The Challenge of Prayer and Peace in the Midst of Violence

January 5th, 2015

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The hostage situation in Sydney made me, like many other people despair of seemly daily accounts of Man’s inhumanity to man.

A traumatic event which was resolved on some level for us only to wake up to the news of the mayhem in Peshawar Pakistan and this time the intended victims were mainly children. The reporter on the Pakistani news channel kept repeating the words “How can any human look at a classroom of children and want to do them any harm let alone blow them up.”  It unfortunately, is not the first time such things have happened but it is one of the worst examples of its kind and was done in the name of my faith: Islam.

The BBC religion and ethics website   tells us that Muslims perform ritual prayers five times a day. What is not common knowledge, however, is that these prayers end with a greeting of peace and blessings to all those to the right and left of the speaker. This afternoon as I finished my prayers I stopped and did this last bit very slowly thinking how incomprehensible it was that anyone with carnage on their minds could perform the same ritual with any real understanding of the words they were reciting.

Their words and actions have poisoned so many of the words and concepts that I grew up with it. It started simply with the word Qaida (the book from which we learnt to read Arabic as children), then Taliban (student) and now the article of faith and the first pillar of Islam. That very morning I had been meditating on the words written on the flag used by the hostage taker in Sydney Australia: “There is no god but God and Muhammad is the messenger of God”.

The greeting of Muslims everywhere is Peace/Salaam and each formal prayer ends which a blessing for people everywhere. In Islamic tradition, God has sent many prophets, messengers, teachers and guides throughout the whole world to help us live in harmony. My favourite verse in the Qur’an states that we were made into nations and tribes so we might come to know one another.

The evening of the hostage crisis in Australia I went to a Christmas Carol Service where the congregation reflected on the Christmas truce during World War 1. That is  100 years ago soldiers on both sides of a conflict stopped, celebrated Christmas by playing football on land where fighting had taken place only hours before.  Les Isaac, founder of the Street Pastors also spoke about how we need to take risks and be generous. Conscientious objectors and those that played football on no man’s land 100 years ago took a risk when they refused to fight.

It is difficult to know how to respond to the terrible news but one of my hopes and prayers for the year ahead is that we all look at stories within our own communities and faiths that inspire us to take risk and be generous when dealing with others.

Qaisra Khan

Supporter and fundraiser for Christian Muslim Forum

I will be doing a 15 mile walk between a church and a mosque to raise funds for The Christian Muslim Forum. Please sponsor me at www.virginmoneygiving.com/team/thepilgrims1

[1] http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/islam/practices/fivepillars.shtml

[1] The Qur’an Chapter 49 verse 13Surah al-Hujurat

Reflections on Pentecostalism in Dialogue

November 26th, 2014

Reflections on Pentecostalism in dialogue with Interfaith by Rev Daniel Otieno-Ndale – Baptist Minister and PMR representative on the Interfaith Network

I have been strangely surprised to learn how long I have been involved with interfaith conversations – in which I have made friends during my tenure on the executive committee of the Interfaith Network. So what has been my experience so far in participating in interfaith activities? Two things remain very important to me as I participate in interfaith activities; the first is that the conviction to my faith remains an absolute and therefore non-negotiable; secondly, my engagement with interfaith is solely on matters of community cohesion because it is only the community that is common between myself and my Bahia or Muslim colleagues.

1 Of course the question then is how have I engaged in interfaith affairs as Baptist evangelical charismatic who speaks in tongues which some Baptists find difficult to accept let alone the belief that God is good and is in the business of doing miracles even in the now? Engaging in Interfaith relations to me has been like having a conversation with a postmodernist – as a Christian I do not come to these conversation with the anticipation that if I engage with this other person then God is obligated to do such-and-so. I only allow my motives in these conversations to emerge from the desire to give room to the mystery of my faith. This mystery of my faith allows me to accept the fact that in whatever situation I find myself I cannot defend nor am I there to protect God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. I have since come to find out that God is not whimsical and untamed – at least the God I believe in is.

So, in my interfaith conversations whether on national level or our local interfaith I find myself invited to a place where I can trust a God who is beyond my comprehension – and this God is capable of taking care of himself. I am inclined to the fact that interfaith engagement is the most effective way to reveal the Christian hidden God. I want to argue that interfaith relations, wherever they are carried out, critiques the arrogance of Christian doctrine, and in so doing, offers the church one of its greatest opportunities to present the gospel. It is the opportunity to demonstrate the presence of the Christian God here and now. Paul was not afraid to engage (Acts 17), but my desire is not apologetics in these interfaith conversations, but rather the quiet demonstration of God’s presence and power to create change.

Interfaith conversations are downturns, that is to say, an overturning of the way we see and relate, a radical disruption of the way we think. Correct Christian doctrine with which to engage in interfaith conversations is essential, but correct doctrine [thinking] begins not with the assurance that I am right, but with the humility that I am wrong, or better still perhaps, there are many things in life and faith that remain a mystery to me. Jesus said we shall know the truth, and the truth that we know shall set us free. It sets us free to reach out to others with love and compassion rather than attempting to prove that we are right. I have discovered that it is possible to listen with critical ears but also with ears to hear if there is something redemptive or that needs to challenge me in areas in which I have become complacent and comfortable. Our personal stories matter to God, and therefore your individual importance is central to our faith it is this that we engage with in interfaith conversations.

2 Secondly, my engagement with interfaith has been predominantly in the area of community cohesion. Like I said above the well being of a community is one of the key areas that brings different faiths together. The former British Council of Churches summarized the WCC guidelines in four principles: Dialogue begins when people meet each other; Dialogue depends upon mutual understanding and mutual trust; Dialogue makes it possible to share in service to the community; Dialogue becomes the medium of authentic witness.

