Can interfaith dialogue be a path to peace in the Middle East?
Picture this scene: A Catholic priest and a man dressed as Santa Claus walk into a mosque in Jordan on a Friday afternoon in December, greeting Muslims with Christmas blessings just as they are gathering for prayer. How do you think the Catholics were received by their Muslim neighbors?
According to Father Nabil Haddad, the priest who made the unusual visit, they were welcomed with nothing but hospitality. Haddad, founder and executive director of the Jordanian Interfaith Coexistence Research Center, considers himself to be a "spoiled minority" in his homeland, where Christians are greatly outnumbered but generally treated with respect. Of course, for many Christians living elsewhere in the Middle East, things are not nearly as peaceful.
Haddad joined a panel with Muslim and Jewish representatives yesterday at the Associated Church Press and Religion Communicators Council joint meeting in Indianapolis to discuss the challenges of peacebuilding and some of the hopeful progress made when members of the Christian and Muslim communities are able to come together for dialogue. He discussed three initiatives in Jordan that have been tremendous tools in fighting terrorism: sharing the message of Islam with non-Muslims, explaining the commonalities between Islam and Christianity, and promoting an interfaith harmony week to look at the common bonds between all people, regardless of their faith or nation of origin.
Offering the Muslim perspective on the panel was Dr. A. Rashied Omar, an imam and professor of Islamic studies and peacebuilding at the University of Notre Dame's Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. Omar explained the challenge that Muslims face in having a very small but vocal minority who are extremists projecting theirs as the only voice of Islam, and with the media attention that they receive, that segment of the Muslim community often succeeds in making themselves the public face of their religion. Omar calls upon the rest of the Muslim community to raise their voices in condemning violence and to help spread the true message of Islam, which is rooted in compassion, not hatred.
Father Haddad's experience of living side by side with Muslims and building community is one that we should strive to emulate, regardless of where we live. Neither side can be arrogant about their own beliefs or rights, he said, but should be open to reaching out in love and humility to the other side.
Catholics know well that certain stereotypes about our faith exist in the culture around us, and that often some of our most vocal minorities have their voices spread in the media as if they represent the sole voice of the church, rather than one voice among a diverse population. We could learn a lot from leaders like Haddad and Omar about reaching across the aisle, telling our own faith story, and being open to learning about the faith lives of our neighbors. The result is often that we have much more in common than we ever could have imagined.