christ. In a certain sense of analogy, the Holy Family resembles the Holy Trinity. Jesus Christ as the Son, Mary as the Holy Spirit, St. Joseph as the Father. Alike to the Father – St. Joseph remains in the background, and is an unseen presence. His position within Christian piety has fluctuated. In the medieval period, he was often seen even as a cantankerous nuisance – caricatured as such in the carnival performances, which sought to emulate the key elements of Christ’s life, usually on Shrove Tuesday. It is difficult to say how this unfortunate image grew, but it seems to have been culturally rooted in the time. Many may have considered him an unequal spouse to the Virgin Mary, and the role of step-father may have been thought of in negative terms. Yet, it could be that the humour regarding St. Joseph was in good natured spirits too. Whatever the case, his cult soon grew, especially with his role as Patron of the “Good Death”. Since he disappears from the Gospel early on, he is considered to have died during Jesus’ teenage years. By the 19th century, he was seen as “The Worker”, and a Patron to labourers everywhere. His popularity continued to increase, and in the 20th century his role began to emerge anew as a Father-figure. He was invoked in particular as a Saint of family life. With the “Year of St. Joseph”, his status might be at its apogee, and it would seem the Catholic Church is calling her members to a greater consideration of this holy man. In short, his role as a Father-figure carries with it many connotations. Even if he wasn’t perfect, his hard work as a carpenter and his devotion to Mary provided a safe and secure environment for Jesus to grow. Himself taking on the carpentry that St. Joseph no doubt taught Him, Jesus became a man probably quite like St. Joseph, doubtless also in His tenderness and care for those around Him. It is also notable that the Jews of this time saw Jesus as the son of Joseph, to the extent that the genealogy of Jesus refers back to King David via him – even if Mary’s genealogy is actually used in one of the Gospels. 

 The place of the father within Islam has certain similarities to that of St. Joseph within Christianity. When the Prophet Muhammad’s mother Aminah fell pregnant, her husband Abdullah left for a trading trip. Tragically, during his time away he fell seriously ill, and died without ever meeting his son. The aged figure of Abd al-Muttalib, the father of Abdullah, then took Muhammad under his protection. Despite being Muhammad’s grandfather, Abd al-Muttalib raised the boy as his own son, and exerted a formative role in the boy’s growth. His place within the Islamic tradition is interesting, in that his earlier life is characterised by an adherence to the “old ways” of monotheism, before the coming of Islam. One episode in particular is striking, in that Abd al-Muttalib almost sacrifices his son Abdullah, alike to Abraham and Ishmael – in Islam it is Ishmael and not Isaac who occupied this place. The familial descent of Muhammad from Ishmael comes through the line of Abd al-Muttalib, whose own great-grandfather was Qusai, the King of Mecca. The parallels with Jesus’ descent from the King of Israel, David, and the preceding Patriarchs are clear. Dying when Muhammad was eight years old, one of Abd al-Muttalib’s other sons took on the role of foster-father to Muhammad, Abu Talib. The relationship between Abu Talib and his nephew was always one of warmth, but there is controversy as to whether he accepted Muhammad’s claims to prophecy – and he thereby remains a difficult figure in Muslim tradition. In any case, he helped his nephew secure his place within the Meccan community. Over time Muhammad himself became a father, and many Muslims today trace their ancestry back to his grandsons Hassan and Hussein. There are certain Sufi litanies that invoke these individuals, in prayer to God, and these reflect a veneration for Muhammad as father to the Ummah (Nation).

In Judaism, certain figures are likewise considered as fathers to the Chosen People. Abraham – venerated as “Father in Faith” by Jews, Christians and Muslims – represents the first among these, leaving asides the legendary Noah for now. Recently Pope Francis visited Abraham’s place of birth – the ancient city of Ur, in Iraq. This choice was made because of the unifying significance to the life of Abraham, whose role as father is key to God’s Covenant with him, that promises descendants as numerous as the stars. God even introduces Himself to Moses as the God “of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob”. With Jacob’s twelve sons, the twelve Tribes of Israel are evoked – and the Nation of Israel proper takes its foundation from these twelve Tribes. To take a brief glance back at Noah, his position as proverbial father of Humanity has also been used somewhat within Jewish apologetics to underscore the reality that we are all called to some share in God’s plan. There is much more that could be said here; however it seems good to highlight the role of fatherhood within mainstream Abrahamic religion as a creative, nurturing and guiding presence.

(Our Feature Image is Saint Joseph with the Infant Jesus by Guido Renic. 1635)

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A Holy Land?

By Sr Isabel Smyth SND, Secretary of the Bishops’ Committee For Interfaith Relations

Since my last blog two weeks ago a war has raged in Israel-Palestine. It’s not the only part of the world that’s at war but it is a conflict which affects interfaith relations here in Scotland in a way that no other conflict does. This is because for four of the world religions, Judaism, Christianity, Islam and the Baha’i Faith the land is regarded as holy and often referred to as ‘The Holy Land’.  For Jews it is the land that God gave them and offered them a place of safety after the Holocaust and hundreds of years of antisemitism in Christian Europe. For Christianity it is the land where Jesus was born, lived, preached, died and rose again. For Islam it is the place where Mohammed undertook his night journey from Mecca to Jerusalem and then ascended through the seven heavens to encounter the various prophets and meet God face to face.  For Bahai’s it is the land where the three central figures of their faith, the Bab, Baha’u’llah, and Abdu’l-Baha are buried and where the Baha’i’s global spiritual and administrative centre is to be found.

For all four faiths it’s a place of pilgrimage and many believers have an investment in and concern for this part of the world that’s not always recognised. I’ve often heard Jews question why people seem to be more interested and critical of Israel than any other area of conflict, even suggesting such interest could in fact be antisemitic. I’ve also been in a situation at a Council of Christians and Jews where someone from the Jewish community was disturbed that we Christians might think of Israel as our Holy Land while Jews obviously think of it as theirs.

This is a challenge and often the elephant in the room during dialogues between followers of the four faiths who see themselves as descendants of Abraham, which in fact makes them brothers and sisters. However, while we all agree that Abraham is our father, and hold that the land is holy there is much not to agree on. For Muslims, the Al-Aqsa Mosque is the spot from which Mohammed travelled to the highest heaven during his night journey and received the revelation of the Qur’an. The Mosque is the third holiest site in Islam and the one to which the early Muslim community turned when praying until God directed them to pray in the direction of the Kabaa in Mecca instead. Towards the end of Ramadan this journey of the Prophet is celebrated as the Night of Power and devout Muslims will spend the whole night in prayer and recitation of the Qur’an.

The Mosque is built on the Temple Mount and, within the shrine of the Dome of the Rock beside the Al-Aqsa Mosque, lies the place where Abraham was sent to sacrifice his son Isaac and the site of the First and Second Jewish Temple including the Holy of Holies, the most sacred site in Judaism.  This was the innermost and most sacred area of the Temple, accessible only to the High Priest who once a year, on the Day of Atonement, was permitted to enter the sanctuary to offer sacrifice to atone for his own sins and those of the priesthood. Within the Holy of Holies was kept the Ark of the Covenant, a symbol of Israel’s special relationship with God. And for many orthodox Jews it is the place where the third and final Temple will be built when the Messiah comes. So sacred is this place that many Jews will not walk on the Mount itself in case they unintentionally enter the area where the Holy of Holies stood, since according to rabbinical law, there is still some aspect of the divine presence at the site. What is left to Jews is what remains of the Western wall of the Temple which for them is a place of pilgrimage and prayer.

So, here we have, in a land troubled by concerns about nationhood and land boundaries, a holy site which is claimed by both Judaism and Islam. It’s one of the most contested religious sites in the world and a focal point for the Israeli – Arab conflict as we have seen in this most recent war. It’s not the cause of the conflict, which is much more political than directly religious, but it does reflect a little bit the different loyalties, narratives, histories, allegiances that come in to play when reflecting on Israel-Palestine – loyalties, narratives, histories and allegiances that can affect relations here in Scotland. Most attempts to speak about the situation leads to polarisation, a desire of both Israelis and Palestinians to tell their story, believing very often that the ‘other’ side’s story is heard more than theirs. I’ve stopped listening to these stories unless balanced by the story of the ‘other’ side. Perhaps what we need is for those of us who call this land holy to reflect with one another on what that means, to feel the pain of division, to recognise the right of all to justice and statehood and above all pray for a peace which shows that it is not ownership or even history that makes a place holy but a recognition of a common humanity under God that recognises all others as our sisters and brothers.

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 The St Mungo Museum

by Sr Isabel Smyth SND

90433a9d77b7fe301a2afc0c7e8b61570c336a47The St Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art is a very special place. It’s named after Glasgow’s patron saint who brought the Christian faith to Scotland in the 6th century and designed in the style of the medieval Bishops’ Castle on which site it’s built.  When it was opened in 1993 it was one of only two museums of religions in Europe though there were Christian monasteries and churches that had been converted into or housed displays of religion. What made St Mungo’s different was that it included all religions and none and in the 1990s this wasn’t very popular especially with the Christian Churches, many of whom had a theology of believing they had an exclusive insight into truth and salvation and weren’t at all sure about displaying artefacts from ‘non-christian’ faiths.  What challenged many of them was that the Gallery of Religious Life showed that all faiths celebrated, ritualised, and customised significant moments in life – birth, initiation, commitment, marriage, death. The displays honoured the integrity of each faith but showed their similarities.  I delighted to see statues of the Virgin Mary with her son Jesus next to the Goddess Isis with her son Horus in exactly the same pose, or the infant Jesus next to the infant Krishna. This did annoy some people, but part of interfaith work is to realise that all want to celebrate significant rites of passage and that there are universal symbols and commonalities in the way they do this.  It should also be said of course that it attracted a lot of praise and recognition for being ground-breaking and innovative and for significant artefacts like the statue of Siva Nataraja and the first authentic zen garden in Britain.

