Volume 16 Number 5
Green Shoots of Cooperation in a Multifaith World
01 October 2003

Living with other faiths is about being at home in your own religion and learning to be a guest in others, discovers Paul Williams.

It may not be too much to say that whether this century turns out to be less bloodstained than the last will depend on whether the world's main religions are to clash or cooperate. Will they contribute to the problem or help to provide the answer?

This was the background to a conference in Caux entitled, ‘The Spiritual Factor in Secular Society: can religions be partners in peace-building?’ The four-day event was organized by Initiatives of Change in association with The World Conference on Religion and Peace. Participants wanted to explore how the ‘green shoots’ of cooperation between the faiths that have already been seen could be given the means to grow tall.

One who has been in a better position than most to observe the green shoots is John Taylor. After lecturing in Islamic Studies at both Birmingham and McGill Universities, he was asked by the Geneva-based World Council of Churches to head its initial programme of dialogues with other faiths. He then served as General Secretary of the World Conference on Religion and Peace and now represents the International Association for Religious Freedom at the UN in Geneva.

‘In my lifetime I have seen huge changes in terms of increasing openness and cooperation between the churches and between the faiths,’ he says. ‘Dialogue has become much more organized and widespread. There are now different councils and networks at local, national and international levels. Today we are seeing an increase in both the problems and the opportunities. The problems have become sharper because people perceive there is violence and misuse of power inside religions, and religion is often seen as acting to intensify conflicts. The opportunities have increased because of rapid demographic change–where we discover that people of other faiths and cultures are now our neighbours.’

Dr Taylor believes that, properly planned and organized, dialogues between faith communities can play a key role–in healing divisions and rebuilding confidence when there has been a breakdown in trust, in education for tolerance and in joint humanitarian action. ‘Its not a question of all faiths being of equal value,’ he says, ‘but of esteeming the beliefs of others, respecting them as persons and respecting their freedom of choice.’

Dortmund-based Reinhard Kirste,an authority on multicultural religious education, summed up the ideal attitude as feeling ‘at home in our own religion and guests in the religion of others’.

Dr Kirste’s approach was endorsed by the Chief Rabbi Marc-Raphaël Guedj from Geneva. ‘If we can be sensitive to the other’s values and traditions, then multiplicity can lead to unity,’ he said. ‘It’s like an artist who belongs to one school of painting nevertheless being able to appreciate the work of a colleague from another school.’

Green shoots
Giving a Caux Lecture, Chiara Lubich, founder of the lay Catholic Focolari movement, called for ‘a strategy of brotherhood’ from all the major religions. Such a strategy, she believed, ‘could have a positive influence on the international order’. The movement she founded has 2.5 million members in 180 countries–30,000 of whom are adherents of other faiths ‘who share as far as possible the goals of our movement’. She quoted the Dalai Lama as saying that the reason for the tragedy of 11 September was that ‘we had forgotten the truth “that we are all one” ’.

So where were the ‘green shoots’ of cooperation? As a member of the Youth Council of his home town of Filderstadt in Germany, Michael Blume saw there were problems for young Muslims, and no-one was reaching out to them. He decided to call a meeting to bring Christians and Muslims together. ‘I expected about 20 but 100 came.’ It led to the young people founding their own Christian-Islamic Society. They held ‘an Abraham Festival’ in Filderstadt for Christians, Muslims and Jews, where they staged a play, Abraham Today, which they had written to emphasize the points of unity between their faiths. ‘We never dreamed that it would be translated and go outside Germany,’ said Blume after the play was staged at the conference. They are now raising funds to build a new centre in Germany for ‘encounters, dialogues and peace’.
It will be called The Abraham House.

Hospital chaplaincy
Ari van Buuren has been pioneering a new approach to hospital chaplaincy in Holland. An ordained minister in the Dutch Reformed Church, he heads what is now the Department of Spiritual Care at the University Medical Centre in Utrecht. He and his team (which comprises two Roman Catholics, two humanists, a Muslim imam and three Protestants) are employed by the hospital and the Dutch health care system. ‘In the hospital we work according to wards rather than by religions, though the imam only ministers to Muslims. Of course patients can always ask to see someone from their own denomination, but this does not happen very often.’ What used to be a chapel is now a Silence Centre, where all can feel at home according to their own tradition. He defines spiritual care as ‘the mobilizing of spiritual power which is hidden in every human being’.

Harry Ferngren came representing the Parish Council of Spånga in Stockholm, of which he is Chairman. Spånga is unique in Sweden for the high number of immigrants and refugees living there. Two thirds of the inhabitants are of non-Swedish origin. Ferngren's church has reached out to these different communities and now shares its premises with the Syrian Orthodox Church. It staffs advice offices where people can come with their problems and be linked to social services. In a bid to forestall any problems that might arise, the church has initiated a ‘network for crisis and catastrophes’ which meets twice a year and comprises pastors, imams, community leaders and social workers. Ferngren and his wife Kerstin have two Kurdish immigrants lodging in their home.

Besides addressing the gap between people of different communities and faiths, participants were frequently made aware of a parallel and perhaps more serious gap–that between what we say we believe and how we really are. As John Taylor put it, instead of hiding behind nouns like ‘I am a Christian, Muslim, Hindu...’, we should apply adjectives. ‘How Christian am I? How Christ-like can I become? Or how Muslim am I? How much submitted to God?'

This was richly illustrated by participants from Lebanon, who shared how the dialogues they were engaged in as Christians and Muslims were building peace. Wadiaa Khoury, brought up in the wholly Christian town of Zahle, spoke of the steps that gradually enabled her to draw closer to Muslim friends. In a time of silence she had learned of ‘my superiority complex as a Christian, who knew nothing of Christ's spirit’. Similarly Hisham Shihab, who had joined a Muslim militia in 1975, said that, through further study of the Bible and the Qur'an, ‘I found that my countrymen who were fighting us were not good Christians. And we were not good Muslims in our attitude towards them. In our stereotypes of each other we had encouraged a culture of hate.’

The conference illustrated that partnership between the main religions does exist and could grow, while underlining how much there still is to do.

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