Analyzing Catholic and Muslim relations

“Today I wish to emphasize that the problem of intolerance must be confronted in all its forms: wherever any minority is persecuted and marginalized because of its religious convictions or ethnic identity, the wellbeing of society as a whole is endangered and each one of us must feel affected,”

– Pope Francis’ Address to the Delegation from the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

My ancestor, Christian Schmidt, was a German immigrant, arriving in the United States with permission neither from his home nation nor his adopted one. His immigration was not the only challenge he and many more like him faced in the United States.

With the onset of World War I, anti-German sentiment in the United States spread like wildfire, spurred on by the president, governors, and citizens alike. Thousands of Germans were interred in camps with no due process. Per the Smithsonian, nearly half a million immigrants of Germanic descent were required to register, carry registration papers on them at all times, and could be detained and interrogated on a whim. Over half a billion dollars’ worth of finances and property were confiscated, most often on scant to no evidence of wrongdoing. In the State of Iowa, German and other foreign languages were prohibited from use over the telephone and in public places, even in church services. Churches were spied on and Christian ministers attacked who did not comply. As many as 18,000 Midwesterners were arrested under the “English only” laws during WWI. German was even banished from being taught in schools and resulted in book burnings of German texts.

The Catholic faith of so many immigrants did not help make their presence any more hospitable. Americans saw Catholics as foreign invaders owing allegiance to a foreign prince, the pope, adhering to a foreign rule of law with canon law, Roman customs, and the like.  How could Catholics possibly be trusted? They were considered incompatible with American values, according to the greater society.

This was the reality into which my own grandpa Eddie Schmidt was born in 1917. A world at war and a war at home against his people. My loved ones were guilty by association and considered enemies by the larger society.

I am reminded of these stories of my own family and German ancestors when I hear of reports about proposed laws that would outlaw the religious attire of Muslims, require Muslims to register with the government, government spying in mosques, and the many stories of fear, hate and violence directed at our Muslim brothers and sisters. There have been reports of women and girls having their headscarves torn off, women in the hijab being set on fire, and sadly, a Muslim college student was beaten to death in Wisconsin. A good friend of mine has shared with me over the years the many times he has himself experienced Islamophobic hate-speech, harassment and violence, even by public officials. Much of this stems from a lack of understanding and a great deal of misinformation about Islam and Muslims.

When such misunderstanding and lack of trust are so prevalent in our society there is no peace in our own nation, let alone our world. It is important for us as Catholics to recognize our relationship to our Muslim brothers and sisters, our neighbors. It is true that we have a very different understanding of God but the Second Vatican Council reminds us:

“The Church has also a high regard for the Muslims. They worship God, who is one, living and subsistent, merciful and almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth (Cf. St. Gregory VII, Letter III, 21 to Anazir [Al-Nasir], King of Mauretania PL, 148.451A.), who has spoken to men.”

Pope Francis, at Holy Thursday in 2016, washed the feet of people of various faiths, including a Muslim and reiterated the church’s teaching that we are all “children of the same God.”

Not only children of the same God, but Muslims have been a part of our nation’s history since its inception, even serving in the United States military in every war that America has been engaged in, including the Revolution and the current wars on terror. Though there are people committing heinous acts of terror in the name of Islam, Muslims themselves are not to be feared simply because they are Muslim.

Pope Francis in August 2016 said the following: “I don’t like to speak of Islamic violence, because every day, when I browse the newspapers, I see violence, here in Italy… and these are baptized Catholics! … If I speak of Islamic violence, I must speak of Catholic violence … I believe that in pretty much every religion there is always a small group of fundamentalists … I do not believe it is right to identify Islam with violence. This is not right or true.”

Each human person made in the image of God is capable of great love and devastating evil, for we are fallen creatures. Even now there are Christian terrorists slaughtering innocents in the Central African Republic. We also recently heard the Rwandan Catholic bishops apologize for the church’s participation in the Rwandan genocide that happened a few decades ago. This allows us perspective when it comes to violence by Muslims.