I belong to the local interfaith network – Hillingdon Inter Faith Network in West London. Like all other local network while we meet to consider issues of concern to the local community every now and then we are confronted with matters of dispute between faith groups [from growing fragmentation] and other times request for support. Faith groups that once spurned inter faith dialogue now see the value of participation, making localism the place for many groups to express themselves. This freedom of expression in the local inter faith discussions and social actions raise two areas of concern for potential participants:

a) Possible motivations and agendas of other participants
It is not always the case that we are confronted with worries about the possible motivations and agendas of other participants. But, at some point we have faced the question of groups not currently nationally recognized to stand independently [Ahmadiya in our case] move to be accommodated at a local level. This kind of moves are off putting and have created tension as groups have been seen to want to foster their own agenda [perceived to be proselytizing], therefore disrespecting the interfaith wisdom of dialogue. When groups are self-defining and regard themselves as belonging to a particular world religion but are not recognised as such internally within that faith, the local inter faith becomes the place for seeking redressing of issues. This state of affair leaves the local interfaith in an awkward position, as they have no national interfaith wisdom to draw from in addressing questions regarding groups that may not have been internally recognized by their perceived overarching religion or faith. In Hillingdon, the Inter Faith executive has been responsible in addressing issues of possible motivations and agendas of other participants by inviting leaders of the group in question to a conversation. From our experience so far, if faith communities are to contribute to community cohesion, then contexts in which they talk to one another are potentially valuable discursive spaces that can have an important part to play in a pluralistic public sphere. But such context cannot be allowed to flow into possible motivations and agenda of other participants.

b) The fear that there will be a need to compromise deeply held beliefs
At the local level, the religious dimension of community cohesion has been seen as important, giving key focus to the place of inter-religious dialogue and encounter in contributing to good community relations. The fear of compromising deeply held beliefs therefore become very obvious, making any potential participants recoil on being involved. To remove such fear, one way that Hillingdon Inter Faith has acted is by spreading community activities across the faith groups involved. For example, during the introduction to the local community of the new police corporals the event was carried at a local mosque with all other faith groups invited, and each group present was given space to talk about activities and events in their own faith community. During interfaith week although the event was held at the civic centre a specific faith group from the Hindu religion was given the opportunity to serve refreshment while other groups were given an opportunity to address a specific local issues from the their faith perspective. The most recent event is the Hillingdon Dementia Awareness, a programme offered by the local authority to local groups, this time the event was held at a Christian church, at which all the faith groups in Hillingdon were welcomed and given opportunity to notify participants of any events of interest in their own faith group gatherings. Hillingdon Inter Faith also provides a single space for all faith groups when it comes to events like the local Uxbridge carnival or the Hayes carnival celebrations. All faith groups are given space at the interfaith stand to display their activities and literature, suggesting a sense of fairness. The simple ethical requirement underpinning this spread out interfaith events at different local faith centre is to respect others, particularly those who tend feel or are actually marginalised.

Concluding remarks:
In order to be able to encourage people to participate in faith discussions and multi faith social actions the two issues raised must be eliminated first. To eliminate a sense of possible motivations and agendas of other participants as well as addressing the fear that there will be need to compromise deeply held beliefs; faith groups will be the better off entering into bi-lateral or multi-lateral dialogue.

From our experience in Hillingdon Inter Faith, bi-lateral dialogue is concerned with building good relationships and more particularly exploring areas of common ground. In such dialogue, participants often speak of their spiritual transformation in sharing their faith with someone of a different faith. On-going bi-lateral dialogue consequently assumes recognition of a degree of ‘value’, even ‘truth’ in ‘the other’. And a part from that the only value in bi-lateral dialogue would be to correct error and presumably ‘convert’. Importantly to note is the fact that, bi-lateral dialogues tend to take place in a different ‘space’ to the multi-lateral dialogues that are in the ‘public domain’.

This ‘public domain’ is where people of all faiths and none engage with one another. The multi-lateral local inter faith organisation is clearly an aspect of the ‘public square’ where different religions encounter one another. At this point it is not expected of them to recognise each other’s own self-understanding, nor to accept that they necessarily hold beliefs that should be accepted or approved. The multi-lateral inter faith body is merely the space in which different faiths and belief systems engage with one another in the public domain. In our experience in Hillingdon Inter Faith group the bi-lateral conversation takes what were multi-dialogues conversations beyond that public domain into a deeper engagement where the value of the other is recognised.

In light of Pentecostal culture will the Pentecostal churches have the courage to engage in interfaith conversations and listen to others unlike them? It seems to me to understand interfaith we need to listen well to people’s starting points. Belief today is a matter of personal encounter not dogmatic assent. If this is the case does our faith matter subjectively or is it solely a matter of objective truth? As Pentecostals can we hear and speak of faith in ways that shape our story and show that God is intimately involved in all we do? Notwithstanding all else, our faith informs our interpretation and our willingness to dialogue with a multicultural, relativist age.

Focolare Centre
Welwyn Garden City
October 2014

Big Iftar in a Synagogue

July 20th, 2014

On the Monday 7th July 2014, Alyth Synagogue hosted a ‘Big Iftar’. In what’s believed to be the first event of its kind, Muslims in North West London were invited to break their Ramadan fast with a meal known as the ‘iftar’.

