Islam

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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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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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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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Why We Dialogue

A personal reflection on why we engage in interreligious dialogue – by John Stoer, Member of the Bishops’ Committee For Interreligious Dialogue

After some years of academic study on how the Catholic Church understands other religions and how, as Catholics, we should engage in dialogue with others, I have recently had the opportunity to practise what I have studied. Over the last few months, as a member of the Scottish Bishops’ Interreligious Committee, I have been privileged to engage in discussions with representatives of the Shi’a Muslim community in Glasgow and take part in two prayer services via Zoom when we came together to pray. What follows is a reflection on that experience and my study.

For me, one of the most helpful explanations as to why we should engage in dialogue is found in Pope St John Paul II’s encyclical, Redemptoris missio (1990), henceforth referred to as RM. The Pope explains that the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit can be found “not only in individuals but also society and history, peoples, cultures and religions” (RM 28). In the next paragraph he repeats his well-known but not uncontroversial statement that the interreligious meeting held in Assisi in 1986 confirms his conviction that “every authentic prayer is prompted by the Holy Spirit, who is mysteriously present in every human heart” (RM 29). Later, in the same encyclical, he gives a wonderful explanation of both the way dialogue should be conducted and its purpose. We should begin with our own tradition and convictions but should be open to understanding others “without pretense or close-mindedness, … with truth, humility and frankness, knowing that dialogue can enrich each side. There must be no abandonment of principles nor false irenicism, but instead a witness given and received for mutual advancement … and the elimination of prejudice, intolerance and misunderstandings. Dialogue leads to inner purification and conversion” (RM 56).

These words of the Pope have guided my involvement in the dialogue and prayer, and their value and insight have been confirmed by my experience. I have come away with an enhanced respect for our Muslim brothers and sisters. Their quiet dignity, wonderful courtesy and the strength of their religious convictions has had a real impact on me. I have no doubt in my mind that the Holy Spirit is present and active in them and in their religion. This does not diminish my faith in Christ, on the contrary, it encourages it. Their example has led to think about how I should change, how I should be converted, how I can be more faithful to Christ.

The firmness of their commitment puts mine to shame. The strength of their community binds them together and bridges the generational gap in a way that is not found in ours. Whilst they are keen to engage with the secular world, they are not willing to compromise on their convictions. Whilst some of these strengths, if over emphasised, can become weaknesses and even cause harm, their example should encourage us, as individuals and as a community, to reconsider how we live and even change our ways. I am not sure what I have to offer the Muslim men and women who have engaged with us. I do not know whether this dialogue has led to “mutual advancement” but I do know that it has made me more humble and has led me to question whether I am too willing to compromise with the demands of my own faith and with the secular world in which we live. My experience has confirmed Pope St John Paul II’s understanding that the ultimate aim of dialogue is “inner purification and conversion”.

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Some participants in the time of prayer
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Solitude

From the Blog of Sr Isabel Smyth – Interfaith Journeys

This week I went to an online interfaith meeting on solitude, something that has been a reality for some people during the self- isolation of this coronavirus period.  For everyone it’s been a difficult time. For some it’s been the separation from friends and family that’s been hard while for others it’s the juggling of working from home with home schooling and entertaining children that’s been stressful and exhausting. For others it’s been keeping alive their businesses and organisations. That has been true of the interfaith world. There have been so many possibilities to join in interfaith dialogues, not just at home but all over the world.  Sometimes it has felt that there have been just too many invitations and I’ve resisted a lot of them because I’ve appreciated the space and time for solitude away from diaries and meetings. I’ve resisted filling up my time with too much busyness. Of course there have been zoom and skype contacts so that I’ve not been at all lonely.

Solitude has a place in the Christian tradition. The celibate life of nuns and priests is seen as a legitimate calling which frees a person from the responsibilities of family to devote themselves to prayer and contemplation as well as service to the community. Being without a lifelong partner means there is a certain solitude about religious life, an aloneness even when living in community though that doesn’t necessarily mean loneliness. We have probably all experienced a feeling of loneliness in the middle of a crowd and a feeling of connectedness when alone by ourselves. But not all faiths value solitude.

Judaism is a religion that focuses very strongly on the family and community. Private, individual prayer is not as important as community prayer or living according to a tradition that re-members the past and reinforces membership of a people in a particular relationship with God. The text chosen for our recent scriptural reasoning event on solitude was the story from the book of Exodus of Moses spending 40 days and nights on Mt Sinai in conversation with God and in preparation for the gift of the Torah. The interpreter on the passage asked: was Moses truly alone if he were in the presence of God and since this time of solitude was a preparation for the giving of Torah then it was directed towards community which is at the heart of Judaism.