When the museum was being set up the curators worked hard to involve stakeholders and be inclusive of all faiths. Through the Glasgow Sharing of Faiths, faith communities were kept informed of developments, were consulted about the displays, and even contributed to them.  Because of this the various faith communities felt they had an investment in the museum. In a very special way, it felt like home to them, and was used to celebrate festivals and events like the exhibition on the Declaration Towards a Global Ethic which was brought to Glasgow by Hans Kung who had presented it and had it accepted at the Parliament of World Religions in 1993, the same year the museum opened. But above all the museum became a centre for interfaith activity.

EPcLyRmWsAAdaksThe mission statement of St Mungo’s says that it is designed to ‘explore the importance of religion in people’s everyday lives across the world and across time, aiming to promote mutual understanding and respect between people of different faiths and none’. As an interfaith practitioner I’ve had a lot to do with the museum and been greatly supported in my work by the curator, manager and staff.  For about fifteen years we hosted an annual Meet Your Neighbour event which happened over a weekend but took an interfaith committee many months to plan. Different religious communities set up a display of their faith in the function room and were available to meet and talk to visitors. The weekend was punctuated by musical or cultural events, like the Jewish Choral Society, Hindu dancers, bellringers, tabla and sitar players. We had workshops on storytelling, sari wearing. Mehndi, calligraphy.  We involved schools and on occasions when we decided on a concert on the Sunday afternoon, we had people standing by the zen garden with the doors and windows open so that they could hear the concert as there were no seats left in the function room. Sometimes the dialogues were of a more serious nature and in the run up to the reconvening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 it was where members of faith communities gathered to consider what the New Scotland would be like for people of faith.faa2fd178f6d502b558226e09f84c8e3

It was in the light of these discussions that the Scottish Interfaith Consultative Group was formed and this then led to the setting up of the Scottish Interfaith Council which today is known as Interfaith Scotland.  The Council was started with very little – myself as the founding director, the gift of a computer from my community and the use of an office in St Mungo’s. This consolidated the relationship between the Museum and SIFC and we continued to work well together. For us St Mungo’s became the home to our dialogues with First Ministers, religious leaders, interfaith practitioners from England, Ireland, and Wales. It’s where we grew and developed. We eventually had to move out when we got funding to appoint staff and even then we were given an office by Glasgow Life, the body that runs Glasgow Museums. And continued to work together especially in projects such as the setting up of the Forum of Faiths by Glasgow City Council.

I think it’s obvious that St Mungo’s Museum is very close to my heart and I hope it’s obvious that it has fulfilled its mission well and contributed positively to the social fabric of Glasgow.  So, I am appalled and dismayed that there is some likelihood that it might not open after the pandemic.  The suggestion that the Council is looking to transfer the museum to a third party is worrying. St Mungo’s is unique, it has made a significant contribution to overcome racism, sectarianism and religious prejudice. It has worked with faith communities, school children and others to promote mutual understanding, respect and cooperation. It has involved stakeholders in a way no other museum has and to shut it would be a disgrace as far as I am concerned. It’s something that must be contested.

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A Letter for Ramadan

A Guest Blog from Fr Joseph Victor Edwin SJ

Dear Muslim sisters and brothers,

Assalam Aleikum!

In the month of April this year we will celebrate the advent of the month of Ramadan. I consciously use the word ‘celebrate’, because I have personally experienced and seen Muslim friends-sisters and brothers-really looking forward to the fasting month of Ramadan.

Let me begin with an anecdote from my days in Aligarh. On the day before the advent of the month of Ramadan in the year 2003, a Muslim journalist friend of mine, Shafi, and I went for an evening stroll. There was a lot of expectation in the air. There were people in the streets and on rooftops trying to spot the crescent moon, waiting for the announcement of the commencement of the month of Ramadan. The thought came to my mind how intently these people were looking forward to seeing a sign of God-the crescent moon. It was really beautiful! I felt very happy for that great awareness-looking for a sign of God in Nature.

God is the Creator of all things, and, using the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins, a Jesuit poet, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God”. God’s signs are everywhere. One needs to pay attention to them to realise their significance.

