Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta


National Catholic-Muslim Dialogue Seeks To Build Bridges

By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published September 21, 2006

“At a time of unstable international relations, ‘of wars and rumors of wars,’ it can only be a work of divine grace for people of faith to come together to do the work of peace making and bridge building,” says the prologue to the new book “Revelation: Muslim and Catholic Perspectives.”

The book, published in January by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Islamic Society of North America after eight years of dialogue, is designed for use by churches and Islamic centers to bring them together as neighbors and partners in their communities.

The theological dialogue doesn’t involve any compromise of Catholic or Islamic beliefs but rather a commitment to the truth and respect for freedom of conscience, which can lead participants to better understand the other’s faith and their own, the prologue notes.

In a time of “code red” anxieties, escalating conflicts and voices preaching hate and violence, Dr. Sayyid Muhammad Syeed, national director and founder of the Islamic Society of North America, which has over 300 North American affiliates, called their relations quietly established over the past decade with the U.S. Catholic Church “wonderful” and this short new book “the product of our deliberation.”

“It is very symbolic because over the last thousand years there have been wars and confrontation. We believe the new millennium has to begin with better understanding and cooperation and starting totally anew with a better relationship in faith,” said the native of Kashmir, India, in a July phone interview. “Here we’re emerging as partners in the American pluralist scene, as Muslims with full cooperation of the Catholic Church. … We have learned a lot from Catholics because Catholics had to go through lots of struggle. That’s why we feel so encouraged by associating ourselves close to the (U.S.) Catholic community.”

In 1987 the USCCB began formally building relations with Muslims. But it wasn’t until 1996 that they developed a workable model for Muslim organizations to join the USCCB in ongoing dialogue. A regional model was first implemented in 1996 with annual meetings in Indiana with Syeed and the Islamic Society, then in 1998 in Queens, N.Y., with the Islamic Circle of North America, and then on the West Coast in Orange County in 2000 with an informal Muslim advisory council.

Syeed, also a board of advisors’ member for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said the book explores commonalities and differences of the religions with regard to divine revelation. The partners altered their agenda after 9/11 to discuss the problem of violence before completing their work on the book, more committed than ever.

Sept. 11, 2001 “was very painful for us as Muslims in particular. It was a terrorist act, very saddening, and since they denigrated the name of Islam it made us feel worse,” said Syeed.

The Society sponsors a “Not in the Name of Islam” campaign to educate on Islam and fight terrorist ideology. The scholar in the early 1980s was president of the Muslim Students Association of USA & Canada, which he transformed into the Islamic Society of North America. He was also secretary general of the International Islamic Federation of Student Organizations. He believes that the United States, with its religious freedom and great influence, provides an ideal setting for dialogue and peace-building that “will not only have a heavy impact on us here but global implications.”

One dialogue pioneer is Dr. John Borelli, special assistant to the president of Georgetown University for interreligious relations, who was from 1987-2003 the associate director of the bishops’ Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs and established the Muslim-Catholic dialogue. This April he published a book with Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, immediate past president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, on “Interfaith Dialogue: A Catholic View.” From 1997-2005 he also facilitated a series of training institutes for diocesan ecumenical staff and their associates and clergy.

He recalled how “the events of 9/11 caused Catholic-Muslim relations to deepen in the United States—in so many instances, local bishops joined with imams in their communities offering prayers and recognizing the common values we share in respecting human life and condemning murder and the illicit use of religion to promote violence.”

Borelli’s colleague Dr. John Esposito, founding director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin-Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown, praised the USCCB dialogue.

“Within a short period of time I’d argue that they made fantastic headway, probably so much that it’s been the most dynamic Christian-Muslim dialogue in recent years that has been done both at the national level and diocesan level,” he said. “Muslim professors around the country have commented to me on the nature and quality of that dialogue, and you can see it in a very concrete way in the breadth of dialogue and the prominence.”

When Esposito was hired by Holy Cross College in the 1970s “Islam was relatively invisible” but times have indeed changed.

“Islam and Christianity are the two largest religions in the world. They engage each other across the globe in a way no other religions do. It’s the third largest and probably the fastest growing religion in America, and Muslims are more and more part of the fabric of society so this dialogue becomes more and more critical,” the Italian-American and former New Jersey altar boy said in a June 19 phone interview. “If there has ever been a more important time for Christians and Catholics in particular to understand Islam, it’s after 9/11.”

“The ability to distinguish between the religion of Islam and the actions of a minority of extremists is critical,” Esposito continued, adding that those who “blur the distinction” hinder peace building and foster “Islamo-phobia.”

Esposito asserted that in the same way that many non-Catholics in recent years have only heard the worst news of the church through the clergy sexual abuse scandal, the public hears all about terror acts distorting Islam, but not about Muslim leaders condemning them who don’t make the news. He cited an international conference in Jordan in April where Muslim leaders condemned terrorism and explored how to defend Islam against extremist ideology, which he said Western media covered insufficiently.