The Big Iftar is a national initiative, promoting neighbourliness, strengthening of community relations and sharing. 
It encourages mosques, community centres, places of worship, to come together and share iftar during Ramadan, by inviting friends and neighbours from different faiths and ethnicities. The Big Iftar encourages British Muslims to invite their friends, neighbours and colleagues to join them at mosques on an agreed date and enjoin them in sharing the meal of iftar. This year, iftars are being hosted by many mosques and centres, and also by churches, synagogues and different faith communities and organisations.

The community of Alyth Synagogue warmly welcomed the Muslim guests and then panel members addressed the audience. The speakers on the panel were:
Rabbi Maurice (Executive Committee of the Interfaith Network of the UK)
Stephen William MP (Under Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.)
Laura Marks (The Board of Deputies of British Jews
Mustafa Field (Faiths Forum for London)
Julie Siddique (Vice President of the Islamic Society of Britain).

Rabbi Maurice first spoke about the fact that in Judaism they don’t have a month of fasting! However they do have two fasts in the year, which last 25 hours, one, which is on The 15th July called the Jewish fast day of 17 Tamuz and the second day of fasting, is on Yom Kippur.

Rabbi Maurice mentioned that he had received messages asking whether he thought people would attend the ‘Big Iftar’ given what was happening in certain parts of the world! Rabbi Maurice said that he had replied that it was even more important to have such a meeting and that what goes on in certain parts of the world should not affect relationships between Muslims and Jews in this county.

The reoccurring theme through the evening was of peace and commonality and how blessed we are in Britain that Jews and Muslims work together and have good relationships.

The Rabbi described the purpose of fasting, which included resisting temptation, and to feel the hunger of people who always live on just one meal a day. Mustafa Fields, director of the ‘Faiths Forum for London’ described the purpose of fasting in Islam and the importance of organising interfaith events such as the ‘Big Iftar’ gathering people from different communities together and sharing and building relationships.

The Alyth Synagogue hosting the iftar had respected all the Muslim rituals and had made every arrangement to ensure the Muslims broke their fast with dates, water and fruit juices. They had a designated space for all of the Muslims to offer their Magrib prayers. Moreover, all the Muslims amongst whom were also members of the Al Khoei Foundation and the Christian Muslim Forum were treated with respect and love. The Rabbi made a prayer and broke the challah bread and everyone was served a delicious hearty soup made lovingly by Jackie Goymour committee member of Barnet’s Women’s Interfaith Network (WIN).

Aliya Azam

Al Khoei Foundation, Christian Muslim Forum

Short Reflections on being a Muslim in Britain

July 7th, 2014

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How do you feel media depicts Muslim and Islam and how does this affect you?*

I consider that the media have created a caricature of Muslims. They managed to make non-Muslim and even some Muslims believe that Muslims form a single community made of veiled women and bearded men holding similar views on everything from interpretation of their scripture to current affairs. In doing so they prevent Muslims who do not match certain criteria of their caricature to be accepted as Muslim, true Muslim. Thus some person do not hesitate to tell me after discovering I am a Muslim “ it is obvious that you are not a practicing Muslim” or to declare that my views on some topics are not those of Muslims because they do not correspond to the one attributed to Muslim in the media .

For these reasons to watch the video “Happy British Muslims” was a breeze of fresh air: for once British Muslims appeared, as they are, diverse.

What are the best aspects of being Muslim in Britain Today?

My sister sent me a text message earlier this year to let me know she had seen a woman wearing headscarf working in a clothes shop in heart of Paris. That was such news (I am French), it marked a sign of progress.

How extraordinary it was, when I arrived in London to discover women wearing headscarf in town hall, airports or shopping centre. I felt it was not only acceptable, but also normal to be Muslim:  it does not seem a big deal to have Muslim MPs in Britain.

Besides, I felt free to be Muslim: free because of facilities available in some work places to perform daily prayers, I can attend diverse religious lectures and activities in location shared with non-Muslim such as universities.

Being Muslim here in Britain is a chance to learn even more about my faith due to resources, courses, lecturers of qualities available.

Fatima Adamou
Volunteer, Christian Muslim Forum
 
* The Guardian What is it like to be a Muslim in Britain today?

{We would be very happy to share other reflections from Muslims, and Christians, Ed.}

 

Hidden Hearts Revealed

July 2nd, 2014

 

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Zaynab is not her name. She prefers to remain anonymous, such is the shame she still feels or, at least, believes her parents feel to this day. Zaynab is a second generation Brit; her parents are from Morocco. Zaynab’s sin, the cause of her shame and ostracism from her family and community, is that she chose to fall in love. She chose with whom to fall in love and the man she fell in love with was not Muslim.

“One day my excuses ran out,” she says. “That’s when I got caught. We were in Wembley Market. He bent down to kiss me and I looked up and saw my mum behind him. I stopped breathing. I think I’d rather be taken by the police.”

Zaynab’s story and others like hers, are the subject of a documentary by film maker Zara Afzal. Hidden Heart, currently in post-production and in search of crowd-funding support for its completion, is the culmination of three years of exhaustive research and interviews with women in Zaynab’s predicament; caught between their inherited tradition and the realities of growing up in modern Britain.

“Finding women, getting women to talk about their experience was a challenge,” says Afzal. “You come across so many women who’ve gone through it; they’re out the other end, the dust has settled and they don’t want to revisit that old pain. They’re still carrying it around. And then you’ve got others who are still hiding their relationship. For them it’s just a reminder of what they’re living.”

‘Marrying out,’ for women, she says, is still taboo in Muslim circles. For men it’s a different story. Tradition in conservative circles dictates that Muslim women may only marry Muslim men. For men, however, that’s not the case.

“Most women who marry outside their faith endure a dual life; hiding their relationship and lifestyle from their family. When they’re out, they’re mixing and socialising with other people and boyfriends. Then they’ll go home and they’ll be the good Muslim girl.”

The reception to preview screenings of Hidden Heart, especially within the Muslim community, has been mixed.

“I’ve had a couple of people come up to me and say ‘you’re portraying Islam in a bad light’, and I don’t think I am. And then there are others: they think it’s a fantastic project. In a personal capacity they’d love to endorse it but they’re scared of the reaction of certain groups. So it’s been quite difficult to rally support.”

The project has had enthusiastic support from a number of key organisations including The Christian Muslim Forum and British Muslims for a Secular Democracy. The film also features interviews with Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra, described as a pillar of the Muslim community and Usama Hasan of the Quilliam Foundation.
Their endorsement and participation, according to Afzal, although welcome, hasn’t always translated into financial backing, hence the decision to go down the crowd-funding route.

‘The campaign will extend through 20 July. The purpose is to raise the money to complete the edit.’

Despite awaiting final touches, the film has already attracted industry interest.

Afzal and Executive Producer Christo Hird have just returned from a “Works In Progress” screening at the Sheffield Documentary Festival.
“Sheffield has been a tremendous experience for Hidden Heart,” says Afzal. “The film was well received, and amongst the audience we had prominent figures from major festivals and television networks.”

Ultimately she hopes the film can be used to generate debate about the subject of interfaith/intercultural relationships within the Muslim community as well as understanding in the wider community.

“Families like to keep it quiet and I think that that needs to be addressed and understood. We need to acknowledge and understand the trials faced by these women.”

The struggle of those who ‘marry out’ is still palpable in the words and tears of Zaynab, years after her estrangement from her family.
“I could have actually had a better life,’ she says, ‘if they hadn’t made me lie. What I was doing, it was nothing so big. I was crucified for being in love.”

Watch the Hidden Heart trailer here and donate what you can to help complete this powerful film!

 Sean Groth

 

Building bridges with Brondesbury Park Synagogue

July 2nd, 2014

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On Sunday 22nd June members of the Al Khoei Foundation and the Brondesbury Park Synagogue took part in an exchange visit to their respective places of worship, introducing each other to the basics of Islam and Judaism.

Members of the Imam Khoei Islamic Centre received a whistlestop tour of the main elementsof the synagogue service and Jewish life by Rabbi Baruch Levin, and were told about the history of the Jewish presence in Willesden, as well as hearing about the rejuvenation of today’s community by Brondesbury Park.

Brondesbury’s congregants heard that the Islamic Centre previously served as the Brondesbury Synagogue on Chevening Road, before closing down in 1974 and being converted into a Mosque in the 1980s.

Speeches at the Al Khoei Centre included a welcome by Sayid Yousif Al Khoei, a presentation on the introduction to Islam by Sayid Jafar Milani,a description of local interfaith work of the Al Khoei Foundation, a description by pupils from Al Sadiq and Al Zahra Schools on the meaning of the Khoei logo, a presentation from Jo Winsloe from the London Interfaith Centre, Catriona Robertson from the London Peace Network and a talk by Charlotte Fisher from London Citizens. Members of the synagogue had their names written in traditional Islamic calligraphy by renowned calligrapher Samir Malik.

Rabbi Baruch Levin said: “Events of this kind are hugely important as they break down perceived barriers between faith communities at a local level, thereby enriching the sense of social cohesion and highlighting the range of common interests that we share”.

Daniel Turner said: “Learning about each other’s religious customs and practices made for a wonderful day and it was thrilling to see how keen ourvisitors were to find out about Judaism. For our part, learning about Islam was truly fascinating, and the excitement of visiting the old Brondesbury Synagogue, as it once was, was a memorable experience. I am looking forward to continuing to build our friendship with the foundation.”

Sayid Yousif Al Khoei said,”The reciprocal meeting between the Brondesbury Park community and the Al Khoei Foundation was an inspiring event which demonstrated a deep commitment to good community relations. It was heartening and wonderful to learn that everyone enjoyed an informed perspective on both faiths contributing to significantly to community cohesion. Good community relations are at the heart of a society where people can live together harmoniously as neighbours.”

Aliya Azam said, ” The reciprocal meeting between the Al Khoei Foundation and the Brondesbury Synagogue was a spiritually uplifting event. It is recognised that contributing to community relations is only one dimension of Religious Education. RE can be a strong contributor to good community relations through enabling students and adults to acquire systematic knowledge and conceptual understanding of religions. We all learnt about our beliefs from each other during this visit and visitors through personal encounters. The encounter enabled people to articulate their own opinions while respecting the right of others to differ. Students who participated were empowered with confidence and openness in dialogue. Overall the event had an extremely positive impact on the community.”
Aliya Azam, Al-Khoei Foundation and President, Christian Muslim Forum

 

WHY JESUS IS OUR TRUE PEACE

June 5th, 2014

Cornelius Afebu Omonokhua*

The persecution of Jesus Christ did not stop with his physical crucifixion. But his reaction to this unjust pain and suffering makes him a model of peace. In Christian spirituality, a mortal sin is akin to crucifying Jesus all over again. Whether this attack is from within or without, it would be a contradiction for any Christian to chant, “In the name of Jesus” while killing a person. This is because Jesus did not teach or practice either physical or moral violence that anybody can reference in an act of terrorism. One would then wonder where the Christian Crusaders got their inspiration to fight. The Crusaders could not convert people and nations with the ‘sword’ because Jesus recommended the ‘WORD’ for the spread of the Gospel. Whoever is converted by the sword will forever look up to the blue sky for true peace! Jesus is a perfect example that there is no compulsion in religion. Consequently, the need of a New Testament is imperative for the modern age. For instance, adherents of Judaism could cite some chapters of the Old Testament to support war and violence. Perhaps the perennial war in some parts of the Holy Land (where the prophets were born) could have been avoided if all the ancestors of Israel and Palestine accepted Jesus as the promised Messiah and the Prince of Peace.

No message of Jesus Christ abrogates an earlier message even though the Evangelists report the narratives in different context. Jesus is the way, the truth and the life (John 14, 6). Without the “New Testament”, the stories of war in the “Old Testament” could be used to support violence. This could be the reason why Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to our ancestors, ‘You shall not kill, and anyone who kills will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell (Matthew 5, 21-22). That Jesus is the true peace of the world (Ephesians 2, 13-18) was prophesied by Isaiah: “For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; And the government will rest on His shoulders; And His name will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9, 6).

Some Islamic scholars are of the view that, “Islam is not a new religion, but the same truth that God revealed through all his prophets” (http://www.islamicity.com) According to them the Arabic word, ‘Islam’ stands for ‘Submission’ or ‘Peace’. In a religious context, it implies the peace that reaches out to one when one completely submits oneself to the will of Almighty God. This is achieved only when the individual acts in accordance with the direction of his Creator in all spheres of life (http://www.nicheoftruth.org). Christians believe that Jesus is the true peace for every Christian and for all that exists (Ephesians 2, 4). He calls peacemakers children of God (Matthew 5, 9). He said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14, 27). “On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors were locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you” (John 20, 19).

According to the Muslims, Islam is a complete way of life. Every Muslim is enjoined to practically keep to the rules of Islam (peace) in every aspect of life. This should be demonstrated in words and deeds and not only in the five pillars of Islam, namely, faith, prayer, fasting, alms (Zakkah) and pilgrimage (to Makkah). About six hundred years before the advent of Islamic religion, Jesus had taught his followers to have faith in God, pray without ceasing, fast and to love even the enemies. The goal of the mission of Jesus is the salvation of the human person and the glory of God. Since Islam came much later, it would be logical to say that with the adherents of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the world ought to be a new heaven and a new paradise where “the wolf can dwell with the lamb, the leopard lies down with the goat, the calf and the young lion live together with a little boy to lead them. Yes, a world where the cow and the bear grazes and their young lie down together without hurting one another” (Isaiah 11, 5-7). That this type of peaceful world is not realisable calls for a serious re-examination of what religion means for the various adherents.

The dictionary defines “peace” as the absence of war or other hostilities; freedom from quarrels and disagreement; harmonious relations; inner contentment; serenity; peace of mind and respect for law and order. The word “obey” comes from the Greek “hupakou” meaning, to listen attentively to a command or authority. The word “submit” comes from the Greek “hupeiko”, to yield or surrender to an authority. Submission and obedience are similar in the sense that this action is performed in freedom without force. Jesus teaches that those who hear the word of God and put it into practice are ever more blessed (Luke 11, 28). Even in his passion, Jesus accepted the will of God” (Luke 22, 39-42). His suffering did not tempt him to prescribe defence and retaliation. He never told his followers to fight those who fight them. Rather, he said “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Matthew 5, 44).

Jesus came to give light to those in darkness, those who dwell in the shadow of death and guide us into the way of peace” (Luke 1, 76-79). He thought his disciples not to resist those who do evil (Matthew 5, 38-42) by vengeance as practiced by the Jewish ancestors who believed in “eye for eye and tooth for tooth” (Matthew 5, 38; Exodus 21, 24). The desire of Jesus for human beings is to be at peace with one another (Mark 9, 50). He lamented and wept for Jerusalem for their ignorance of the message of peace. He wished that if only Jerusalem had known the value of peace (Luke 19, 42).

Jesus practiced what he preached. During his trial, “One of the guards standing there hit him. The guard said, “You should not talk to the high priest like that!” Jesus answered, “If I said something wrong, then say it. If the things I said are right, then why do you hit me (John 18, 21-23)? Jesus did not fight back. In his most excruciating pains and agony on the cross, he did not curse his executioners. He prayed for them, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing” (Luke 23, 34). He had warned his disciples, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16, 33). In sending out his apostles, he said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you” (John 20, 21 & 26)! The Qur’an affirms that Mary was given a sinless son who is faultless and perfect in the eyes of God so that Jesus, the son of Mary, would be an example to all the nations of the world (Sura Maryam 19, 19). The teaching and the life of Jesus should be a model for every peace loving person. His profile qualifies him as such. We should therefore imitate him and give peace a chance in a world where the terrorists are refusing to wane.

*Fr. Prof. Cornelius Afebu Omonokhua is the Director of Mission and Dialogue of the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria, Abuja and Consultor of the Commission for Religious Relations with Muslims (C.R.R.M), Vatican City (comonokhua@hotmail.com).

 

IS THIS ISLAM?

