Diocesan workshop urges dialogue between Muslims, Catholics

COLUMBIA — A workshop held at Our Lady of the Hills Church Sept. 13-14 addressed a topic that has become increasingly relevant in recent weeks — the need for interfaith dialogue between Roman Catholics and Muslims.

The Diocese of Charleson’s Office of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs sponsored a two-day training session for clergy and laity to discuss developments in ecumenism and interfaith dialogue in the diocese, and particularly to look at ways that  Catholics can open up dialogues with the Muslim community.

The speakers included Bishop Robert J. Baker, Father Lee Selzer, Imam Omar Shaheed of Masjid As-Salaam in Columbia, and Father Francis Tiso, associate director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

With the recent controversy over remarks made by Pope Benedict XVI during a speech in Regensburg, Germany, many people are discussing the status of relations between Islam and Christianity, specifically the Catholic church.

Pope Benedict has said that he is sorry that Muslims were offended by his reference to remarks made in the 14th century by Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus. The emperor referred to the concept of jihad, or holy war, and said that any idea of spreading religious faith through violence is wrong and goes against reason. There have been protests and incidents of violence around the world in response to the quote in Pope Benedict’s speech, and many Muslims have expressed anger over the remarks, saying that they were an attack on Islam.

Speakers at the workshop said the wide differences in Muslims’ and Christians’ opinions on the meaning of the pope’s remarks are just

part of the evidence of the need for dialogue.

The conclusion of the workshop was that the future could bring great improvements in this discussion in the United States if believers from both faiths are willing to listen to each other.

Father Tiso described some key flaws in previous efforts at interchanges between Islam and Western religions, including Christianity, and discussed how colonialism and other factors in the Middle East and Asia have often caused Muslims to be mistrustful of the West.

“From the Muslim point of view, the era of colonialism was a huge theological wound, interpreted by some that their defeat was a sign from God that they weren’t being faithful to their religion,” Father Tiso said. “This unfortunately has been reflected in military rebellions, Islamic fundamentalism and other developments. You have a region where you have many countries, even Israel, with somebody else having drawn the lines and boundaries for those countries.”

Father Tiso said the key to beginning an exchange of ideas was for both sides to learn to listen without trying to force their point of view on others. He also said Roman Catholics and other Christians should learn more about past interactions between the two faiths and some of the shared history they have, including their foundations as “People of the Book,” with religious foundations in the Old Testament. Islam, like Judaism and Christianity, is considered one of the “Abrahamic” religions.

On Friday, Bishop Baker offered a vision for ecumenical and interfaith dialogue in the Diocese of Charleston. He described his experiences in working for dialogue with the Jewish community, and said those experiences helped him learn more about Jewish history as well as Christian and Catholic history.

Bishop Baker said engaging in interfaith dialogue forces Catholics to learn more about their own faith, because without that knowledge they can’t effectively answer questions about Scripture or what the Catholic faith teaches.

“We wouldn’t be in dialogue if we didn’t believe we had truths in our backgrounds,” he said. “When you dialogue with other faiths you often get to know your own faith better … The starting point is being out there and part of the dialogue, breaking down judgments and preconceived notions on both sides.”

On Saturday, Imam Shaheed described his journey as a black Christian raised in segregated South Carolina. He came to Islam after returning from a stint in the U.S. Navy and experiencing racism at home.

He said he went through a period of anger against whites because of that, but after becoming a Muslim he learned to focus on the equality of all humanity.

Shaheed said that the existence of conferences like the one held at Our Lady of the Hills was evidence that there is plenty of opportunity for understanding between Islam and Catholicism in the United States. He stressed that the Muslim community in South Carolina and America is different from what people see on the evening news, and that believers of all faiths are being threatened by separatists and extremists within the ranks who want to corrupt the true nature of religion.

“I tell people, ‘Don’t watch so much TV,’ ” Shaheed said. “There is an element in Islam worldwide that’s causing this trouble but it’s not a majority … it’s a small segment out of nearly a billion people worldwide. It’s not just Islam that’s under attack worldwide … it’s religion that’s under attack.”