I heard an announcement saying that the crescent moon had been sighted. Shafi and I looked in the direction of the moon. An elderly gentleman was before us. Two little children-a boy and a girl-were holding his hands. They were perhaps his grandchildren. The gentleman raised his hands in prayer. He said something, facing the crescent moon. I was moved to see the two little children also raise their hands in prayer. How wonderful it was that this grandfather was teaching, through his own example, these two little children to recognise a sign of God! Even these little children were aware of God! I felt very happy for that.

Dear friends, the Holy Quran says that fasting is prescribed for you. It is a means for developing God-consciousness. This is something very attractive for me. The month of Ramadan is about focussing on God-consciousness. To experience a deep experience of God-consciousness, fasting, prayer and charity are a means. They help us in awareness of the presence of God in the world.
So, God-consciousness is something that the Muslim tradition teaches me, including through the significance of the month of Ramadan in the lives of Muslims. The way Muslim brothers and sisters celebrate the month of Ramadan helps me grow in God-consciousness as a Christian.

Dear sisters and brothers, as a student of Christian-Muslim relations I have asked a number of Muslim sisters and brothers, ‘Why do you fast?’ Many of you have said that fasting is for purification, fasting is to please God, fasting is an act of obedience to God. Everything that you have said I know you are saying it from your own experience, because I know my Muslim friends and their deep faith in God and their commitment to God. For me, this is a very beautiful experience. What you have said is from the heart of your experience. It inspires me to become God-oriented in my own life. It is an invitation to lead a life that is based on God-consciousness.

As a Christian, something else strikes me very much. The Bible says, in the Gospel of Matthew (6:17-18):
But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

Dear friends, many years ago, I was a student at the Department of Islamic Studies at the Aligarh Muslim University. There was a professor in the Department who was a wonderful teacher and a very pious person. During the month of Ramadan I would notice that he would be extra careful to look fresh, with oiled and neatly-combed hair and well-ironed clothes. In the other months, he would sit and teach, while in the month of Ramadan he would teach while standing. He would not show any signs of tiredness on account of fasting. He would be fully ready to spend enough time especially with me to explain things. And he would never make any reference to his tiredness or about the time the fast would end. On some occasions I would say to him, ‘You must be tired, Sir’, but he would reply, ‘Victor, it is important that I should explain things to you.’

How beautiful is the message of the Gospel (referred to above) in a way it comes to me through the life of a Muslim! I was able to see the meaning and depth of those Bible verses through my Muslim professor. This was something really amazing, a beautiful experience for me.

Dear sisters and brothers, I pray with you as a Christian brother that this month of Ramadan be a blessing for all of us who desire to grow in God-consciousness, all of us who thirst for God in their lives. May all of us put our heart and soul, hands and feet, together and worship the One God according to our faith traditions. And together as brothers and sisters may we all spread peace, joy and harmony.

Ameen! Amen!

May God bless us all.

Khuda Hafiz,

Your brother,

Joseph Victor Edwin SJ

2020.07.Victor-Edwin-SJFr Victor Edwin is a Jesuit priest who teaches Christian-Muslim Relations at Vidyajyoti, a Catholic centre for higher theological learning in Delhi. He is deeply engaged in seeking to promote understanding and goodwill between Christians and Muslims. He has a PhD in Islamic Studies from Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, and has written widely on issues related to interfaith relations.

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Fr Hans Küng RIP

Vale, Fr Hans Küng:  Priest, Theologian, Promoter of Inter-religious Dialogue and Prophet

 by Dr Duncan MacLaren

The Swiss theologian, Fr Hans Küng, author of On Being a Christian, a magisterial attempt to ‘sell’ Christianity to the modern world and Infallible?, where he cast doubt on papal infallibility just before the reign of Saint John Paul II, has died at the age of 93. These two books in a way encapsulate the man. On the one hand, he was a priest in good standing with the Church who railed against those priests who were messy around the altar and were not true to their vows, and, on the other, in his search for truth, he was often regarded as an irritant, to put it mildly, by the Vatican.

Infallible? cost him his professorial chair in Catholic theology at Tübingen University in Germany though they made him a Professor in the Institute for Ecumenical Research instead. The case against him pursued by the Holy Office was led by a man whom he had made, years earlier, a professor at Tübingen, Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, the then Prefect of what became the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. They made up soon after Cardinal Ratzinger was elected Pope Benedict XVI in 2005 at a lunch together in the Pope’s summer residence at Castel Gandolfo. They corresponded afterwards but never met again to discuss their disparate visions of the Church.

