GATES — The signing five years ago of Rochester’s Muslim-Catholic Agreement of Understanding and Cooperation has resulted in myriad opportunities for people of both faiths to come together for discussions, to heal relationships, and to get to know each other better.
Another enduring effect of the agreement was clear during an April 9 fifth-anniversary dinner for the agreement at the Turkish Society of Rochester. During the event, Catholics and Muslims sat together at many tables, demonstrating the interfaith friendships the agreement helped to form.
“Your presence is a testimony not only of our work but of that of our sisters and brothers who have done so much over the years,” Bishop Matthew H. Clark told more than 100 people who attended.
Officials from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester and the Greater Rochester Council of Masajid (mosques) signed the agreement on May 5, 2003. It committed its signers to upholding freedom of speech, thought, religion and conscience; challenging religious and ethnic intolerance; fostering mutual respect and cooperation; and collaborating on community outreach.
Deacon John Brasley, coordinator of ecumenical and interreligious affairs for the Diocese of Rochester, said diocesan officials believe that the agreement was the first of its kind to be signed in the U.S. or around the world. Since its adoption, the Rochester agreement has served as a model for agreements in other parts of the country, including recently signed agreements in the dioceses of Arlington, Va., and Camden, N.J.
In addition to these local agreements, several regional dialogues have been taking place since the 1990s under the joint sponsorship of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and national Muslim organizations.
Aly Nahas, one of the founders of the Islamic Center of Rochester and a signatory to the Rochester agreement, said the local Muslim Catholic Alliance evolved out of a discussion he and J. Patrick O’Connor, a Catholic, shared following a meeting they had attended of the Commission on Christian and Muslim Relations.
“Over that cup of coffee, the alliance was born,” Nahas said, noting the agreement was signed five months later.
During the fifth-anniversary event, Nahas and O’Connor received the Bishop Matthew H. Clark Awards, which were introduced last year, for their work in promoting the alliance.
According to Dr. Mohammed Rumi, a Batavia physician and another of the Islamic Center’s founders, the next step for the Muslim Catholic Alliance is to call Muslims and Catholics to work together on a project such as a soup kitchen to benefit the community.
O’Connor said another goal would be to share the concept of local dialogue with even more dioceses.
“We need to figure some way of packaging what we have and spreading it around the world,” he said.
During the fifth-anniversary event, two speakers gave a national perspective on Muslim-Catholic relations.
Auxiliary Bishop Francis Reiss of the Archdiocese of Detroit, Mich., said dialogue has been taking place to varying degrees across the United States. In areas where dialogue has been lacking, he attributed the lack of discussion to an inherent fear or mistrust people have of things that are new or strange, but said that familiarity can dissipate such fear.
Bishop Reiss suggested that Muslims and Catholics should trust in the Lord, serving as his hands and feet and voice in the world as they journey with people of other faiths.
“Events that we are prone to view only as chance are really God’s providence,” he said. “God is acting through us, and this can only happen if we live in faith and use the grace God gives us.”
Imam Hassan Al-Qazwini, who is religious leader and scholar of the Islamic Center of American in Dearborn, Mich., spoke about his first experience attending a Christian church and listening to a Christian pastor soon after moving to California from the Middle East.
“He was speaking about the concept of love,” Al-Qazwini said. “As I was listening to him, images were racing in my mind about the same concept in Islam.”
Imam Al-Qazwini, who founded the national Young Muslim Association in 1998, contended that a small number of militants have hijacked the Islamic faith from its peaceful roots.
“The most distorted concept in Islam today is jihad,” said Imam Al-Qazwini, who noted that many have used the term in reference to holy war. “Jihad means you struggle with yourself to stay away from everything evil.”
He said his hope is that Catholics and Muslims worldwide can enter into dialogue to spread peace around the globe. He also challenged followers of both religions to meet the needs of Iraq’s 5 million orphans, some of whom he met while traveling in Iraq about 10 days ago.
Several of those who attended the fifth-anniversary event echoed Imam Al-Qazwini’s message.
“We are a peaceful people,” Afghanistan native Ahmad Fazily of Brighton observed of Muslims.
“If you get to know each other, the chance is you will like each other a lot,” Nahas said.
One focus of the Muslim Catholic Alliance is to give local Muslims and Catholics a chance to learn more about each other through dozens of educational programs that have taken place during the past five years. One program, for example, compared the religious seasons of Ramadan and Lent; another compared Mary, the mother of Jesus, as she is presented in the Bible and the Quran; and another compared mysticism in both religions.
Another talk focused on the challenge of interfaith dialogue following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“The experience of Sept. 11 showed people in the Catholic community and people in the Muslim community that it was important for us as people of faith to understand each other better,” Deacon Brasley said.
Yet another talk delved into controversy over Pope Benedict XVI’s speech at Germany’s Regensburg University, in which he quoted a 14th-century Byzantine emperor’s comment on holy war and the Quran. A discussion on the pope’s interfaith initiatives had been planned well before his Sept. 12, 2006, comments.
“It was interesting to see the Islamic and Catholic perspective, and to recognize these relationships can be fragile and how important it is to understand other’s cultures and faiths so we don’t inadvertently offend one another,” Deacon Brasley said.
Dr. Muhammad Shafiq, imam and executive director of the Islamic Center of Rochester, said the dialogue also has sparked several books on Islam and Catholicism, including Deacon George Dardess’ acclaimed Do We Worship the Same God? The Bible and the Qur’an Compared.
Speeches and conversation weren’t the only way that understandings were forged during the dinner. Following the meal, Muslims adjourned for a few minutes to pray the Maghrib — or sunset prayers — alternating between bowing low and kneeling on colorful prayer mats as their lips moved noiselessly along with Imam Qazwini’s prayers.
Catholics stood around the edges of the room, quietly observing the prayers and taking advantage of another opportunity to learn.