June 5th, 2014

Cornelius Afebu Omonokhua*

Shortly after the release of the video of the Chibok abducted girls by Abubakar Shekau, Mallam Sikiru visited me in the office. Sikiru understands Arabic. He is also vast in Islamic theology. He has travelled to Egypt, Medina, Yemen, Sudan and Saudi Arabia. He quotes the Bible in a religious conversation to show that he likes inter-religious dialogue. I told him that I have some of the videos of Shekau in Arabic and English. He was excited and requested to listen to them. After watching four of the video clips, he exclaimed almost in a rage as if he could kill Shekau the next minute. “Stupid, rubbish, is this Islam?” He continued, “the terrorist activities of this lunatic is capable of causing ‘islamophobia’ (fear of Islam) in Nigeria.” “Why do you think so? Is it not true that the Muslims in Nigeria have denied that Shekau and his terrorist group are Muslims?” I asked.
“Father”, he said, “let us critically look at this videos in the context of the teaching of Islam. In the first video we just watched, Shekau said that the Christians sent somebody to Egypt to learn the secret of Islam. The person came back and revealed the secrets of the Qur’an to every body. Since then, people do not respect the Qur’an again. Because of that many Muslims in Nigeria have lost their Islam all in the name of Western education. “What is the secret of Islam? Is the ‘Islam’ of Shekau a secret cult? It appears that Islam for Shekau is violence and death. True Islam is peace. If any Muslim has lost Islam in Nigeria, it is Shekau and his men / women who have lost their Islam. The Islam I know is peace. If Shekau has peace, why is he living in the forest?”
To Shekau’s assertion that his war is against Christians, Sikiru recalled the early relationship between the Muslims and the Christians (people of the book). He reiterated that the action of Boko Haram is simply criminal. He regrets that when the seed of hatred for other religions was being sown in the minds of children in some part of Northern Nigeria, some traditional, religious and political leaders did not know that a time would come when a group of terrorists beyond their control would emerge. If they had the premonition, they could have nipped from the bud, any form of religious intolerance. The challenge now facing every orthodox Muslim is how to correct the false perception of Islam that Shekau has presented to the world.
On the video where the kidnapped girls were reciting the Qur’an, here is the reaction of Malam Sikiru. “Where in Islam are people converted with a gun? These girls wearing full veils and praying in an undisclosed location is an abuse of hijab. If Abubakar Shekau is a true Muslim, why should he, wearing military uniform and holding an AK-47 chant ‘God is great’ and appears confident laughing to show that human trauma means nothing to him. This man is heartless! Boko Haram militants claim to be fighting for an Islamic state. Perhaps, the terrorists group believe that through the Boko Harram terrorist operation, Nigeria one day will be like the modern Islamic nations that were once upon a time dominated by Christians.”
Sikiru was very disturbed with this Shekau statement: “All I am saying is that if you want us to release the girls that we have kidnapped, those who have not accepted Islam will be treated as the Prophet treated infidels and they will stay with us. We will not release them while you detain our brothers.” Sikiru interpreted this statement as an insult on the prophet of Islam. He wonders why the Muslims among the girls needed a second conversion. He said that the Christians among the girls who have been forced to wear hijab can never be true Muslims because it is forbidden to force somebody to convert. Is this Islam? Sikiru queried again! If you understand Arabic, you would laugh when Shekau says that he will kill Goodluck Jonathan, Barak Obama, and destroy all the Western technology. Yet he is holding a gun that he did not manufacture and used a vehicle he did not manufacture to transport the Chibok girls to unknown destination. Shekau said that no one can defeat him because Allah is with him. Sikiru wondered if Shekau’s Allah is the same God that every body believes in!
While Sikiru was still talking, Jibril knocked and entered. Jibril happens to be a friend of Sikiru. He came to tell Sikiru that somebody was waiting for him, but he too suddenly got involved in the conversation. Jibril introduced another dimension to the discussion. His problem was that many Christians are now thinking that Muslims cannot be trusted. Some Christians according to him now think that some Muslims are comfortable with what Boko Haram is doing to create an Islamic state. Jibril almost changed the topic, “You see, what Christians do not know is that there are many sects in Islam.” He wanted to lists the sects but Sikiru was not patient with him.
He responded immediately, “Is Boko Haram a Sect? Tell me which sect of Islam preaches this type of violence and terrorism? Boko Haram is a sect of criminals and not Islam, period! You talk of trust. Is not Trust a virtue that is cultivated and built over a period of time? Why is Borno and the other states that have become the citadel of Boko Haram different from other States? It will take another generation before Borno will recover itself again? If not for the effort of the military and the security agents, by now Borno would either be forgotten or converted to a terrorist empire with Boko Haram system of government.” Jibril kept quiet for a while and then submitted that Boko Haram is waging war on Islam. He supported this position with the following reason, “When all the electronic and social media were playing Shekau’s video with the girls chanting the Qur’an, one can conclude that the fear of many non-Muslims is justified. Many had believed that Boko Haram has an agenda to create an Islamic State. But the question is, what kind of Islam would be practised in such state.
I told Sikiru and Jibril that there is no need to cry over spilled milk. If there is a will to change, there is a way. I drew their attention to the Second African Synod of 2008 that emphasized the need for a collaborative effort between Christians and Muslims. The Synod identified the need of “Joining our Spiritual Forces” to remind Africans of their inner spiritual force to address common concerns. What we need actually now should not be an argument about whether Boko Haram is a religious sect or not. The point is that evil has befallen our nation.
What matters now is that the victims of these terrorists are human beings. “We are not fighting against flesh and blood, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the high places (Ephesians 6, 12). The devil is incarnated in our land and we must do something very fast. We must pray more now than ever before. This is the time to put aside our political differences. Very soon the flames will consume the person who made this fire. We need to save Nigerians and Nigeria. Otherwise, those who think that they must rule Nigeria by hook or crook may end up only as leaders of the cemetery. I do not have the answer to the question, “Is this Islam” that Boko Haram is propagating? If you have the answer, I will be happy to learn but for now, let us put all our spiritual resources together to save our children and our nation.