For the readers of this blog, their main interest in Hans Küng lies in his search for a Global Ethic, launched by the publication of his Global Responsibility: In Search of a New World Ethic in 1991. Ten years later, shortly after the attacks on the Twin Towers in New York, he addressed the General Assembly of the United Nations with his vision of a global ethic that could lead the planet to peace with the world’s religions as major protagonists. He said,

Globalization needs a global ethos, not as an additional burden, but as a basis and help for people, for civil society. Some political scientists predict a ‘clash of civilizations’ for the 21st century. Against this we set our different vision of the future; not simply an optimistic ideal, but a realistic vision of hope: the religions and cultures of the world, in interaction with all people of good will, can help to avoid such a clash, provided they realize the following insights: No peace among nations without peace among religions. No peace among religions without dialogue among religions. No dialogue among religions without global ethical standards. No survival of our globe in peace and justice without a new paradigm of international relations based on global ethical standards.”[1]

This is precisely why inter-religious dialogue, in which Küng participated passionately for many years, is so important for all of us in the Church. In the Global Ethic Institute at his beloved Tübingen University, he leaves a magnificent legacy, one which continues his search for a global common good found in the moral values of all great religious traditions in order to realign our world along ethical, more person-oriented and more compassionate lines. May Hans Küng, priest and prophet, rest in God’s peace.

Dr Duncan MacLaren is a member of the Scottish Bishops’ Committee on Inter-religious Dialogue

[1] Hans Küng, On the Dialogue of Civilizations, Address on 9th November 2001 at the United Nations General Assembly.   Retrieved from   One of the Greatest Visionaries of Our Time – We Mourn the Death of Hans Küng. The Global Ethic Project lives on. – Weltethos Institut Tübingen (weltethos-institut.org).

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ICCJ President’s Greetings for Pesach and Easter

Life goes on and what seemed as abnormal has become ”the new normal.”

It is human to celebrate. To nature and animals, all days look the same. It is human to give each day its special character. Actually, the purpose of all religion is to make us more humane and remember that human means godlike.

Jews and Christians celebrate holidays because, in separate ways, we share a common history. When we celebrate Pesach and Easter, it’s because God has done something new in our lives. Celebration is communal but no Holiday has caused as much conflict between Jews and Christians as this. To Jewish-Christian dialogue it’s a constant task to see how this holiday unites us more than it divides.

Both Pesach and Easter are stories of beginnings. It all starts with Pesach and Easter. You cannot define yourself as a Jew or a Christian without considering them. In this way the holidays define who we are.

This is my last greeting as President of the ICCJ. It’s been a privilege to write these greetings. As everything else, all good things come to an end. I will still be engaged in dialogue work between Jews and Christians, doing what I can and I hope we soon can meet again.

I write this greeting on behalf of the Executive Board of the ICCJ and the General-Secretary Anette Adelmann, with the staff of the Martin-Buber-House in Heppenheim, Germany. Working with you has been wonderful, a pleasure. Still, our co-work will go on but in other ways.

I wish all a Happy and Blessed Pesach and Easter!

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Peace and Hope in Iraq

A guest post, reproducing an article from the website of the Jesuits in Rome

FATHER CASSAR: THE POPE HAS SOWN PEACE AND HOPE IN IRAQ

By Iacopo Scaramuzzi

The Pope “sowed seeds of hope and peace”: Father Joseph Cassar SJ, the Jesuit who leads Jesuit Refugee Service in Iraq (JRS), comments warmly on Francis’ visit to the martyred Middle Eastern country (March 5-8).

“This visit was a kairos, a moment of value, which goes beyond the immediate time in which we live, and which lies entirely in the hands of God,” comments the Maltese Jesuit from Sharya, where JRS accompanies displaced Yazidis. “I was reminded of Jesus’ travels, as he looks at the crowds of those so much in need, dare I say like sheep without a shepherd, and the Lord has mercy on them. The whole visit had a prophetic dimension, which for its relevance goes beyond the boundaries of what is now a very small Christian community: I believe that Pope Francis sowed seeds of hope and peace in this country – a country in which, over these four decades, so much evil has been poured: conflicts, bombings, Isis. So much evil, so much violence, so many people have suffered.”

Father Cassar had the opportunity to meet briefly with Pope Francis on Sunday as he prepared to celebrate Mass in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, along with three confreres: Msgr. Antoine Audo, Chaldean bishop of Aleppo; Father Michael Zammit, provincial; and Father Antonio Spadaro, director of La Civiltà Cattolica. “My two minutes with the Holy Father were beautiful: he was very tired, almost exhausted, but also very, very happy.” Two years ago Father Cassar met Francis at the Vatican, during an audience granted to ROACO (Riunione delle Opere di Aiuto alle Chiese Orientali): “I had introduced myself to the Pope very briefly as a Jesuit working in Iraq,” he recounts, “and then he called me back and said, ‘Pray for me because I want to go there so much.’ And yesterday I heard that he was very happy to have made that visit.”

