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Catholic-Muslim forum offered practical way forward

By Deborah Gyapong

Canadian Catholic News


OTTAWA (CCN) — The third Catholic-Muslim Forum which met in the Vatican Nov. 4-6 offered some practical ways forward, said a Canadian Catholic delegate.

“It was a productive meeting,” said former Canadian Ambassador to the Holy See Anne Leahy, who now teaches Catholic social thought at McGill University in Montreal. Though this was the third forum, this was Leahy’s first. “A lot of talking goes on at these inter-religious meetings. One always wonders how much the word gets translated into action,” she said. “I was pleasantly surprised in terms of who were the participants on both the Catholic and the Muslim side.” What struck Leahy was the presence of people, both Muslim and Catholic, who work with NGOs and who could directly transfer some of the ideas into practical action.

These are “people who work in organizations that can have an immediate impact, who are in contact every day with people from different communities,” she said. “What’s being discussed can be carried out on the ground.”

With a backdrop of horrific violence perpetrated by the Islamic State or ISIS Leahy said it was “even more important for people to get together and talk about the blatant use of religion for horrific ends.”

“The Muslims were particularly intent in making the message known ISIS is not representative of Islam,” she said. “The final declaration was strong on the unanimous condemnation of the use of religion to justify violence.”

Another part of the final declaration referred to the “suspicions and distortions that ensue when you don’t know your own religion as well as the religion of the other,” she said. There was an emphasis on young people and how they “can be easily attracted to ISIS propaganda if they are not firm in their own identity and their own religion.”

Leahy believes her experience as Canadian ambassador to the Great Lakes Region of Africa from 2004-2007 and her academic role at McGill played a role in her being chosen to be among the 28 Catholic participants in the forum. There were 28 Muslim participants as well.

In Africa, she experienced working with a mix of not only different tribal groups but also religious groups, and worked with Catholic Christians and Muslims there. There were also other academics on the Catholic side, as well as clergy, such as the Bishop of Tunis Ilario Antoniazzi. “In Tunisia you can’t even say you’re a Christian,” Leahy said. “He brought a different perspective on how you can work side by side.”

The first forum in 2008 came as a reaction to Pope Benedict’s 2006 Regensberg address that was met with rioting and killings in the Muslim world. That first forum was “an effort to show you could still have inter-religious dialogue,” she said. The second forum in Amman resulted in a “rather short and general declaration.”

“This time there was a feeling you really had to get down to affecting the dialogue so people can have an impact on the communities around them,” she said. “I think this came through in the intent and motivation to do that.”

Participants in the third forum heard about a project in Ghana, a “small thing, very useful and basic,” where “some youth had got together to clean up garbage,” she said.

When during subsequent elections “it got a little tense and could have gone off the rails,” the fact that these youth had the experience of working together on the garbage project and had got to know each other “contributed to lowering the temperature.”

That was only one example of how a micro project “can actually contribute to getting people to understand and know each other and not to be manipulated by others in fear,” she said.

Another participant from Indonesia gave examples of how Catholic and other Christian groups worked with Muslim groups on humanitarian projects, she said. He made the point that when people get to do something in common for their community, or neighbourhood or the common good, it channels energy into something good as opposed to leaving them vulnerable to propaganda of a more negative sort.

This message of co-operation for the common good “counters all the negative messaging,” she said. “That’s a voice that needs to be heard. It’s not all negative.”

Leahy also noted that Muslims are doing “a lot of questioning” regarding “what is the true Islam.”

“They are realizing how devastating the ISIS behaviour and propaganda is,” she said. “They have to get moving and show that is not the real tenets of their religion. This sort of meeting we had helps them in that sense.”

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