 

*Fr. Prof. Cornelius Afebu Omonokhua is the Director of Mission and Dialogue of the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria, Abuja and Consultor of the Commission for Religious Relations with Muslims (C.R.R.M), Vatican City comonokhua@hotmail.com).

 

 

WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?

June 5th, 2014

Cornelius Afebu Omonokhua*

On Monday April 14, 2014, many people got up from bed very early in the morning, prayed, had breakfast and prepared for work. They proceeded to begin their various business of the day. They did not want to go late to work so they were at the Nyanya park early enough to catch a bus to their different places of work. Some drove in their private cars without a clue that they will never again see their offices and places of work. They would have been beaming with hope, one could imagine! Perhaps they expected good news for the day. For Christians, the day before was Palm Sunday, so they were filled with joyful anticipation of the Holy Week, which marks the beginning of the Easter celebrations after celebrating the triumphant entry of Jesus Christ into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday singing, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Hosanna in the highest heaven” (Matthew 21, 9)! All these innocent souls did not know that after the Palm Sunday of 13th April 2014, they would not sing that song on earth again. They did not know that while they were singing “Hosanna”, those who have refused the light and chosen darkness had concluded their plans to send them to the life beyond akin to that of those who shouted “crucify him, away with him” in the trial of Jesus of Nazareth. They celebrated the Good Friday on a Monday with their blood! May Christ receive them into his Kingdom!

I watched the Palm Sunday events from different Churches on the television. At intervals the media also reported the words of encouragements from the Sultan of Sokoto and the Vice President of Nigeria. The Sultan confidently told Nigerians that those who say that there is an attempt to Islamize Nigeria are enemies of Nigeria. The Vice President announced that the criminals who are using religion to terrorise Nigeria and Nigerians would soon be brought to book. I wonder how they would be feeling now about the ugly tragedy of the Monday, April 14, 2014. Now that the killers have moved to the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Abuja, with different planks marked, “Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, Day 4 and Day 5” discovered at the scene of the bomb blast in Nyanya, what next will the Elders State Men and Women do to stop them from executing he remaining days?

Women came out to protest against those who planted and detonated the bombs. The tears of these women like drizzling rain could not be stopped, not even by the visit of the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Who will replenish the tear glands that have been exhausted with weeping over the death of these innocent Nigerians? Each time there is explosion, the people hear from the Government, what has become the mantra: “we are on top of the situation!” Then the terrorists respond with another worse terrorist act. When shall we get down “from the top of the situation” to the bottom and put a final stop to the scourge and carnage of these terrorist acts? Where do we go from here? Perhaps our government needs to let the people know.

If something is stolen in a room where five people are living, each person in that room remain a suspect until the real thief is found. Until the day Nigerians will know who these terrorists and their sponsors are, accusing fingers will continue to point at different persons and institutions. Until we know the real terrorists, the argument that “Boko Haram” has killed more Muslims, Christians, Pagans or atheists would remain a verbose gibberish. One of the commentators on the Nyanya bomb blast of Monday April 14, 2014 in AIT and NTA said, “It has become normal to see figures of dead people in the front pages of our newspapers during terrorist attacks, no body talks about the personalities anymore”. The identity of the innocent human beings who are being killed in the name of a “god” of “terrorists” matters no more. This blood sucking “god” is very wicked and must be stopped.

I remember what my uncle used to say to us when we were growing up. “Should any of you turn a criminal, he should stop using the family name! It is better you die than to spoil the good name of our family!” Later in life, that the Church excommunicates heretics who would not return to the true teaching of the Church would make sense to me. People are really tired of the definition of the religious identity of these terrorist. A Muslim told me sometime ago that he was in a place with a group of people; he discovered all of a sudden that every body left him. Perhaps they were afraid of him because he wore a long beard. He continued, “I am just thinking that the Muslim community should really take action against these terrorists before they spoil the name of Islam. We say they are not Muslims, yet they insist that they are. It is time for us to have a retrospect and see if we can identify where and when we got it wrong.” He was troubled and wondered why the terrorists claimed to be Muslims who are fighting a jihad whereas what they are doing is far from the teaching of Islam. He felt very sad, but with a kind of optimism that there is a lot the good and orthodox Muslims can do to save the name of Islam from “these bad Muslims”. We must work together as concerned Nigerians to stop this carnage. How are we even sure that these Nyanya terrorists are the real Boko Haram?

The attack on holy places at holy seasons appears to be a trade mark for the terrorists. The Holy Week is the most sacred week for Christians. It is a period when all the Christians pray to God. Jesus Christ reveals God as love, merciful and full of compassion. The Holy Week is a period Christians celebrate the God of Mercy. What makes the Holy Week sacred? The Holy Week is Sacred because the passion of the Redeemer is re-enacted. Jesus was scourged, crowned with thorns, bore the weight of the heavy cross, crucified and died on the cross on Good Friday; and on Eastern Sunday we celebrate the victory over death as we witness and proclaim, “Jesus is risen indeed, alleluia”! This is our faith, the faith of every Christian. Without the passion, death and resurrection, there is no Christianity. May the fact that death is the lot of all and eternal life for those who have faith in God be a consolation to all who mourn their loved ones in this Holy season. Even in our tears we believe the words of Jesus our Saviour: “Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5, 4).

