By Elena Dini
ROME — A librarian from Western Mindanao State University in the Philippines and a teacher of the Arabic language in Indonesia are among this year’s Nostra Aetate Fellows in Rome, sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.
Benhur Asid and Meilia Irawan are taking classes at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum) and at the Pontifical Institute of Arabic and Islamic Studies until February, while living at The Lay Centre.
The Nostra Aetate Foundation was established in 1990, under the auspices of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. It offers study grants to non-Christian students to deepen their knowledge of Christianity through study at one or more of the pontifical universities in Rome.
Asid said he first got involved in interreligious dialogue 18 years ago, during his second year in college.
“I was a pioneer member of the group Youth in Media for Dialogue and Peace, an organization of the Silsilah Foundation,” he said.
Prior to becoming a university librarian, Asid worked as a secretary for the Silsilah Foundation, founded in 1984 by a Roman Catholic priest, Father Sebastiano D’Ambra, PIME, along with a group of Muslim and Christian friends. The mission of the organization is to encourage dialogue among Christians and Muslims, as well as among people of other faiths. In the Philippines, Muslims account for 20 per cent of the population; they live mostly in the southern part of the country.
Instead, in Irawan’s native Indonesia, Muslims account for 87 per cent of the population.
“Because (Muslims) are a majority in Indonesia, it was important for me to open my mind here (to) then be able to bring back what I learned in this intense experience with non-Muslims to my community,” she said.
Since there are few opportunities to interact with Christians in Indonesia and people do not know each other, the risk is to fall into prejudice and stereotypes, she said.
Irawan is looking forward to sharing her experiences in Rome with her local community to counter prejudice and to invite others to embrace a more positive perception of people from other religious communities.
In addition to their course work, the Nostra Aetate Fellows gather regularly at the offices of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue to learn about important church documents pertaining to interreligious dialogue, such as the Conciliar declaration “Nostra Aetate” on the relation of the Catholic Church with non-Christian religions and the Document on Human Fraternity, signed last year by Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar. Visits to museums, historical sites, and religious communities also complement their studies.
Both Irawan and Asid said they were hesitant at first about what it would be like to live with mostly European and American students. What they experienced instead was that the students were like a family, where everyone was accountable and responsible for each other.
They offered many examples of this “family experience,” ranging from very simple daily situations to the support they received in more challenging times.
“One day I washed my clothes and hung them outside,” said Asid. “Then, it started raining, and some resident scholars went out and picked up my clothes for me. It was a very simple gesture, but to me it mattered a lot.”
Irawan also recounted her experience of visiting some Indonesian nuns in Arezzo, Tuscany.
“I realized that they were serving God from the heart and this touched me very profoundly,” she said. “Here, I often see people praying so intensely and it is clear that they are communicating with God. This is really wonderful.”
This period of study in Rome encouraged Asid to reflect and grow in his spiritual life, as well.
“Here, I have been able to take the time to read the Qur’an more, since I am not always busy with my job as I am back home,” he said. “I saw people around me praying as well, and this supported me, too.”