Christians, Muslims and Jews gather to reflect on 'planting seeds of hope'

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Christians, Muslims and Jews gather to reflect on 'planting seeds of hope'

By Elena Dini

ROME — It was a full house for The Lay Centre’s 2020 inaugural event that featured an international roundtable discussion on the “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together,” one year after its signing by Pope Francis and the Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayeb.

Dr. Seàn-Patrick Lovett, director of the English section of the Dicastery for Communication of the Holy See, masterfully moderated the Feb. 20 roundtable that included three experts in the field of interreligious dialogue.

Cardinal Michael Fitzgerald, M.Afr., a main scholar in Catholic-Muslim dialogue, opened the discussion with a concise and careful analysis of some important issues regarding the “Document on Human Fraternity,” such as the challenging question of the representativeness of the two religious leaders who signed the document, since not all Muslims identify the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar as their leader.

Cardinal Fitzgerald described the document as “courageous,” “wide-ranging,” “realistic” and “yet vague on certain points.” For example, he said, “the document speaks about ‘authentic teachings of religions’ but who is going to decide what is an authentic teaching and what is not?”

Before speaking on a couple of grassroots initiatives he witnessed in Liverpool, where he is now based, the former president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue invited the audience to reflect on how “this document is a work in progress, an encouragement to go on. It does not pretend to say a final word.”

The very fact that an application committee was formed shows that this was perceived as a step in the process, he said.

Dr. Sharon Rosen, global director of religious engagement at Search for Common Ground in Jerusalem, offered her insights as a Jew and as a woman.

“I love the message at the very beginning that this is not just a document for humanity but also for the safeguarding of the creation and the entire universe as a whole,” she said. “Peace is not just human-centered, it depends on the whole system, and the environmental threat that we are living through now bears witness to this.”

Dr. Rosen commented on the choice of the word “fraternity” used in the document, saying that this “is a male word of exclusion. I would suggest human kinship or solidarity instead.”

“I do not hear the woman’s voice in this document, despite the attempt by two men to acknowledge women’s dignity,” she added.

Dr. Rosen arrived in Rome, after a four-day meeting in Vienna with 40 Jewish and Muslim leaders from Israel, who are participating in a three-year project. They convened in Vienna, after having met separately and tackled some key issues related to the ongoing conflict, for what was a very successful meeting, she reported.

“On their way back at the airport, Jewish and Muslim women all wore hijab. A Jewish woman said: ‘I actually wanted to know what is like to wear hijab at the airport and see reactions of people around me.’ One of the Muslim women shared that she fasted on Yom Kippur because she wanted to know what is like to do it. It’s these sorts of changes that can really make the difference,” she said.

Dr. Nayla Tabbara, co-founder of the Lebanese NGO Adyan, Foundation for Diversity, Solidarity and Human Dignity, was the last speaker of the afternoon.

“The Document on Human Fraternity resonates today on the ground with the themes of dialogue, diversity, coexistence, freedom of religion. These topics are what is demanded by people at the grassroots,” said the Muslim theologian.

The issue of religious social responsibility and citizenship are particularly dear to Dr. Tabbara. She commented on the use of the term “full citizenship” in the document, and explained how she advocates for the term “inclusive citizenship” instead.

“We mean a citizenship that is equal to all but where diversity is not shut away,” she said. “People can thus live their different denominations, be it religious, cultural, etc., in the public sphere. This allows all denominations to be respected and there would not be one overtaking the public space.”

Dr. Tabbara told the audience about Adyan’s grassroots projects on “Training the Trainers” and about programs with teens and young people that help them to learn about the religious other.

Organizers asked the speakers what inspired them to do the work they do.

“The six months I spent in Rome as a Nostra Aetate Fellow studying Christian theology shaped my whole life,” said Dr. Tabbara. “After that, I knew that I wanted to work for this communion I experienced here.”

After a short Q&A session, guests were invited to move to the “next door” Basilica dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo where Cardinal Joseph Tobin, C.Ss.R., archbishop of Newark, presided and preached at Vespers. The Coro dei Fiorentini beautifully led the singing. The choir sang the opening hymn, composed for The Lay Centre by well-known American composer Father Michael Joncas, for the first time.

Commenting on the short reading (1Pt 1:22-23), Cardinal Tobin tied in the theme of the afternoon and reminded his listeners that the invitation of “demonstrating our love in some practical fashion” is “planting seeds of hope.”

At the end of the prayer, Dr. Donna Orsuto, director of The Lay Centre, took the floor to present the new book, “Full, Conscious, and Active: Lay Participation in the Church’s Dialogue with the World,” which she co-edited with Dr. Robert S. White. The book is a collection of essays that were gathered on the occasion of a seminar on this topic hosted at The Lay Centre in 2016.

“An important part of The Lay Centre’s goal is to create a space where these exchanges could take place. This has become possible because of the generosity of our friends, including Ralph and Mary Dwan, in whose memory the book was dedicated,” Dr. Orsuto said.

Afterwards, the guests made one more move, back through the candlelit passageway overlooking the Claudianum and up to The Lay Centre, where they enjoyed visiting with one another and some refreshments.

To order a copy of the book, “Full, Conscious, and Active: Lay Participation in the Church’s Dialogue with the World,” please contact:

(Photos: Stefano Dal Pozzolo)

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