Where is the violence coming from, then, if not from Islam itself? Islam is not a hierarchical faith like the Catholic Church with one single authority at the top. Islam is more closely related to rabbinical Judaism or evangelical Christianity than the structure of the Catholic Church. There is no universally accepted Muslim Magisterium. Much of the ideology of those who commit terrorism in the name of Islam is traced to an 18th century figure who sought to present a version of Islam that would serve the purpose of raising up a new dynasty on the Arabian peninsula. Over time, with the backlash against colonialism and shifting political realities, this new interpretation of Islam was manipulated for political ends by a small group and gaining adherents and becoming more militaristic. Even so, these strains of terrorism are in the minority within the Muslim world and are condemned throughout the world by Muslims, Sunni and Shia alike, not least of all because the overwhelming majority of victims from these groups are Muslims themselves.

Though not well reported here in the United States, Muslims are leading the call against terrorism. Muslims across the world have repeatedly denounced violence in the name of Islam. After Sept. 11, the people of Iran held a candlelit vigil in Tehran in solidarity with Americans and those lost to terrorism. Government leaders, religious leaders, and the Muslim faithful have condemned terrorism in the name of Islam time and again.

Let us help to build peace in our communities with our Muslim brothers and sisters by going out of our own comfort zones and meeting them in theirs. Many mosques and Islamic centers offer tours and invite guests to come and learn about their faith from the perspective of those who practice it, not filtered through uncharitable propaganda. Perhaps, attend programs like those that have been organized in the Dubuque area called “Children of Abraham” which has the goal to bring Christians, Jews, and Muslims to mutual respect and understanding. Reach out in charity to coworkers or others around you who practice Islam and get to know them on a personal level, then engage in discussion about faith with an open ear and heart. Stand up against speech and actions that attack people of different faith traditions when you encounter them, offer companionship to someone who may be attacked. In doing some of these things we can dedicate ourselves to ensure that our brothers and sisters who practice faith traditions besides our own, particularly our Muslim and Jewish brothers and sisters who share our lineage in Abraham, know that they are welcome in our communities, know that they are loved by us, know that they are our brothers and sisters.

Mark Schmidt is Director of the Office of Respect Life and Social Justice in the Archdiocese of Dubuque.

This post was adapted for ToGoForth and posted during the holy month of Ramadan celebrated by our Muslim brothers and sisters around the world. Read the original version at The Witness.


Going Deeper!

Visit WeAreSaltAndLight.org for resources on reaching out and collaborating with other faith traditions. Learn how Catholic faith communities are encountering our Muslim brothers and sisters through prayer and action, dialogue, and pen-pals relationships.

Forging a Path to Interreligious Action for Peace

What does it take to build peace among people divided by religion? Is it dialogue about beliefs, traditions, and values that creates greater understanding, and thus more harmony? Or is it joint action that generates cooperation and strengthens relationships? The resounding answer from Catholic Relief Services’ interreligious peacebuilding experience is: both. Talking theology matters, but so does the opportunity to work side-by-side and put values into practice.

In Bosnia-Herzegovina, where Catholic Relief Services (CRS) has been supporting peace and development efforts since the height of the country’s civil war, programs invite people to connect through dialogue and action. Young people, many of whom attend segregated schools and have never heard stories of the war from the perspective of other ethnic and religious groups, jointly visit one another’s places of worship, perform musical concerts together, and collaborate on art exhibitions, and carry out cooperative community initiatives across religious lines. These shared activities are important to create common experiences and connections.

But deeply held perceptions and attitudes do not change through these joint activities alone; it is also important to delve into values and histories that connect and divide people. Young people have the opportunity to do so through seminars, dialogue sessions, and participatory theatre. Another important tool that CRS has been using in Bosnia-Herzegovina has been “Speaking Out” events, in which war victims share their stories of suffering at the hands of other ethnic and religious groups, and their journeys towards reconciliation. For many in the audience, young and older, this may be the first time that they are confronted with the “other side’s” narrative of the past. While this is challenging, it also opens them to the possibility of greater empathy for people from the other groups.

The stronger relationships and improved mutual understanding that emerge from activities like these prepare the ground for concrete steps towards reconciliation. These can include local initiatives involving ordinary citizens as well as building a vision for changes in the institutions that touch the lives of the broader population. A case in point is a national “Platform for Peace” just recently adopted by the highest level of government in Bosnia-Herzegovina. This Platform, developed at CRS’ initiative in collaboration with local partners and a range of key leaders, commits government officials and other authorities to work for long-term peace and reconciliation through measures such as institutionalizing trust-building mechanisms, reducing divisive rhetoric, and promoting peace education in schools. Over 40% of the country’s mayors have also signed on to the Platform for Peace, and have pledged to dedicate resources from their local budgets to put it into action.

