First Regional Midwest Islamic-Catholic Dialogs*

Report submitted by Shahid Athar M.D.

For centuries, Muslims and Catholics have met primarily in debates and sometimes on battlegrounds; however, this was an occasion in which Muslim and Catholic leaders from the Midwest of the United States met in a secluded retreat for two days, discussing areas and strategies for cooperation.

The program was held in Indianapolis and hosted by Father Thomas Murphy of Archdiocese and Dr. Shahid Athar on the Muslim side. Among the leaders who participated were from Louisville, Kentucky, Reverend Jude Weisenbeck and Dr. Ghouse Shareef; from St. Louis, Reverend Vincent Heier and Imam Nur Abdullah; from New York, Reverend Francis Mazur from Grand Island and Imam Fajri Ansari from Buffalo; from Cleveland, Reverend Joseph Hilinski and Imam Fawaz Damra and from Helena, Montana, Most Reverend Alex Brunett of the Diocese of Helena attended. From the headquarters of National Conference of Catholic Bishops was Dr. John Dorelli and from the headquarters of the Islamic Society of North America was Imam Ahmed El-Hattab. Dr. Syeed M. Syeed, who was supposed to attend, was called in for a conference in Istanbul, Turkey.

The first session was held after lunch at 1:30 pm, Tuesday October 22, 1996. The first item was introduction of participants and how they got involved into Interfaith and Islamic-Catholic dialogue. Many stories were shared on a personal level, then two papers were discussed, one from Cardinal Keeler on "How Mary Holds Muslims and Christians in Conversation." Many were moved with what Cardinal Keeler had to say about the status of Mary and Jesus shared by both faiths.

The next paper in discussion was from Professor Sulayman Nyang of Howard University in Washington entitled "Using the First Amendment to Maintain Muslim Identity in North America" published in Islamic Horizons. Muslims are undergoing an identity crisis due to stereotyping by the media.

*Held on October 22-23, at Our Lady of Fatima Retreat in Indianapolis, Indiana, U.S.A.

Each day the meeting started and ended with prayers. During luncheon and dinner again, joint prayers were offered. In the afternoon session on Tuesday each group presented the status of Muslim-Catholic relationship in their city and what is being done. It was refreshing to learn that many activities are taking place in increasing the awareness of each other, decreasing the stereotyping and accepting each other as brothers and sisters in faith.

For example when the mosque in Springfield was burned down by accidental fire, the church next door offered the Muslims a place to pray on Fridays and other days until the mosque was built. Another example was in Louisville in which one group objected to including Muslims in the Prayer for Peace, both Christian and Muslim groups walked out from the program until the issue was resolved. The position taken by the Vatican in reconciling Muslim-Christian relationship and beginning a process of healing was also discussed.

Dr. Athar and many others brought the social concerns affecting American society and the role of religion. He discussed in his presentation what is the role of the faith community in uplifting and relieving the suffering of humanity in general and Americans in particular. After presenting the statistics of teenage pregnancy, drug and alcohol addiction, homelessness, child abuse, violence and abortion in the U.S.A., Dr. Athar said:

Thus, taking care of fellow humans and all other creations of God becomes our collective responsibility, whether we like it or not. The sufferings of human beings, homelessness, poverty, drug addiction, natural catastrophes are not only the will of God, but a test from him of how we patiently persevere and do our best to relieve those who are suffering.

The social obligations of believers include taking care of those who have not, irrespective of their faith. There are about 20 million people below poverty level. Forty percent of children are in poverty.

The responsibilities of people of faith include establishment of shelters, halfway houses for runaway teenagers, rehabilitation for drug addicts, combating violence on the streets and fighting discrimination and racism.

The responsibilities of those who leave houses of worship after their prayer to go on the streets and introduce love within families, within neighborhoods, within the community and among the religions.

As we enter the next millennium, we must forget and forgive our differences and give some gifts to our fellow humans and Mother Earth. Our talk of peace for the next millennium should be followed by peaceful actions, such as human rights for all, gender equality, the right to earn a living and basic needs and the end of hostility based on religion, language and ethnicity.

We must develop programs to implement these goals in our communities, joining with other forces in the same cause. We must do all this for the pleasure of the same God whom we visit once a week.

There were many wonderful conversations on ideas as to how we can help solve social ills of our society, working together side by side. At Interfaith Alliance Indianapolis, they have implemented programs in which people of the faith community will come together once a year, for example, for a program called Side by Side, in which we refurbish and repair homes of elderly persons or distribute 50,000 underwear items at the beginning of the year, to school children who come from poor families.

We have also invited non-Muslims to the Interfaith Ramadan program to break fast with us during the month of Ramadan. This program has been extremely successful in removing misconceptions and decreasing the stereotyping of Muslims. There are several other wonderful programs taking place in other cities as well.

The following day after breakfast, we heard from Dr. Borelli regarding the status of the Catholic-Muslim dialogue and relationship from both the national and international levels, and he mentioned the resolution passed in a conference in Cairo, as well as in the Vatican, at the opening of the first mosque in Rome. In the subsequent session, we developed plans for the future strategy and cooperation. We wanted to do simple things first, with education being the area of the most important emphasis. We decided to develop a joint booklet informing Muslims and Catholics about our concept of Jesus, Mary, Mohammed, Prophets of God and the Word of God.

Dr. Borelli is going to review the available literature and put something together which will be acceptable and easily understood by both faiths as well. We have decided to continue to communicate and meet again for a retreat on October 14 and 15, 1997.

The meeting ended with a prayer and thanks to God for bringing us together and working in His cause. Dr. Athar thanked Catholics not only for providing Muslims with the retreat facility but also for paving the way for American Muslims as they also were persecuted when they arrived here 200 years ago.

Copies of Dr. Athar's booklet, 25 Most Frequently Asked Questions, 9th edition, were distributed to all participants as well as Islamic Horizon and A Century of Islam--North America, by Yvonne Haddad.