Francis’ visit to Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Al-Husayni Al-Sistani in Najaf, a holy city of Shiite Islam, was “a gesture that mirrors St. Francis’ visit to the Sultan. The Pope did not go there for politics or diplomacy. For the Shiite community, the majority here, this visit was important to heal the many wounds that have been inflicted on Iraq by so many years of mutual suspicion between the various communities. The meaning of this meeting goes in the sense of what the Pope said: the peace of God is stronger than violence and war”. Thus, the fact that Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi declared March 6 as the National Day of Tolerance and Coexistence in Iraq in memory of the pope’s visit to Al-Sistani and the subsequent interfaith meeting in Ur, “has enormous significance.”

The reception given to the Pope, “both by Christians and believers of other religions, was beautiful, everything worked very well,” says the Jesuit, who recounts meeting nuns, priests, and lay people from all parts of Iraq, all happy to participate in the concluding mass, joyous and energetic even after many hours of hard travel. “There were people who came from the district of Amadiya, on the border with Turkey, from Sulaymaniyya, there was Father Jens Petzold from the monastic community of Deir Mar Musa in Syria founded by Paolo Dall’Oglio, who is still missing, there were so many people and I could see on their faces an immense joy. Our Yazidi colleagues told me that they shared the joy of Christians, and so did Muslim colleagues who shared with us the joy of seeing the Holy Father in Ur, the ancient city of Abraham, or of seeing him enter Mosul, this city where all the cowardice of Isis has made slaughter even before the bombings.”

“Christianity in Iraq belongs to Iraq, it is not a foreign body. Christians have been in these lands since before Iraq was established as a modern state. Christians belong to these lands,” Father Cassar stressed, adding, “It is a great pity that this country has emptied itself of the Christian population. Those who stayed either consciously chose to stay or were stranded because they did not have the means to leave. I think that of all who are in the limbo of exile, in Jordan or Turkey or Lebanon, these in Iraq are not to be forgotten.”

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Photo: Vatican Media

In Qaraqosh, a predominantly Christian city devastated by Isis, joy was mixed with astonishment: “The local head of JRS, Fadi Yabbo, told me that he never imagined that the Pope would visit this small town. “Abuna, Father,” he told me, “you have no idea what this has meant for me and all the people, more than Hoshana,” the greatest celebration of the Syriac Catholic rite, Palm Sunday, which is celebrated almost more vigorously than the Easter of the Resurrection, the whole city comes out with olive branches to make a large procession: yesterday it was like Jesus visiting our country, a joy that we cannot contain and whose fruits will be felt and experienced in the future.”

For Father Cassar, the first challenges to be faced are those related to the dire situation of the refugees. “During the Mass, the Pope said that there are visible and invisible sufferings: here,” explains the head of Jesuit Refugee Service in Iraq, “there are so many people who still suffer, physically and psychologically, after being displaced, kidnapped: for having seen relatives killed before their eyes – and not only during the presence of Isis, but also now. For example, the attack in the cathedral of the Syriac rite that was visited by Francis in Baghdad on the first day of the visit.”

A Maltese Jesuit, Father Cassar – who will be 60 years old on March 9, after 30 years of priesthood – was close to Father Pedro Arrupe who founded JRS. Since February 2016, Father Cassar has been the director of Jesuit Refugee Service in Iraq. “We are Muslims, Kurds, Arabs, Christians: foreigners we are only four.”

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Photo: Vatican Media

Also on the itinerary of the Pope’s visit is Sharya, where JRS accompanies displaced Yazidis. In speaking about the ministry, Fr. Cassar said, “with my director general from Beirut, Daniel Corru, and the provincial of the Near East, Michael Zammit, we discussed with the head of the mental health program the many challenges that exist for the survivors of the Yazidi genocide in the Sinjar area of northern Iraq. There are teens, children, women who survived slavery by Isis, imprisoned, beaten, abused, even trained to fight. There are also those who managed to escape by going through northeastern Syria and entering Iraqi Kurdistan, and now they are either in refugee camps or outside them in a precarious situation. This is a situation that has been ongoing for seven years.” Father Cassar hopes to bring the lessons learned in Sharya to other places as well. “If the Yazidis who survived the genocide manage to return to Sinjar, I would like us to be able to accompany them.” And again, “I still dream that JRS can go to Mosul to help in rebuilding peace. For many reasons, related to access permits, so far it has not been possible”.

For the Maltese Jesuit, the central point is always “to ask oneself, through discernment: Lord, where and in whom do you want JRS to serve you?”.

