Courage necessary to walk the path of inter-religious dialogue

By Glen Argan

(Originally published in The Catholic Register, April 7, 2019)

Hatred, murder and mayhem will not prevail. The power of love is stronger. At least, that’s the dream.

In his March 31 homily at a Mass in Morocco, Pope Francis urged the country’s tiny Catholic community to be “an oasis of mercy.” He encouraged them “to persevere on the path of dialogue with our Muslim brothers and sisters.”

The pope’s remarks came a mere two weeks after a gunman killed 50 worshippers and injured another 50 in two New Zealand mosques. It is also a reminder that Christians sometimes suffer violent persecution in predominantly Muslim countries.

In another talk during his brief visit to Morocco, Pope Francis stated that fanaticism and extremism “must be countered by solidarity on the part of all believers, grounded in the lofty shared values that inspire our actions.”

In many Canadian centres, many Christians and Muslims have been building solidarity for years. They work under the radar to deepen friendship and dialogue. No headlines celebrate their work; no TV cameras capture the fostering of harmony. Conflict and bloodshed will draw attention from mainstream media, but the building of bridges goes unmentioned.

In Edmonton – where Canada’s first mosque was built 80 years ago – Muslims today number between 80,000 and 100,000 in a total population of one million. Relations between Catholics and Muslims date back to the Second Vatican Council. Under Archbishop Richard Smith, head of the archdiocese since 2008, the work has picked up steam, says Julien Hammond, the archdiocese’s longtime coordinator of ecumenical and interreligious relations.

When a gunman killed six worshippers and injured 19 others at a Quebec City mosque in January 2017, Archbishop Smith invited local Muslim leaders to his home for supper and to discuss ways to deepen local interfaith relations. A few months later, he visited Al Rashid Mosque, a visit that was repaid last summer when Muslim leaders came to St. Albert where the first roots of the Catholic Church in Alberta were planted 150 years ago. Archbishop Smith reached out again March 29 when he went to the Rahma Mosque.

As well as the contacts among religious leaders, Hammond sees growing relations among ordinary Muslims and Christians. An annual friendship dinner during Ramadan draws 100 to 120 people for cultural and religious sharing. To mark the pope’s visit to Morocco, about 40 Christians and Muslim Moroccans met at Al Rashid Mosque March 30.

Those involved in this local “path of dialogue” hope to expand their activities. Possible joint projects such as food bank or clothing drives, work against domestic violence, an interfaith film festival and even a blood clinic have been discussed.

While relations between mosques and neighbourhood parishes have not yet been established in the city, Hammond has that in view too. “It would be great if we would have a little more engagement of the communities. But we’ll get there.”

While he has been accused of being Pollyannaish – seeing Muslim-Christian relations in too rosy a light – Hammond responds, “It’s not that we don’t know the troubled history or the troubled present. But we are actually trying to establish something different.”

In his visit to the United Arab Emirates in February, Pope Francis called for “the courage of otherness.” Such courage grows out of a sense of both maintaining one’s own identity and reaching out to affirm the freedom and rights of the other.

This would take a 180-degree switch from the tribalism which fuels hatred of and violence against Muslims and others. An inward-focused tribalism was perhaps essential in earlier times when people eked out an existence in isolated communities. Today, we need small communities to help us weather the isolation of life in a mass society. Just as surely, today’s communities need to be outward-looking and embrace the stranger who is suffering through hard times.

Leaders have a choice: they can stoke hatred of those who are different, or they can do the painstaking work of nurturing friendship, dialogue and harmony. Pope Francis was correct in asserting that taking the latter approach requires courage.

It takes no courage to foment mistrust and hatred. Angry people are always available to march in that parade. Alas, the media will find reasons to cover the haters.

The meek, the poor in spirit and the peacemakers, however, will begin their work on oases. May those oases of humble friendship expand to overwhelm the deserts of hate. Interreligious dialogue may be on the margins. We need it to move to the centre.

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