An Open Dialogue

Christians and Muslims Sharing Common Values

By Natalie

 

More than 500 people attended the first Open Dialogue in Sydney between Christians and Muslims on October 17, 2003.

 

Described as the first event of its kind, it was convened by the Islamic Friendship Association of Australia and the Catholic Diocese of Parramatta, and held at St Paulís College, Greystanes.

 

Christians and Muslims met over a feast of traditional Arabic food including hummus, kibbe, falafel, vine leaves and meat pizzas, and they were entertained by the Celebration Choir from Blacktown, directed by Marion Fernandez.

 

Muslims listened while Christians recited the Lord's Prayer and Christians watched whilst Muslims prayed to Allah.

 

One of the most mesmerizing moments of the night was a traditional Arabic recitation by Mr. Khaled Zraykah.

 

The aim of the dialogue was to build bridges between the communities, promote goodwill, start relationships of understanding by discussing commonly held values.

 

The dialogue was hosted by ABC TV and radio presenter Geraldine Doogue, who described the Friday night gathering as simply a night of ``friendship, nothing more nothing less''.

 

In her introduction Ms Doogue told the crowd that the dialogue was about understanding and getting to know each other.

 

``There are no raffles....no hidden agendas - none I have detected...what you see is what you get,'' she told the crowd.

 

Ms Doogue said the organisers had initiated the event to ``explore the common ground between us.''

 

She said they would eat together, be entertained together and talk together and hopefully come away a little changed by the experience.

 

A series of speakers addressed the crowd the first Bishop Kevin Manning from Parramatta who said that he wanted to point out that as human beings ``we share common values''.

 

Bishop Manning said there were many shared values, adding his belief that we were all made in Godís image and that Abraham was common to both religions.

 

But he said to understand another culture can be difficult especially when you delve deeper than just the external expressions of culture like food and music.

 

``It's a way of thinking and of being. For us, Muslims and Christians, this way of being is derived from our religious beliefs.''

 

Bishop Manning said the common humanity and acknowledgement of religious beliefs was the basis for mutual respect.

 

In his speech which sought to cover many similar aspects shared by the two great religions of the world, Bishop Manning said he examined the Five Pillars of Islam and discovered many ideals familiar to Christianity.

 

He said the first pillar - the profession of faith (Iman) and the recognition that there is only one God was the same as Christianity.

 

The second pillar of prayer (Salat) is also at the heart of the Christian faith.

 

The third pillar supporting the poor (Zakat) was the same as the catholic social justice ideals of alms giving.

 

The fourth pillar of fasting (Sawm) also has a long tradition in Christianity.

 

The fifth pillar of Pilgrimage (Hajj) too is deeply rooted in the practice of Christianity as far back as the mediaeval times.

 

Giving a personal and heartfelt speech, Suzan Meguid an Australian woman with Egyptian heritage related her experience of living in the hills area of Sydney as a scarf-wearing Muslim.

 

Mrs Meguid described herself as an Australian girl who has done what most other Australian girls do that is study, work, get married and start a family.She said she might look different because she wears the scarf but she has never experienced any alienation because of it from her friends.

 

She related stories of how people commented that she looked ``angelic'' in her white headscarf and how others plucked up enough courage to ask her questions about her religion.

 

She said it was wonderful when people asked about her religion because it gave her the opportunity to speak the truth and to dispel the fears peddled by the tabloid media.

 

She had experienced many people going out of their way to be friendly to her and make her feel comfortable, one of her greatest moments, she told the crowd, was when her neighbour asked her for a favour.

 

They had always done normal things that neighbours do, she said, like borrow a cup of sugar or some butter, wave to each other and talk over the fence.

But when her neighbour asked her to mind her children for a while, Mrs. Meguid was elated - ``she trusts me with her children.''

 

Mrs. Meguid said what she was really trying to get across was that ``I am a normal Australian citizen like everyone else.

 

``I was at the Olympic cheering on Cathy and Thorpie. I go to the gym and I listen to radio.``The scarf over my head does not make me different from everyone else nor does it stop me from achieving my goals.''

 

Mrs Meguid, a pharmacist who worked in Auburn, said she met different people everyday from Lebanon Turkey, Pakistan, Iraq and pointed out that though their English might not be as good, they are also just like every other Australian.

 

The only time she felt scared about living in Australia was after September 11. Ms Meguid said she spent a day sitting at home ``too scared to go to the shops''. But when she did venture out to her `'astonishment'' she didn't get a second look.She said everyone was going about their normal business.

 

``I felt ashamed that I had made the same mistake as the media. I committed the crime I begged people not to commit. I prejudged that many would fall victim to the media hysteria.

 

``When in fact my community proved to me what I had always known- they are open minded.''

 

The third speaker Wendie Wilkie, the Associate general secretary of the Uniting Church Assembly talked about living in harmony and said ``we cannot pretend that we can live as if the other doesn't exist.''

 

She said it was time for tolerance and it took leadership and on-going meetings to learn about each otherís faiths.She said people need to take risks for those relationships to maintain respect for each other it takes empathy, tolerance and openness.

 

``As people learn about the other faith, they are challenged to learn about their own faith,'' she said.

 

Ms Wilkie pointed out that there are very real differences that need to be acknowledged and faced because they are the potential areas of conflict and concern.

 

She said it would only be through that acknowledgment and work that they could be dealt with.

 

In the closing speech of the night Keysar Trad of the Islamic Friendship Association praised God that so many people had been motivated to attend the dialogue!

 

After reciting passages from the Koran he talked about how both religions followed the book and how both believe in charity and prayer.He said there were similarly held principles that were just as central to Christianity as they were to Islam.

 

Mr Trad said followers of both religions shared similar challenges including looking after youth, helping one another, and rooting out violence and war and promoting friendship.

 

``We must emulate the teachings of the two great leaders Christ and Muhammad.''

 

Summing up the night Ms Doogue said the dialogue was a chance to create something that may never have been done before.

 

One of the virtues of being Australian, she said, was that we are not overburdened by tradition and as such there were ``real possibilities for us.'`

 

Ms Doogue concluded the evening with an Irish blessing.

``May the road rise to meet you,

May the wind be always at your back,

May the sun shine warm on your face

and the rays fall soft upon your fields

And until we meet again may God hold you in the palm of his hand.''