Hence the hope that the seeds sown by the Pope will flourish. “I hope that there will be a greater openness to one another, I hope that we can undertake common initiatives among religions to respond to the needs of those who are most in need in this country – doubly hit in 2020, by the pandemic and its economic consequences, and by the economic disaster triggered by the collapse of oil prices. People are suffering, those who are not paid wages are suffering, those who depend on daily work are suffering. That is why I hope that we can take common steps to help the neediest among us. I hope that the Pope’s message that we are all brothers and sisters permeates the hearts of people of good will.” Father Cassar, who stresses that he spends half of his time and apostolic zeal on resolving bureaucratic issues, points out that the government office for non-governmental organizations in Baghdad has in recent days replaced its WhatsApp profile with the logo of the Pope’s visit. “This is also a gesture of welcome and openness. The Lord acts in the hearts of all, beyond the boundaries of the Church, and there are people who have open hearts. I hope that this visit touches the hearts of many people.”

Reproduced from the website of the Jesuits in Rome – www.jesuits.global/2021/03/08/father-cassar-the-pope-has-sown-peace-and-hope-in-iraq/

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World Day of Fraternity

h-e-cardinal-michael-czerny-s-j-5-770x500Guest blog – Cardinal Michael Czerny reflects on the significance of the first International Day of Human Fraternity marked on Thursday, in this reflection which is reposted from www.igNation.ca – the blog of the Canadian Jesuits.

 

4 February has entered the world’s calendar of significant commemorations.

On that day in 2019, during his apostolic journey to the United Arab Emirates, Pope Francis co-signed the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together along with the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar (Cairo), Ahmad Al-Tayyeb. This Document raises the great themes which, 20 months later, would be taken up and developed in the Encyclical Fratelli tutti.

The unprecedented encounter in Abu Dhabi soon inspired the creation of the Higher Committee of Human Fraternity. The members, an international group of religious and cultural leaders and scholars, are dedicated to sharing the Document’s message of mutual understanding leading to peace. The Committee plans to establish an Abrahamic Family House with a synagogue, a church and a mosque facing each other around a commons on Saadiyat Island in the capital of the United Arab Emirates.

On 21 December 2020, the United Nations General Assembly designated 4 February as the International Day of Human Fraternity. In the January 2021 edition of the Pope Video, titled “At the service of human fraternity,” the Holy Father highlights the importance of focusing on what is essential to the beliefs of all religions: worship of God and love of neighbour. “Fraternity leads us to open ourselves to the Father of all and to see in the other a brother, a sister, to share life, or to support one another, to love, to know.”

The Holy See’s planning for this inaugural International Day of Human Fraternity has taken place under the leadership of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. The Council was created in 1964 by Pope Paul VI to work on relations and dialogue between the Catholic Church and the faithful of other religions. It holds interreligious meetings, publishes a variety of materials, and collaborates with bishops and episcopal conferences on matters related to interreligious dialogue. Here is the first IDHF video in various languages.

Today, 4 February, Pope Francis and Grand Imam Ahmad Al-Tayyeb are participating virtually in an event hosted by Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, with the participation of United Nations Secretary-General António Guteres and other personalities. The event is being broadcast on Vatican News at 8:30 a.m. (EST).

Cardinal Miguel Ángel Ayuso Guixot, MCCJ, President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, says the celebration “responds to a clear call that Pope Francis has been making to all humanity to build a present of peace in the encounter with the other.” He adds that “in October 2020, that invitation became even more vivid with the Encyclical Fratelli tutti and comments that “these meetings are a way to achieve true social friendship, as the Holy Father asks of us.”

Judge Mohamed Mahmoud Abdel Salam, secretary general of the Higher Committee of Human Fraternity agrees with this perspective. In his presentation at the conference launching Fratelli tutti, he remarked that “In this decisive phase of human history, we are at a crossroads: on the one hand, universal fraternity in which humanity rejoices, and on the other, an acute misery that will increase the suffering and deprivation of people.”

In the future, starting in 2022, with the experience of this first celebration of the International Day of Human Fraternity and with more time to prepare, the local Churches will be encouraged and helped to participate actively with intercultural and interreligious events marking this date.

At yesterday’s weekly audience, Pope Francis said: “I am very pleased that the nations of the entire world are joining in this celebration, aimed at promoting interreligious and intercultural dialogue… The U.N. resolution recognizes ‘the contribution that dialogue among all religious groups can make towards an improved awareness and understanding of the common values shared by all humankind.’ May this be our prayer today and our commitment every day of the year.”