Consoling another who is bereaved May be easy but when we are bereaved, the pain of the cross becomes obvious. However, we should remember that the Cross is not an end in itself. Every cross that is accepted in faith leads to glory even though the cross does not make sense to some people. St. Paul told the Corinthians, “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are on the road to salvation it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1, 18). In 1979, Pope John Paul II published a book, (Carol Wotyla, Sign of Contradiction, Seabury Press, 1979) to show the mystery of Jesus Christ who died to save us. The cross looks like a contradiction but it is the way that leads to true peace. The life and message of Jesus Christ shows the power of God that is demonstrated in the resurrection (Romans 1, 20). Jesus came that we might have abundant life (John 10, 10). He raised Lazarus (John11, 1-43) and the widow of Nain’s son (Luke 7, 11-16) to show that he has the answer to every life situation. Do these reflections mean that we should continue to be slaughtered on a daily basis? Where do we go from here? The point for all believers, especially Christians in this Holy Week is that we should not allow these enemies of human life to prevent us from celebrating the resurrection. This is our Easter! Let nothing separate us from the love of Christ (Romans 8, 36). Happy Easter!

*Fr. Prof. Cornelius Afebu Omonokhua is the Director of Mission and Dialogue of the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria, Abuja and Consultor of the Commission for Religious Relations with Muslims (C.R.R.M), Vatican City comonokhua@hotmail.com).

Prophets and Potluck

May 21st, 2014

We started with Nuh, Ibrahim, Musa, and Yunus. We ended with falafel, tzatziki, a casserole, and lots of pita bread. The folks in our Qur’an study group finally felt comfortable enough with one another to share a meal after our learning session.

We’ve been meeting every Sunday evening since January. About half the group is Muslim. The other half is Western/Christian (but on the more progressive end of Christianity, I would say). About half of us are women. The group changes a bit every week, depending on who is able to attend, so we usually begin by stating our names and why we are there. Most of the Muslim women in the group say they are attending because they would like to learn more about the actual Qur’an. They say they are quite familiar with Islamic prayers and Muslim culture, but they want to learn more about the text itself. Most of the Christians attend because they want to learn something…anything…about the Qur’an, Islam, Muslim life in the U.S., or Muslim life around the world. The group’s facilitators choose a passage from the Qur’an to share. It is read first in Arabic and then in English. Afterward, they offer their views on what the verses mean and how they fit into Islamic teachings.

Initially, our sessions focused on Muhammad’s early revelations, so we read some of the shorter, chronologically-earlier surahs near the end of the Qur’an. After that, we moved on to the creation of humans. The middle school kids at Jubilee church in Asheville had discussed creation stories in various faith traditions earlier in the year, so it was exciting to watch the Christian adults finally recognize the many similarities between the creation stories in the two traditions. We also had an interesting discussion about the jinn and angels. Angels, of course, are mentioned throughout the Bible. The jinn really are not, although there are some interesting exceptions to that.

Lately, we have moved into discussions about the prophets. This has been particularly fun for me. I am quite familiar with the stories of the prophets from the Bible, and I’ve read an English translation of Qisas al-Anbiya from the Islamic tradition. Although the prophets are often the same (e.g, Abraham/Ibrahim, Moses/Musa, and Jonah/Yunus), the stories differ in their details. This is perhaps most obvious for the story of Abraham and his son, Ishmael, by Hagar. There are also some general differences in the way prophets are viewed. In the Biblical tradition, the prophets are known to act in ways that appear quite human-like, perhaps even “sinful.” For example, in the Bible, Noah is found drunk is his tent (Genesis 9:18-25). In the Islamic tradition, the prophets never knowingly sin, so Nuh is never portrayed as being inebriated.

Last Sunday, we broke with our habit of rushing home for dinner with family to break bread with one another. We had a potluck dinner after our study session, and everyone shared their best middle-eastern fare. The beauty of the meal lay in the fact that we talked about anything and everything but the Qur’an. We heard about one woman’s son who is currently visiting his brother in Egypt. We heard about a recent talk given at a peace conference by one of the group’s facilitators. And one woman shared her thoughts on a recent Sufi reading/musical performance she attended at a local teahouse. In short, the potluck was yet another step in getting to know one another.
Our Qur’an discussions will continue, but maybe now we’ll feel just a bit more comfortable when sharing our thoughts and feelings. During the first few sessions, only the facilitators spoke. Most of the Westerners in the group had never even seen a Qur’an and didn’t understand why some people in the group were constantly saying “peace be upon him.” Now, everyone shares their translations and their reflections on the passages. Our questions have become more open-ended and require more complex answers. The dialogue sometimes gets emotional and edgy, which means it’s also getting more profound and thought-provoking. Interestingly, the tension almost never falls along stereotypical “party lines.” The Westerners do not necessarily agree with one another; nor do the Muslims.

Instead, we simply struggle together. We struggle to understand when religious disagreements matter and when they don’t. We struggle to distinguish propaganda from truth. We strive to separate individuals from their governments. We make every effort to listen with compassion and avoid knee-jerk reactions. And we come to the circle in a spirit of unity and love.

Our efforts are hardly earth-shattering. We’re a small group of individuals meeting in a very small city at the base of the mountains in western North Carolina. We’re not attempting to solve the world’s problems, and we’re not attempting to achieve world peace. We’re simply a gaggle of folks interested enough in one another to spend a couple of hours together on Sunday evenings – to share our thoughts, our food, and some of our beliefs – which is really what interfaith interactions are truly about. To be sure, we’re not global news, but hopefully, we’re changing things in some small way in our little corner of creation.

Vicki Garlock, Ph.D.

Faith Seeker Kids