In another landmark move, the deans of the country’s three theology schools – Catholic, Orthodox, and Muslim – recently announced a joint Master’s degree program in interreligious peacebuilding. This program, which will accept its first students in the fall, is the first of its kind in the region. It is the fruit of several years of patient and steady work on the part of the seminary representatives, supported and accompanied by CRS as they worked to bring their vision to life. Graduates of the program will emerge with a strong grounding in the three faith traditions’ teaching on peace, justice, and ethics; internship experiences will also give them strong practical skills to contribute to forging unity in their communities and country.

What barriers divide people of different faiths in your community? What opportunities do you see to forge connections across these barriers, through dialogue and action?

Nell Bolton is Senior Technical Advisor for Justice & Peacebuilding at Catholic Relief Services.

To learn more about what works in interreligious peacebuilding, download a copy of CRS’ new book, Interreligious Action for Peace: Studies in Muslim-Christian Cooperation.

Transforming Neighborly, Spiritual Bonds: Teens Empowered in Interfaith Engagement

By Claire Hoffmeyer, Director of Youth Ministry at Saint John Vianney Catholic Parish in Brookfield, Wisconsin

Nine years of youth ministry boils down to one simple, humbling truth: teenagers teach and transform me. I consistently seek to alter their lives by sharing the Gospel message, developing catechetical programming and availing the lived wisdom I believe to possess, yet it’s the teens who challenge me, renew me.

Our community located west of Milwaukee, Wisconsin offers affluence, academia, and an array of faiths to accompany you whether you pray in a temple, synagogue, church, or mosque. I both work and pray at Saint John Vianney Catholic Parish located on a busy corner intersection in the heart of our suburb. Less than two miles northeast, a friend of mine leads fellow Muslims in prayer at Masjid Al-Noor—a mosque of the Islamic Society of Milwaukee, a new addition to our neighborhood.

Our parish welcomes these new neighbors in a myriad of ways. We opened our church hall prior to the mosque’s groundbreaking so that the community could engage in dialogue. Soon thereafter, Masjid Al-Noor leaders used the church hall to examine the blueprints of their worship space. Annually, we collaborate on a seasonal project at the local farmer’s market. In these ways, we recognize and celebrate our neighborly bonds.

Last April, our community expanded. I welcomed Jewish, Lutheran, Nondenominational Christians, Unitarian Universalists, Mormon, and Muslim teen representatives to our parish. This was not in an effort to evangelize or convert. Rather, this was a response to a request of our active interfaith community for more youth engagement and empowerment.

My mission was to offer space for interfaith teens to explore the graces of interfaith collaboration and dialogue. I sought to cultivate young leaders equipped with training in diversity particularly regarding religious views and practices because interfaith dialogue can give birth to mutual understanding, respect, and friendship of all people, no matter how or where you worship.

These youth delegates commune unlike any youth group. They treat each other with kindness and gentle curiosity about each other’s faith beliefs. They laugh with one another.  Every time we gather, roaring laughter fills the space. They like one another and are genuinely excited to just be in each other’s company. They captivate one another. They leave no room for division, intolerance, or cruelty. The differences they have, they embrace. Impressively, they exercise these behaviors effortlessly.

Youth, they teach you; they transform you.

Challenged by a most recent saint, we aim to “recognize and develop the spiritual bonds that unite us, in order to preserve and promote together for the benefit of all men, ‘peace, liberty, social justice and moral values’ as the Council calls upon us to do.” This call by St. Pope John Paul II in an address to our Church in 1979, nearly forty years ago still holds true today, especially as we witness fear, injustice, violence, and hate toward our Muslim neighbors.

How can we combat the cruel attitudes and behaviors toward our Muslim brothers and sisters?

The youth delegates strive for peace and justice through unity. Two young ladies, one a member of St. John Vianney and the other a member of Masjid Al-Noor presented, “Gratitude Unites Us,” the youth delegates’ collaborative video project screened at last November’s Interfaith Thanksgiving Prayer Service.

The ladies prepared an address, written and rehearsed extensively together, and called us to action. They commanded all to set aside our divisions and instead practice an attitude of gratitude. When grateful, we refuse to let our separateness distract, rule, or divide us. We recognize we share in one humanity in which we have much to be grateful.

