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There's value in diversity, say young people from three faiths

There's value in diversity, say young people from three faiths

Sarah Abdullah, a Muslim from the US, and Emmanuel Babatunde Gbogboade, a Christian from Nigeria, working on an art project at the interfaith seminar Click here for high resolution

12 August 2009

By Emma Halgren (*)

Religious diversity is an unavoidable reality today – and an opportunity, according to the participants of an interfaith seminar held in July at the World Council of Churches (WCC) Ecumenical Institute at Bossey outside Geneva, Switzerland.

The three-week course, which had the theme "Building an Interfaith Community", was attended by young Christians, Jews and Muslims from all over the world.

Students heard presentations on Christianity, Islam and Judaism, and on the contributions of each of the religions to peacemaking. Daily morning prayers were prepared alternately by the Christian, Jewish and Muslim participants, and the group attended services in a church, synagogue and mosque in Geneva.

Religion is so often seen as a barrier to peace, but peace is a central theme across the religions and a good basis for discussions about interfaith community-building, says Rabbi Delphine Horvilleur.

Horvilleur, one of a handful of female rabbis in France, was a guest speaker at the seminar.

She encouraged participants to think about the many dichotomies that existed in religious life – for example, me/other, conservative/liberal and holy/profane. Such dichotomies highlighted the importance of the question "Who is the other?", said Horvilleur. She said there were two key threats when it came to considering the issue of "the other" through interfaith dialogue.

"It's disturbing in interfaith dialogue that there is a tendency to move towards this idea of absolute sameness – an attempt to synchronize all the positions," she said. "To create the idea that there is absolutely no difference between the religions can be a big threat."

But she said there was also a danger at the other end of the spectrum: "The other most common threat is the idea that there is only one truth, or that 'my truth is truer than your truth'." Charting a middle road between these two extremes was the key to constructive dialogue, she said.

Interfaith dialogue increasingly important

Rev. Bruce Myers, a priest of the Anglican Church of Canada and a masters-degree student at Bossey, said interfaith dialogue was of increasing importance in the Canadian context.

"We still like to think of ourselves as a Christian country, and the statistics and the census bear that out, but we're also a country of immigrants and always have been," he said.

"Increasingly we're receiving new Canadians from parts of the world where Christianity is not the predominant religion, and we're still in a process of learning as a country how we can make room for the other, how we can make room for new arrivals and new expressions of religion, and still maintain what we could consider a Canadian identity."

He said there are numerous examples of how these questions arise in civic life, including debate over whether it is appropriate for Muslim women who wear a full veil to have to uncover their faces in a polling booth to identify themselves to a polling officer when voting, and whether it is acceptable for Canadian Mounties to wear a turban instead of the distinctive Mountie hat if they are Sikh.

He said there is often a tension in contemporary Christianity between classical ecumenism and the emerging need for interfaith dialogue.

"Ecumenism has always been a passion for me – increasing the bonds among Christians and reducing the divisions among the churches," he said. "But that's not enough in the 21st century, especially in 21st-century Canada. We need to move beyond ecumenism and talk interfaith."

Jessica Sacks, an Orthodox Jew living in Jerusalem, said she regularly sees first-hand how divisions can emerge based on religious differences.

"I come from a place where you can't afford not to engage in interfaith dialogue; a place where I live in very close proximity to people whose language is different and who read the place we live in completely differently," said Sacks.

As a student at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem she was a member of a group of Muslim and Jewish female students who met regularly to learn about each other's faiths. The impact may have been small, but it was an important starting point, she said.

"For us that was significant, and we formed friendships. Change will come through us each working in our own communities to try and open them up a little more."

Religious pluralism a reality

Lubna Alzaroo, a student in English literature at the University of Bethlehem, said that the course had highlighted for her the reality of religious pluralism in today's world – and helped her to see the value in it.

"There are many truths, and my truth can be different from another person's truth, but it's alright," she said. "It's okay if people are different, because that's what society is based upon – people's diversity and differences."

Alzaroo was one of ten Muslims in the group, hailing from countries as diverse as Romania, Indonesia and the Philippines. Another participant, Sarah Abdullah, lives in a town of 600 people in South Carolina, USA, where she and her mother are the only Muslims.

"It's a predominantly Christian culture," she said. "I think interfaith dialogue is important for this area, because when I first moved there, people were shocked and couldn't work out who I was and where I came from."

Abdullah said that what she had learned on the course will help her to engage with the people in her community when she returns home.

"I learned a lot of things about Christianity that I didn't know, even though I've spent most of my life living in a Christian country," she said. "It's broadened my horizons – it's helped me think about the world beyond the States. Now that I have a better understanding of Christianity, I can relate better with the Christians around me."

(*) Emma Halgren, WCC Communication intern, is a member of the Uniting Church in Australia.

WCC programme on Inter-religious dialogue and cooperation

Ecumenical Institute at Bossey

Listen to the interview with Rev. Bruce Myers, a priest in the Anglican Church of Canada and a Masters student at the Bossey Institute:




Listen to the interview with Sarah Abdullah, a Muslim secondary school student from the USA:




Listen to the interview with Jessica Sacks, a Jew who grew up in the UK but now lives in Jerusalem: