Interfaith dialogue: building relationships of trust

Imam Ibrahim Abdul Halim of New Zealand's Linwood Mosque holds hands with Father Felimoun El-Baramoussy of the Dunedin Coptic Church, as they walk near the mosque in Christchurch March 18, 2019. Prayer services are being held across the country and abroad after two mosque attacks in Christchurch March 15 that left at least 50 people dead and 20 seriously injured. (CNS photo/Edgar Su, Reuters) See NEW-ZEALAND-MOSQUE-PRAYER March 18, 2019.  REUTERS/Edgar Su


“I feel like I have lost members of my family”, wrote Sr Bertha Hurley, SMSM, to members of the New Zealand Catholic Bishops’ Committee for Interfaith Relations, the day after the Christchurch terrorist attack.

For nine years, Sr Bertha had come to know the Muslim community as her brothers and sisters in her work as the bishops’ representative on the Christchurch Interfaith Council.

When she heard that the Imam’s wife had been shot in the arm, she went immediately to their home to offer her support and condolences on the loss of 50 innocent people kneeling before God in prayer. Such was the level of intimacy she had established with her Muslim family.

Since 2009, the New Zealand Catholic Bishops’ Committee for Interfaith Relations has provided a platform for Catholics in Aotearoa New Zealand to reach out to people from other faiths in trust, understanding and mutual respect.

The committee was established n the spirit of Nostra Aetate, (In Our Age, 1965), and the first two words of the Vatican II document explains why.

“In our age”, people from every religion and culture engage with one another every day. New Zealand is multicultural and thus multi-religious, which means that interfaith dialogue is unavoidable.

The question then becomes whether this dialogue engenders trust, understanding and mutual respect, or whether it breeds fear, prejudice and intolerance.

Four aspects of interfaith dialogue

Before March 14, members of the bishops’ committee actively promoted four distinct, but related, aspects of interfaith dialogue throughout New Zealand: multi-faith prayer, theological exchange, sharing the joys and sorrows of life, and action on behalf of the common good.

After March 15, in response to our national tragedy, these came together in a kind of symphony.

Multi-faith prayer vigils brought people together to mourn the victims of the massacre and pray for peace and healing.

Theological exchange between Catholics, Jews and Muslims shared messages of universal love and mercy from the God of Abraham, known in Arabic as Allah.

The highest ideals of Islam shone forth from heroic people in their grief and sorrow.

Who can forget words of forgiveness and healing from wounded men sitting in wheelchairs? Or the face of the Syrian woman recently arrived as a refugee, now widowed by a cold-blooded act? And yet she thanked people for their
kindness and support.

How appropriate, then, to share interfaith messages about the sorrows and joys of life. In floral tributes and personal visits to the mosques, committee members witnessed how expressions of compassion were contributing to healing.

From Christchurch to Auckland, we were all involved in action on behalf of the common good, in providing “care packages” for families of victims, help with driving lessons, support with language learning, or promoting lasting social and political change to ban racism, assault weapons and all platforms for white supremacy in social media.

Interfaith Dialogue and Decolonisation

The terrorist attack revealed the ugly reality of racism fueled by the ideology of white supremacy.

The social analysis of liberation theologians uncovered links between white privilege, colonisation and Christianity, which damaged indigenous peoples and created cultures on the margins of society.

Interfaith dialogue can become a vital spiritual and moral force in healing these wounds.

As we come to know people from other religions and cultures, we hear stories of oppression from parts of the world where imperialists cared more about maps than people.

Consider the roots of the Arab/Israeli crisis in the Sykes-Picot agreement after World War I, which divided the Ottoman Empire’s Arab provinces (not including the Arabian Peninsula) into English and French spheres of influence.

A line was drawn across a map of the Middle East that cut artificially across a region that had previously been divided along ethnic, linguistic and religious lines.

This agreement helped frame the contours of modern nation states in a region where none existed before and had devastating effects.

Add to this the 1917 Balfour Declaration, which promised British support for a Jewish “national home” in Palestine, without any regard for the indigenous Palestinian people who had lived on this land for centuries, and it is hard not to feel anguish for our Palestinian brothers and sisters.

And then the suffering of the Jewish people at the hands of Nazi Germany, and we anguish as well for victims of this atrocity and yearn for their descendants to feel safe in their “promised land”.

Interfaith dialogue in New Zealand involves people who have left countries wracked by violence.

If one comes to know brave people scarred by violence, one realises that interfaith dialogue is about hearing feelings hearing the pain behind the words.

These conversations cannot take place until deep trust has been established and this takes time.

Understanding as standing-under

Understanding someone from another religious and cultural horizon means attempting to “stand-under” their world as they experience it. This work involves great empathy and sensitivity.

A great example of this occurred in Dunedin in 2015, when Dr Sami Awad, a Christian from Palestine, gave the annual Peace Lecture.

He met for a conversation with a group of people, including
the Dunedin Abrahamic Group and the Chaplaincy of the University of Otago, who had established an emotional closeness through their working together for many years.

They could hear the pain behind the words of Awad as he shared the stories of people traumatised by the Palestinian/Israeli conflict.

Such sensitive conversations involve trust and the ability to stand under the other’s horizon of intelligibility.

The Dunedin Abrahamic Interfaith Group has also broken new ground in the area of pastoral care to Muslim students and staff at the University of Otago, in that two Muslim Chaplains were commissioned recently at the University of Otago in response to genuine pastoral need, not because of the violence of March 15.


On February 4, 2019, Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Ashar met in Abu Dhabi. Their meeting produced “A Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living”.

In accordance with previous international documents, it affirmed: The firm conviction that authentic teachings of religions invite us to remain rooted in the values of peace; to defend the values of mutual understanding, human fraternity and harmonious coexistence; to re-establish wisdom, justice and love; and to reawaken religious awareness among young people, so that future generations may be protected from the realm of materialistic thinking and from dangerous policies of unbridled greed and indifference that are based on the law of force and not on the force of law . . . .”

Dr Mary Eastham is Bishop Charles Drennan’s representative on the New Zealand Catholic Bishops’ Committee for Interfaith Relations and coordinates the Palmerston North Interfaith Group.

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