Through their powerful contributions, our youth delegates unassumingly displayed transformation from division to unity. They know how to be good neighbors. They love others, their faith, and God fiercely—they find unity in this shared love and gratitude. Muslim, Catholic, Christian, Jewish, and Mormon teenagers have imparted this wisdom, this truth, upon my heart. I am forever transformed.

I invite you to consider extending a hand to your neighbors in faith. Look to your community’s teens—they’ll model for you just how to preserve and promote the spiritual bonds that unite us all. Enjoy your transformation!

Claire Hoffmeyer is Director of Youth Ministry at Saint John Vianney Catholic Parish in Brookfield, Wisconsin. In 2007, Claire graduated with a degree in Sociology, Justice and Peace Studies and Writing from Marquette University. Since then, through her work with youth and families at Saint John Vianney Claire has been exploring her vocation in ministry gaining practical wisdom in a faith that does justice.


Going Deeper!

St. John Vianney’s work was recently featured on WeAreSaltAndLight.org, which also includes resources and tools from USCCB’s Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs.

Bishop Blaire of Stockton Issues Strong Statement on Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe

Pilgrims hold up images of Our Lady of Guadalupe during an annual pilgrimage in her honor (CNS photo/Jose Luis Gonzalez, Reuters)

Pilgrims hold up images of Our Lady of Guadalupe during an annual pilgrimage in her honor (CNS photo/Jose Luis Gonzalez, Reuters)

The journey of life is difficult at this time for Hispanics in the United States.  Many have friends and family members who are without papers; many are without papers themselves; children in school are being bullied; and young immigrants who signed up for DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) are anxious that they might lose their opportunity to work and their protection from deportation; racism has raised its ugly head in many communities; and so many of our neighborhoods and homes are plagued with violence. Many who have jobs often find themselves having to work two or three jobs in order to make ends meet.

To all of you this day I remind you that OUR LADY OF GUADALUPE COMES TO MEET YOU TO LEAD YOU TO JESUS.  She says to each of you what she said to St. Juan Diego: “Do not be disturbed in your heart; do not be afraid.  Am I not with you, I who am your mother?” We need to hear these words of comfort and strength when there is so much hostility in the public conversation about immigration and immigrants.

I wish to say loudly and clearly to all of you that as your bishop I am with you.  You are the Church.  I will walk with you no matter how hard it gets. Please God, things will go better than our worst fears about what might happen.  Regardless, the Church is with you.  I am here to accompany you.  I also wish to announce to our immigrants, to our refugees, to our migrants, from wherever you come, that we will do everything we can to help you through our Catholic Charities and the community organizations of which we are a part. As Catholics we embrace our American traditions of welcome, of unity in diversity, and our care for all.

I also wish to say to our Muslim brothers and sisters, and to our Jewish elder brothers and sisters, and to all our inter-faith friends that the hate which destroys the unity and solidarity of the human family cannot be tolerated in any way. The way of God is the way of love.

As you know so many of our Christian brothers and sisters in the Middle East have been slaughtered by ISIS or lost their homes in war torn areas and have suffered as refugees from their ancient lands.  I ask you to join with our Holy Father Pope Francis, in doing whatever you can in any way to support the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Christian and Muslim refugees at this time, and to bring calm to their homelands.

The causes of war and cruelty cannot be ignored.  The injustices that give rise to radical evils must be alleviated. The forces of evil must be stopped. Ultimately, evil will only be overcome by good, by the hard work of good people working together to bring about peace.  And there will be no peace if there is no justice which respects the dignity and worth of every human being.  As long as the gods of money and power and unrestrained impulses found in the idols of greed and corruption rule on the face of the earth there will be no lasting peace.  Sad to say, an even greater threat to peace that looms over our heads would be the unrestrained advance in nuclear weapons which could destroy all creation.

I sincerely believe that unless God is accepted as sovereign Lord over the earth and over our lives, communities will continue to deteriorate, the earth will be devastated, and family coherence will be diminished.  Your devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe keeps us close to her as our Mother.  She leads us to Christ Who is the all just One; the all merciful One; the Hope for the world when all seems hopeless.

The world does not need any more walls.  It needs bridges of compassion and mutual understanding.  Yes, proper respect for borders or boundaries, but not barriers of hostility and division.  Let there be peace at our borders.

The world cannot continue to endure more violence.  It needs restraint, words of peace and perseverance in the hard efforts to create the just structures that are the foundation for peace.  In our community the answer to gang violence is good education and decent jobs.

