Interfaith dialogue at the grass roots

by Robin Gurney last modified 08 August 2019 03:39 PM
Interfaith dialogue at the grass roots

Photo: Annegret Kapp/WCC

08 August 2019

Interfaith meetings more often than not feature experts from the different beliefs but what of ordinary believers — do they ever meet? The answer is ‘yes’ but not often reported on. I recently participated in a meeting between some 25 committed ecumenists and Muslim believers from a local mosque — a grass roots meeting, as they say.

The International Ecumenical Fellowship (IEF) is not well-known outside of its membership, with groups scattered mainly around Europe. The British Region uses the acronym BRIEF and it was members of this group who descended on the Al Mahdi Islamic Centre of the Wessex Jamaat, in the rural depths of Hampshire, England, on a Friday evening in Springtime.

For some, it was a first experience, for others a further step along the learning curve, for all the meeting with Muslim believers was a time of great enjoyment and fellowship.

The BRIEF group were welcomed by the Imam and invited to observe the prayers of the believers before sharing in a simple meal and participating in discussion groups.

It was a privilege to be welcomed with understanding and sincerity. Entering the Mosque BRIEF members observed the convention of removing their shoes and the women adopted the hijab for the evening. This latter was to show solidarity with their Muslim sisters who were very evident in the prayers, happily served the food, and were vocal in the discussions which followed.

An introduction to the Mosque and its work captivated the audience. Particular emphasis was laid on the Centre as an example of ecological concern and living. Under-floor heating from ground source power was welcome on a chilly evening outside but emphasised the warmth of the feeling which had developed between the two faiths in many places and at many levels.

All the electricity used in the Mosque is supplied from solar panels with the surplus fed into the National Grid. Another innovation is that believers attending social events are obliged to take their own cups and plates in order to reduce the use of disposable items.

In his introduction to Islam, the Imam emphasised that there is much in common between the peoples of the book – Christianity, Judaism and Islam. He said that this particular meeting – between BRIEF and the Mosque – was a case of exploring communities which live on the edge of society, noting that the face of the UK is changing and the need to understand this.

Islamic prayer

The distribution of a guide to Islamic prayer explained that prayer is the pillar of the religion. For those who have witnessed scenes of Islamic prayer on television and did not understand the various acts – kneeling, prostrating, sitting, standing – the leaflet proved a useful guide to what was happening in front of the seated BRIEF members. The prayerful attitude and atmosphere somehow seemed to include those whose faith was different from those actually participating in the ritual.

Eating and talking

Prayer over, Christians and Muslims mingled as they shared a simple meal together. At tables which seated six, it was arranged that all had representatives from both religions and that all were given the opportunity to speak, ask questions and offer views.

Two questions were posed: How Muslims see their relationship with Christians and other faiths. As a minority community, how does this shape engagement with the community? How do we work for social peace/justice and the environment in the community (eg, refugees)?

These questions moved the discussion on to topics wide and varied, for a better understanding of both religions was certain to be the outcome Without going into details, it was clear that many had interesting and indeed exciting experiences to offer as even contentious issues were raised in a friendly and open way. Moreover, these discussions demonstrated that the two religions had so much more in common than the issues that divide.

The evening closed with a prayer by the local Anglican minister, in whose parish the Islamic centre lies, and who has developed a close working relationship with the authorities of the Al Mahdi Centre.

Disclaimer

The impressions, hopes and ideas expressed in this blog are the contributions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or policies of the World Council of Churches.

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