November 4, 2016

Parish helps Catholics, Muslims know each other through dialogue

Cardinal-designate Joseph W. Tobin, archbishop of Indianapolis, speaks with Rabia Khan, information technology coordinator for the Plainfield-based Islamic Society of North America, and her son Uzair Khan after a Catholic-Muslim panel discussion on Oct. 19 at Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in Indianapolis. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

Cardinal-designate Joseph W. Tobin, archbishop of Indianapolis, speaks with Rabia Khan, information technology coordinator for the Plainfield-based Islamic Society of North America, and her son Uzair Khan after a Catholic-Muslim panel discussion on Oct. 19 at Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in Indianapolis. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

By Sean Gallagher

Islamic State militants persecute Christians, other non-Muslims and Muslims who disagree with their beliefs in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Small groups of people in the U.S., including some Christians, publicly show disapproval of Muslims living in their communities.

Secular European governments limit the religious freedom of both Muslims and Christians.

These actions grab headlines around the world.

But a different way of Muslims and Christians relating to one another was on display on Oct. 19 at Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in Indianapolis.

On that night, more than 50 Muslims and Catholics from across central Indiana attended a Catholic-Muslim panel discussion among a Muslim scholar, a Franciscan priest and a cardinal-designate. The discussion, co-sponsored by the Plainfield-based Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) and Sacred Heart Parish, was the final event of a three-day gathering of members of the sponsoring groups.

The panel members were ISNA senior Islam scholar John Morrow, Catholic Health Association senior director of ethics Franciscan Father Tom Nairn, and Cardinal-designate Joseph W. Tobin, archbishop of Indianapolis.

Before the panel discussion, the attendees shared a meal of Middle Eastern food. Muslims in attendance then prayed together. And the Catholics prayed together a prayer composed by St. Francis of Assisi, who met and had a respectful dialogue with a Muslim sultan in the 13th century.

It was that incident in the earliest days of the Franciscans that led Sacred Heart Parish—which has been led by Franciscan friars since its founding in 1875—to co-sponsor the three-day

Catholic-Muslim dialogue event. The first two days featured prayer and presentations by Father Tom and Morrow.

In his opening remarks at the panel discussion, Cardinal-designate Tobin made reference to the first title that Muslims give to God and how this is common ground with Christians.

“This is a wonderful encounter in which we can learn from each other,” he said. “And hopefully, those who surround us will learn from us that the way of God is not a way of division, of hatred, of harsh words. The way of God is peace. And God’s first name is mercy, the merciful one.”

Morrow explained numerous practices of traditional Islam that have many similarities to Christianity, including the honoring of and praying to deceased holy believers and of pilgrimages to shrines and other holy places.

He noted, however, that “extremists” in the Muslim community from a movement known as either Salafism or Wahabism see such practices as forms of polytheism that they want to stamp out.

This interpretation of Islam, combined with reactions of some Muslims to attacks upon their faith community from the outside, has led in the past and in some places now to a “hardening of positions.”

Morrow said that this defensiveness led “some Muslim jurists to become a lot stricter and a lot more severe with the Christians in the Middle East because they were viewed as a kind of column that might support the enemy.”

In order to promote greater religious liberty for all together, Cardinal-designate Tobin encouraged people of faith first to “gain knowledge of each other.

“I believe that, if you want to do horrible things to someone else, you have to take away their humanity,” he continued. “You have to call them something else.”

Father Tom added, “We begin by listening. Sadly, I tend to think that we sometimes begin by talking. It is by listening, I think, that we begin to grow in respect. And once we start respecting each other, all sorts of barriers break down.”

Once barriers are broken down, bridges can be built, Morrow said.

“I think it’s imperative that we build bridges of understanding between different faith communities and to pose a united front,” he said. “I think it’s very important to educate other people in our communities, and that we should express solidarity for each other as much as possible.

“We have to learn from one another and educate the Christians and Muslims about our mutual humanity, and what we share in common.”

One common point between Christians and Muslims, Cardinal-designate Tobin suggested, is that both communities put a higher value on their faith than any national identity.

“For believing people, it sounds a little idolatrous to say that your national relationship is superior to your relationship with God,” he said.

Hazam Bata, ISNA’s secretary general, added a point to the panel discussion by recalling how Christians and Muslims in his native Egypt protected one another when both faith communities there were threatened during the country’s revolution in 2011.

“This is religion at its best, bringing people together,” Bata said. “Religion can push you to extremes. But it’s up to us to choose whether it’s extreme good or extreme bad.”

After the panel discussion, Bata spoke with The Criterion about the significance of the event and of promoting dialogue between Muslims and Catholics.

“Ultimately, it’s creating relationships,” he said. “You can’t hate somebody that you have a relationship with.

“To me, this is religion. Whenever we hear about religion, it’s generally in a negative context nowadays. But this is religion. Religion brings out the best in people.”

Veronica Sauter, a member of Sacred Heart Parish who helped organize the Catholic-Muslim dialogue, hoped the event would bring out the best in her fellow parishioners.

“My hope is that, from this experience, if we could soften one person’s heart or change one person’s attitude about our Muslim brothers and sisters, then it would be a good experience for all of us,” she said.

Cardinal-designate Tobin afterward recalled how Blessed Paul VI described dialogue between Catholics and people of other faiths as “ ‘the new name of charity.’ ”

“I think that we dialogue with others because of the love that’s within us, and that love includes love for them,” Cardinal-designate Tobin said. “We learn about them and respect them because of the love that motivates us.” †

Local site Links:

Like this story? Then share it!