The Muslim presenter talked about three kinds of solitude in Islam which connects well with the Jewish view: preparatory solitude, whispering solitude and forbidden solitude. All the prophets including Mohammed, Moses, Jesus spent some time in solitude, in prayer and fasting, as a preparation for revelation. For Moses this revelation was the giving of the Torah, for Mohammed it was the revelation of the Qur’an and for Jesus it was the revelation of his mission to preach the presence of the Kingdom of God amongst us.  Prophets are spokespersons, mirrors that reflect the greatness of God. To be effective they need to be purified, emptied of self and totally open to God’s voice and for this, a time of intense prayer and solitude is necessary. Whispering solitude occurs at moments when we can withdraw and disconnect from all around us to enter into the inner silence of our hearts to pray, listen to God, to remember that God is closer to us than our jugular vein. Forbidden solitude is the kind of solitude that leads us to withdraw totally from family, community or society responsibilities. It’s the kind of solitude that stops us engaging with the reality of the world around us, rather than preparing us to enter into it and serve it.

The Christian presenter was from the reformed tradition which, he pointed out, didn’t, until recently, value solitude in the way that the Catholic and Orthodox traditions did. The text he commented on was the Gospel of Mark’s account of Jesus’ time in the desert after his baptism in the River Jordan.  We are told in Mark that is was the Holy Spirit, the One who is said to have descended on Jesus at his baptism who drove him into the desert where he remained for 40 days and 40 nights without eating, living among the wild beasts and ministered to by angels. In the other gospels there is an account of how Jesus was tempted during that time as to his identity and mission. This side of solitude shows the reality of having to face ourselves, our fears, compromises, our masks, our desire for ease and approval. Solitude is not just about communing with God or discerning His will. It is also about facing the wild beasts within all of us – wild beasts that we happily ignore or suppress in the busyness of life. But wild beasts that we need to face and even befriend if we are to be free and loving human beings.

For people of faith solitude is important but it has to be understood correctly. We’re never alone because we are in the presence of God and interconnected to all of creation; it’s good for us to face up to and be honest with ourselves; it’s important that our solitude does not lead us to disregard the world in which we live but becomes a preparation for honest and loving service, even if that be mainly through prayer. It’s an opportunity to see things afresh. Coronavirus has offered us that opportunity. I hope we haven’t squandered it.

Sheik Hassan Fr Dalrymple

Dialogue in Edinburgh

Fr Jock Dalrymple is the parish priest of the the sister Catholic parishes of St John the Evangelist, Portobello and St Mary Magdalene, Bingham, both in Edinburgh. In our guest blog he reflects on recent events in his busy life…

One thing leads to another…on Thursday 28 November, two and a half weeks after ‘First Spring’, the Moslem cultural celebration in the Carmichael Hall in Giffnock in Glasgow, I was also invited to speak at the first ever reception for Islamophobia Awareness Month, held in one of the committee rooms in the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood.

The co-ordinator of the event was the Muslim Council of Scotland along with the Cross Party Group on Islamophobia: among those present and speaking were Anas Sarwar MSP and Humza Yousaf, Justice Secretary, as well as representatives of different civic organizations and bodies such as Police Scotland. Edinburgh East’s Westminster MP Tommy Shepherd was one of those who popped in to listen.

The statistic that has remained with me from others’ presentations was that while Moslems in 2011 (the most recent census) are only 1.4% of the Scottish population, 38% of Scots think they make up over 20% of the population.

When it came to my turn to speak, I repeated much of what I had said at the Carmichael Hall, stressing the value of encounters such as our two evenings with Imam Hassan Rabbani in Portobello, since bigotry is effectively countered when we meet together to listen with respect and learn from and about each other. I also referred again to the recent meetings of Pope Francis with one of the great figures of the Moslem world, the Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayyeb of Al-Azhar University in Cairo, and how in February 2019 in the United Arab Emirates – the first time a Pope had visited the Arabian Peninsula, site of Islam’s holiest shrines  –  they had (another first) co-signed a document ‘On Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together’.

I concluded by describing what Pope Francis called the golden thread of his vision, namely encounter and dialogue, in his native Spanish,  ‘caminar juntos’ – walking together; and how such dialogue was only possible if three basic elements were present and interlinked, namely ‘the duty to respect one’s own identity and that of others’; ‘the courage to accept differences’;and ‘sincerity of intentions.’

The response was gracious – and the event highlighted for me and I think for all of us present the need to continue to work together to fight against the further fragmentation of society on lines of hate and division, and more positively, to benefit from the fruitfulness of encounters with open minds and hearts between people of  different faiths and cultures.

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Click here to see and listen to Fr Dalrymple’s conversation with Imam Hassan Rabbani.

Click here for Fr Dalrymple’s blog reflecting on his dialogue encounters.

 

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