“Many religious leaders have spoken out consistently against violence and terrorism targeting civilians, against 9/11,” he asserted.

But Esposito acknowledged that there is more diversity of opinion in the Muslim world with regard to the moral justification for suicide bombings in the Israel-Palestinian conflict and in Iraq, seen by some as under U.S. occupation.

There are now 1.3 billion Muslims worldwide, with an estimated 6 million in the United States. Forty-five countries have majority Muslim populations.

Esposito, who wrote “What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam” and other related books, said that leaders in the Muslim world are currently debating the concept of religious pluralism and respect for the rights of those of other faiths. The level of rights varies significantly in Muslim majority countries from more progressive states like Malaysia to Saudi Arabia, with ultraconservative Wahhabi Islam.

“With militant types the window is much narrower, with people who hold more exclusionist theology—you don’t have to accept the other’s belief,” Esposito said. “But the model of pluralism requires mutual understanding and respect for equal rights and beliefs and practices.”

Esposito noted that the Catholic Church didn’t definitively and comprehensively affirm religious pluralism until the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s. European nations from the 17-20th centuries dominated much of the Muslim world and that contributed to Muslims becoming more fundamentalist to preserve their religion, Esposito said. With the emergence of modern Islamic states there’s been the problem of dictators limiting free speech and forming alliances with some conservative clergy, “in a sense buying them out.”

Furthermore “up until the modern period Islam had more space for non-Muslims than Christianity, which had no space for Muslims or Jews. They were not equal citizens historically, but that was far more than Jews and Muslims experienced under Christian rule.”

Esposito said that Islam, which means obedience, shares common values with Catholicism in teachings on family, sexual ethics, the excesses of secular culture, and theology of community. Both emphasize social justice, as Muhammad called for just religious and social reform in a polytheistic Arabian society.

Borelli, in e-mail remarks, also affirmed that dialogue has revealed shared values regarding the just war theory, social justice and similar public policy and social theology issues. He said that both “the teachings of the Qur’an (Islam’s scripture) and the Bible are problematic on warfare and retaliation.”

Syeed elaborated on Islam’s perspective on violence, comparing it to the just war theory. “You can fight in your defense when your life, honor, religion, homeland are in danger or occupied or attacked” and there are specific restrictions such as that women, children, civilians, sacred places of different religions, and property should not be targeted or “it will be fundamentally against our religion.”

And, regarding the publicized case this spring in Afghanistan where a Christian convert faced a possible death sentence, he said that the traditional approach of punishing someone with death for apostasy evolved more from politics than religion. With centuries of fighting between Christians and Muslims, converting was seen as treason to the enemy.

Islamic texts are replete with teachings that God’s creation must be treated with love, he insisted.

“That is very critical. (The Qur’an) doesn’t specify particular race or religion. It is the entire human race God has invested with dignity and nobility, and we have to show certain respect to all,” he said. “We should not fight each other to make all people look similar and believe in a similar way. God has created definite diversity with different cultures, races and languages and religions, and it is our duty to recognize that is good.”

He stressed the importance of working together to advocate for moral U.S. leadership as terrorists exploit discontent with the United States in the Muslim world with regard to topics like support of corrupt governments, the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, Iraq, and a perceived imbalanced policy toward Palestine.

“That produces so much negativity about America, and that feeds directly into al Qaeda for exploiting that kind of discontentment,” he said. “That’s why dialogue is very critical. It will not only have an impact here but global impact. It creates alliances between Catholic and Muslim and other groups and jointly we have a positive impact on the American scene with both local, national and international issues.”

In one small step the Society recently along with Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, former archbishop of Washington D.C., and others ran a full-page ad in The New York Times against government torture. He hopes future meetings can address joint advocacy for the common good, just war theory and conversions. “Muslim leaders cannot do it alone. There is alienation and a strong sense of injustice among some Muslims,” he said. “We need to work together with other religious leaders, communities and institutions to address those genuine grievances and isolate the mischief mongers” while outlawing use of any violence.

On a personal level, he recalled how he met a bishop from Nigeria visiting Indiana who had never had an opportunity to go to a mosque in his Muslim-majority country until he invited him to Friday prayer.

“In these countries tension is high,” he said.

The new book explores common values such as the call for total submission to God and a life of probity with belief in his renewing power.

It concludes that through dialogue and cooperation Muslims and Catholics can develop a just, peaceful society.

“Both Jesus and Muhammad loved and cared for all whom they met, especially the poor and oppressed; their teachings and example call for solidarity with the poor, oppressed, homeless, hungry and needy in today’s world. … We firmly believe that God calls us to this dialogue and blesses the efforts of those who seek to do the will of God.”

Borelli believes the dialogue has laid a solid foundation to address thornier issues.

“We also have been learning how to enter into true religious dialogue with one another, sharing our faith, passages in the Qur’an and Bible, expressing our views, discussing our spiritual practices. We have created a foundation for moving to the next level of more intense religious dialogue on more complex and difficult issues.”