Cardinal Michael Czerny, SJ

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Virtual Pilgrimages

By Anthony MacIsaac

During the difficulties imposed by Covid-19 many of our religious habits have necessarily changed. Among these are habits of prayer, personal and collective. One especially profound form of prayer is the pilgrimage, which has been affected extraordinarily. At its root, the concept of pilgrimage involves leaving one’s normal space, to enter into sacred space. To leave oneself (along with any notions of selfishness) and to be embraced by a living and selfless whole. When we make pilgrimage to a particular site, we indeed walk the paths on which countless others have trod, living and dead. We enter into communion with them, even if an unseen communion, and we focalise that onto a particular space. We might call this focal-point a kind of Divine presence in the world around us. It is indeed a kind of deep communion with God.

pic_1518594231It is impossible to conceive of any religion that doesn’t include some concept of pilgrimage. Islam makes it one of the Five Pillars to its religion – the Hajj. Every adult Muslim is expected to make this journey at some point in their life, even if only by great difficulty. The Holy site of Mecca is itself rather illusive, despite being at the centre of this rite. It’s Ka’bah is popularly considered to have been built by Adam, and to have been re-built by Abraham. These legendary associations transform this figurative “House of God” into a focal-point for all Humanity, in the first instance, and then into an Abrahamic shrine. Pilgrimage to Mecca thereby accomplishes, for Muslims, a return to their source (Allah) and to the foundation of His relationship with Humanity. They fulfil religious obligation in making a journey of prayer to this site, and return home uplifted. For Jews and Christians both, Jerusalem is the central space by contrast (Muslims make a secondary pilgrimage there nonetheless). By Biblical narrative, this city was the site upon which God blessed Abraham – through Melchizedek, its King – and upon which His Chosen Nation was founded centuries later. In the New Testament, it was the city in which Jesus Christ was to be suffer His Passion, Death, Resurrection and Ascension. It was also the city in which Pentecost was to come, and from which the Gospel would leave to reach the ends of the earth. So that, in making pilgrimage to Jerusalem, there are again the two key notions of returning to a Divine source and leaving rejuvenated by that source, to bring its joy to others.

article-2059042-0EB7BDCD00000578-46_634x416In the tradition of Hinduism, the ancient city of Varanasi holds especial significance for pilgrimage. Within its boundaries is the sacred river Ganges, which is of great importance to most Hindus, as a river in which they might wash away their sins. The city itself was reputedly founded by Shiva, who beheaded his rival Brahma. Brahma’s head was lost by Shiva, and fell into the ground, therefore making the land encompassed by Varanasi absolutely sacred in Hindu belief. Varanasi is crucial also to many Buddhists – the Gautama Buddha having given his first sermons not far from the centre of the city, at Sarnath. For Sikhs, there is the city of Amritsar, which hosts the Golden Temple. The city’s name translates as “Pool of the Nectar of Immortality” – returning us to the theme of a space’s power to transform us from within – and it was founded alongside the temple by Guru Arjan.

The above sites are just some of myriad different locations venerated in religions around the world. Each religious tradition will usually have a plurality of sacred spaces. This returns us to the effects of Covid-19. In the first instance, we have found that making great pilgrimages to great places has been an impossibility. Yet, what some of us might have recovered is a sense of the Holy in Nature around us – which is an even more fundamental source of the Divine than any Holy city, we might say. Whether we walk in a nearby park, or look to the night sky – we are able to sense something greater than ourselves within Nature. Granted, many of us live in busy cities and it is difficult to recover any of this sense. Parks might be closed, the night skies covered in artificial light. However, we still might have so many other little spaces of prayer around us – if we are fortunate. Our local Church, Masjid or Synagogue can become that source of the Divine in our life – we can make pilgrimage to it. Of course it is clear that the imagination becomes important with all of this. We are perhaps re-thinking our space around us. Seeing beauty in Nature, even when hard to spot, and appreciating the Holy in everyday religious life. The Catholic Church has certainly encouraged virtual pilgrimage throughout the pandemic, and perhaps other religious groups have also done so. In November, the Holy See even declared that a virtual visit made to a cemetery would allow us to obtain a Plenary Indulgence – which we would be free to offer to anyone buried there, or perhaps to anyone buried anywhere. Such a virtual pilgrimage as this didn’t presuppose the Internet – it went beyond that. We were told that even the act of imagining a visit made to the graveside, perhaps just the act of imagining our loved one, would bring this Indulgence. The emphasis on individual spirituality has taken centre-stage in this declaration. Through our own personal contemplative life, we can access the full bounties of God despite being so very confined in this difficult pandemic. For this winter season, the Christians among us (but others too if they desire) might stop to make a virtual pilgrimage – a pilgrimage of the heart – to Bethlehem. This has been the idea of the Christmas crib, for so long, and it would surely bring great benefits to us – even equalling those we would gain by making a physical visit to Bethlehem itself. There are no distances in God. 2539739a446a5da1756d7d6e39867554

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