Over the past 20 years there have been three regional Catholic-Muslim dialogues in the U.S: West Coast, Midwest, and Mid-Atlantic, co-sponsored by the Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Islamic Society of North America, the Islamic Circle of North America, the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California, and the Islamic Educational Center of Orange County.
These dialogues have undertaken a variety of topics, sharing the fruits of their exchanges whenever possible through published papers on, for example, Catholic and Muslim Perspectives on Revelation; on Marriage; and on Religion in the Public Square.
In the past year a decision was taken to advance the work of the regional dialogues so as to embrace a wider national audience. Leaders from the dialogues discerned that a level of maturity had been reached that would allow for a national focus consistent with the overall vision and mission of the Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Muslim organizations.
The first meeting of the national dialogue took place Feb. 17 - 18 at the St. Francis Center on the University of San Diego campus. As one of the goals of the dialogues is to encourage Catholics and Muslims to get to know one another better and to create networks of social contact, an evening event open to the public was held featuring two of the dialogue's leaders, Rev. Robert McElroy, Bishop of San Diego, and Dr. Sayyid Syeed, director of the Office of Interfaith and Community Alliances for the Islamic Society of North America. Their topic was Deepening Interreligious Dialogue and Community Alliances.
Bishop McElroy spoke about how the Catholic community in the U.S. ought to respond to the rising tide of Islamophobia in the public square in a way that resonates with the church's teaching.
“We must recognize and confront the ugly tide of Islamic bigotry that emerged in 2001 with the 9/11 twin towers attack,” he said. “We must confront the lie that Muslims want to replace constitutional law in U.S. with Shariah law. We are witnessing in the U.S. a new nativism. We must reject it and label it for the religious bigotry that it is.”
McElroy expressed that “Catholics in the U.S. must recognize that extremists have hijacked Islam. And we only accentuate that evil by giving credence to those in the U.S. who also hijack Islam.”
Consistent with Pope Francis' repeated emphasis on the importance of a “dialogue of friendships,” the bishop remarked that our challenge is to come to know in greater depth the Muslim community here. “Most Americans have no significant, in-depth friendship with Muslims,” he observed, noting that, “religious bigotry thrives in an environment of social isolation.”
McElroy reflected that the same universal hopes and dreams around issues of health, economics and raising children occupy Muslims as well as Catholics. “Personal encounter which leads to friendship and deeper understanding is the best antidote to bigotry,” he said.
The bishop identified three important ways that Catholics could draw inspiration from Muslims and deepen their own faith. First, by a more daily commitment to prayer in a world that erects so many barriers to a life of integrated, regular prayer. Second, by cultivating a sense of asceticism as a sign of the sovereignty of God. And third, to know and witness more fully to the immensity and richness of the mercy of God. The bishop noted how all the chapters but one in the Quran begin by addressing God as “the compassionate, the merciful.”
“A challenge for Catholics today,” said McElroy, “is to walk with the Muslim community in contemporary America to maximize religious freedom, and to work with Muslims in the Middle East for religious liberty among Jews, Christians, and Muslims.”
Dr. Syeed reflected on how the long period of the crusades, a series of intermittent military campaigns in the years from 1096 to 1487 and sanctioned by various popes, deepened the chasm of division between Christians and Muslims, leaving a trail of conflict, mistrust and hate that is reflected in both art and literature down through the centuries.
“Nostra Aetate brought an end to this,” he said, referring to the Second Vatican Council's Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions. “Vatican II made some radical changes vis á vis the Roman Catholic Church's relations with Jews and Muslims. This new approach coincided with a growing community of Muslims in the West. The western world was becoming more diverse in terms of race, color, creed. Nostra Aetate was a new beginning.”
However, Syeed noted, the emergence of ISIS has brought back the language of the crusades. “Every time they refer to their Christian victims, they call them 'crusaders.' What we have achieved in this country in the past 50 years is being endangered by ISIS which would have everyone believe that Christianity is still guided by a 'crusades mentality.' But it is the ISIS/jihadists who are now the new crusaders.”
“Nostra Aetate was a response to our centuries of prayers,” said Syeed. “We need to create an action plan to get all churches, mosques, and synagogues to work extensively to promote the new agenda for the new millennium.”
Syeed shared how the Islamic Society of North America has been working in this respect to help some countries like Tunisia and Morocco to grant religious freedom and equal citizenship to people of all faiths.
Ryan directs the Paulist North American Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations in Washington, D.C. (www.tomryancsp.org)