St. John the Beloved hosts discussion on Christianity and Islam

SUMMERVILLE — St. John the Beloved Parish hosted a forum to explore the similarities and differences between the Islamic and Christian faiths and to examine the complexities involved when the two faith traditions interact.

Father Francis Obong, parochial vicar at St. John, and Imam Talaat Elshazly from the Islamic Center of Charleston gave presentations reflecting their unique perspectives at the Nov. 18 talk. Father Obong is originally from the Diocese of Calabar in Nigeria, and Imam Elshazly is originally from Egypt.

“We were looking for a way to take advantage of the unique frame of reference Father Obong brings to us,” said Msgr. Chris Lathem, pastor of St. John.

Father Obong’s presentation began with a general comparison of Islamic and Christian theology, emphasizing the common ground.

“Both traditions believe in one God, in angels, and in prophets sent from God,” he said. He added that both traditions firmly attest that Jesus was born of a virgin, though Muslims do not acknowledge his divinity, and they reject the teaching of the Holy Trinity. Each faith tradition shares the spiritual ancestry of Abraham and teachings about prophets such as Noah, Elijah, and John the Baptist. They also share much of the Old and New Testaments.

Father Obong made clear that he respects the Islamic faith tradition in its pure form, but is also deeply troubled by the intensity and brutality of the conflicts between practicing Muslims and Christians. He has witnessed the increasing violence in the struggle between Muslims and Christians in Nigeria, especially since the year 2000.

Msgr. Lathem suggested the forum should include the perspective of an Imam.

“We thought we had a great opportunity to present a balanced discussion of a very complex issue,” he said. “It was our hope that by exploring the similarities that exist in the two faith traditions, without ignoring the harsh fact that we have difficulty living together in peace, we might all grow in understanding, while undermining harmful stereotypes.”

Imam Elshazly moved to the United States from Egypt in 1962. His wife of more than 30 years is a Christian American, and they have three children. He was generous in sharing his unique perspective with the audience. He shared early experiences of listening to anti-Jewish propaganda as a young man and how he found himself in an odd situation when his first assigned roommate at college was a Jew. This began his process of discovery, and over the years he has made many Jewish friends — some of them rabbis and priests — as well as Christian friends.

After his presentation, the professor answered many questions from the audience. He strove to make a clear distinction between those practicing Islam faithfully, and the zealots who perpetrate violence around the world.

“Extremists are there in every religion,” he said. “Don’t fool yourselves. You have them in Christianity.”

When pressed further, he said, “I still don’t know why people do the foolish things that they do. There is always a way to resolve conflict.”

At times, the Imam seemed to be tweaking the Catholic conscience.

“One thing I find very strange is that Christians get angry and say, ‘Christ,’” he said. “I would never use the name of my prophet in that way.”

He spoke of being assigned a Christian roommate in college, and of how it took him two years to discover his roommate’s faith. He seemed to find that incredible.

“He knew I was a practicing Muslim,” he said. “No one had to tell him.”

Submitted by Tom Epperson.