The world must not tolerate racism.   It needs to honor the diversity of God’s human family by building a unity which embraces and respects all races on the face of the earth.  Unity in diversity!

bishop-blaire-5x7Today we venerate Our Lady of Guadalupe who comes to meet us as our mother.  Nuestra Señora will show us the way to peace and goodness and justice.  Mary is the mother of all peoples.  She will give us the courage not to be afraid.  She will lead us to Jesus, the Lord of peace and justice.   Viva Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe!  Viva Cristo Rey!

Stephen E. Blaire is bishop of Stockton, California.


 

Common Ground with Muslims

Jean Hill

Jean Hill, director of the Peace and Justice Department, Diocese of Salt Lake City

Not so long ago, members of the Diocese of Salt Lake City’s Peace and Justice Commission met with two Muslim couples to talk religion. We shared food, stories about our children, and delved into the world of Islamophobia in Utah in general and among Catholics in particular.

The dialogue was fruitful, enjoyable, and enlightening. It was also, sadly, far too necessary.

A recent study from Georgetown University shows just how desperately we need to have such conversations. In a survey of Catholics, researchers discovered that we know little about Islam, one of the five major religions in the world. More concerning, we are also prone to believe the hyperbole spewed against all Muslims, especially when those negative opinions are seen or heard through political channels disguised as Catholic media.

The study found that almost one half of Catholics believe there is no common ground between Muslim believers and Catholics. This despite the fact that both religions believe in one God, and Mary is also venerated in the Islamic tradition. Granted, Islam does not view Jesus as God, but he is seen as a prophet who performed miracles with the permission of God.

Saint Pope John Paul II noted our common cause with Islam in 1999: “I believe that we, Christians and Muslims, must recognize with joy the religious values that we have in common, and give thanks to God for them. Both of us believe in one God, the only God, who is all justice and all mercy; we believe in the importance of prayer, of fasting, of almsgiving, of repentance and of pardon; we believe that God will be a merciful judge to us all at the end of time, and we hope that after the resurrection He will be satisfied with us and we know that we will be satisfied with him.”

Given not only our similarities but also our weekly practice of communion with others, it is distressing to find that most Catholics don’t even know someone who is Muslim. Utah’s Muslim population is admittedly small, but also near. We have Muslim students in our schools, Muslim neighbors, and serve many Muslim refugees. In a time when our church is fighting for religious freedom, it seems imperative that we reach out to those of other faiths, especially faiths that are being negatively targeted within our own country, and learn from each other about the full meaning of such freedom.

Our Muslim brothers and sisters are engaging in deep discussions about religious freedom. In January of this year, Muslim religious and civic leaders and academics gathered at a meeting in Marrakech little noted in American media. These leaders from over 100 Muslim-majority countries met to address the persecution of religious minorities, including Christians, by extremists within their borders and developed a declaration, or “contracts of mutual care,” in which they pledged to protect the rights of these minorities within their countries and to counteract the misappropriation of the tenets of their faith by extremists.

The discussions among attendees reflect the South African spirit of Ubuntu – we are all related and are all responsible for one another; your well-being is mine, and mine is yours; we are all vulnerable and this is our human state. While similar to much of our Catholic teaching, Ubuntu is quite a contrast to the current political discourse in our country, which proposes religious tests for refugees seeking safe passage out of war zones and denigrates all people of one faith based on the misuse of the teachings of the faith by a few.

The leaders at Marrakech and Saint John Paul II were privy to far greater knowledge of the tenets of both Christianity and Islam than I possess. But as I spoke with our Muslim guests at the commission meeting, I found concordance not only in the teachings of our faith, but also within our shared experience. All of our guests faced hardships I could never imagine – escaping wars in their homelands to find themselves in an entirely unfamiliar American culture. But three of us also shared very similar concerns as we prepared to send our children, who were then seniors at Judge Memorial Catholic High School, off to college.

That shared concern for our young sons on the brink of manhood is really what Christian-Muslim relations in the United States should be about – recognizing we are all related, we are all responsible for one another, we are all vulnerable, and this is our human state.

 Jean Hill is the director of the Peace and Justice Department for the Diocese of Salt Lake City. 

First published in the Intermountain Catholic, Nov. 4, 2016.


Going Deeper!
Visit WeAreSaltAndLight.org for helpful resources from the USCCB Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs to reach out to, and collaborate with, other faith traditions.