For the past year, a group of Christians and Muslims has been meeting for monthly conversations about faith.
"Islam and Christianity are two world religions that share a common theological root to Abrahamic tradition," says group member Carol Pek, a Roman Catholic. "These two religions also share complex histories of conflict and coexistence. While the groundwork to build understanding between Christians and Muslims has been laid down by Christian and Muslim leaders, the idea is still not fully articulated in many local contexts."
This reality led retired Catholic priest, Fr. Bernard de Margerie, and Fachrizal Halim, a Sunni Muslim who teaches Islamic Studies at St. Thomas More College, to get together a year ago to discuss the possibility of launching a Christian/Muslim conversation group.
Says Halim, "There is a genuine interest on the part of Muslims to know about Christianity and how it is defined by Christians, rather than perpetuating our own Muslim understanding of Christianity."
The initial conversation resulted in drawing up a schedule for meetings and establishing a steering committee to design the topics and content of the conversations.
Five Muslims and five Christians, all practitioners of their respective faiths, were invited to engage in the conversations with the aim of developing friendships and mutual understanding. Says Bernard de Margerie, "This is taking place ... with the encouragement of our respective faiths."
In June, the group met to get acquainted and to articulate why each person was interested in participating in the conversations. At the July meeting, a Vision and Hope Statement was drawn up, as well as guidelines for how the dialogues would be conducted.
The Vision and Hope Statement expresses a hope for developing and promoting understanding, trust and friendship among the members and between local Muslims and Christians.
The monthly meetings have alternated among the Mosque on Copeland Crescent, Holy Family Cathedral, and St. Thomas More College on the U of S campus.
The first serious discussion took place at the August meeting on the theme: A Gentle Approach to the Christian Holy Gospels and the Holy Qur'an. Each group member was invited to bring a favourite passage from their Scripture.
One quote from the Holy Qur'an was presented by several Muslims. "Men, We have created you male and female, and have made you nations and tribes so that you may know one another. Indeed the noblest of you, in the sight of Allah, is the most pious of you." (Holy Qur'an, Surah al-Hujurat, 49:13)
A Christian Scripture quoted was from the Gospel of Matthew 22:37-39: "He (Jesus) said to him, 'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbour as yourself.' "
In September, the conversation topic was: What is most dear to us/me in our own faith and why? The meaning of Prayer in our faith tradition.
October's discussion addressed questions Muslims and Christians always wanted to ask each other but were afraid to. Questions posed by Christians included 'How does the Qur'an envisage God — as male, purely spirit, dwelling in Heaven only, or other?' Another person asked about the difference between Sunni Muslims and Shi'a Muslims and why there is conflict between them. Muslims sought an explanation of the original sin, and how Christians explain the concept of Jesus dying to pay the penalty for people's sins. One asked what aspects in Islam Christians find difficult to understand — theology, rituals, or Muslim culture?
At the November dinner meeting, the group discussed what their next steps should be.
"Everyone wants to continue the conversations," Carol Pek says, "but we'd really like to expand this to the larger community and have more participation, especially from other Christian denominations."
To this point, de Margerie says, the Christian side has been all Roman Catholic. "On the local level, interaction like this is quite new for Catholics. Not all Catholics and not all Christians are in favour."
Halim says the same is true of the Muslim community, even though the Imam, the local leader, is wholeheartedly supportive.
In articulating the value of the conversation group, Dr. Abdullah Patel says: "These conversations are much larger than just words. They are about connecting, interacting and relating to each other through the one common factor that binds us, and that is faith. Even though we view faith through different religious traditions, it is our common spiritual belief of seeing each other first as fellow humans that drives this connection and makes these conversations so meaningful and relevant."