PITTSFORD — Speaking on the fourth anniversary of the signing of a historic interfaith agreement, a top Islamic peacemaker said Rochester’s Muslim-Catholic Agreement of Mutual Understanding and Cooperation has inspired groups in Northern Virginia to sign a similar pact.
Dr. Abubaker Al-Shingieti, Europe and America director for the International Institute for Islamic Thought in Alexandria, Va., was the keynote speaker for the for the agreement’s fourth-anniversary celebration May 5 at Nazareth College. He told his audience of about 50 that the Muslim-Catholic Dialogue of Northern Virginia — signed in August of 2005 — was patterned after the Rochester agreement.
“As Muslims and Catholics, we are trying to realize our faith into life,” Al-Shingieti said. “When we do this, we are actually submitting to the will of God and to his calling for us to reach out to our neighbors. So it’s indeed a special fact when you reach out and be together with someone who is different. There’s something spiritual about that experience and enriching.”
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester and the Council of Masajid (Mosques) signed their agreement — believed to be the first of its kind in the world — on May 5, 2003. Since then, the Diocese of Arlington, Va., and several other U.S. dioceses have followed Rochester’s lead in adopting formal cooperation agreements.
The Rochester agreement affirms the two religions’ faith in one God; reflects their common history and traditions; and commits to challenging bigotry, respecting each other’s history, traditions and sensitivities, and reaching out to the community to promote understanding.
Al-Shingieti — who also is a vice president of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy, which is engaged in faith-based conflict resolution in such political hot-spots as Sudan — discussed how interfaith dialogue can lead to peace. In Sudan, dialogue among religious leaders helped to resolve some of the frustration, stress and suffering that members of several faiths were experiencing, he said.
Al-Shingieti grew up in Khartoum, Sudan, and said that as a child he considered Catholic institutions and missions that had been established there as the best at providing services and education throughout Sudan. The best hospital was a Catholic hospital, he said, noting that Sudan’s current minister of public education sends his children to a private Catholic school.
Al-Shingieti left Sudan to come to the U.S. as a graduate student after working in diplomacy for the Sudanese government. He went from living in a country where the majority of people is Muslim to being part of a minority in the U.S.
“One of the most beautiful aspects of being here in America is I can’t take my Islam for granted,” Al-Shingieti said. “Even in prayer you need to be mindful of it. Also you need to be deliberate in reaching out to others.”
Al-Shingieti has been a participant in Muslim-Catholic dialogue efforts in Northern Virginia, where leaders have designed programming to promote a greater understanding of each faith, Al-Shingieti said. During one session, imams, or Islamic spiritual leaders, and the bishop of the Diocese of Arlington responded to questions by people of other faiths.
“It was actually very joyful to listen to the questions themselves,” Al-Shingieti said. “Some spoke of a fundamental lack of understanding, while some were very deep questions about issues central to each faith.”
Al-Shingieti said the dialogue also made him consider reaching out to a Catholic church near his home. The dialogue, he explained, had opened up the possibility of being together.
“It’s not easy, but it’s really very important,” Al-Shingieti said.
He said that his employer, the International Institute of Islamic Thought, has focused on promoting interfaith dialogues in Islamic schools to teach students how to pre-empt conflict. The institute also has an instructional division, which has signed a collaborative agreement with Nazareth College and Shenandoah University in Virginia.
Nazareth College is home to the Center for Interfaith Studies and Dialogue, which was one of the sponsors of Al-Shingieti’s May 5 talk.
“This gathering reminds Muslims, Christians and Jews that they are all children of Abraham,” said Jamie Fazio, Nazareth College’s Catholic campus minister.
The event included a special presentation to Bishop Matthew H. Clark for his continued support of Muslim-Catholic dialogue. Dr. Muhammad Shafiq, imam and executive director of the Islamic Center of Rochester, said Bishop Clark was a driving force behind the agreement and the formation of the Muslim Catholic Alliance. Bishop Clark also has not hesitated to come to the Islamic Center to be with Muslims, Dr. Shafiq said.
“I call him our bishop,” he said.
Bishop Clark said that so many others brought the alliance into being and have made it work over the years.
“I was just delighted to read the programs being planned,” said Bishop Clark, referring to more than two dozen discussion programs that have taken place and to several others that have been scheduled. “In the future, this (discussion) will be more and more important in light of what’s happening in today’s world.”
Following Al-Shingieti’s talk, organizers of the local dialogue solicited from those gathered suggested topics for future Muslim-Catholic discussion. Among the suggestions were additional programming for youths and discussion of media coverage of the two religions.
Dr. Monica Weis, a Sister of St. Joseph who teaches English at Nazareth College, said Al-Shingieti’s talk gave local people the opportunity to renew their commitment to the process of dialogue.
“The way of peace is really the way of dialogue,” added Dr. Christine Bochen, professor of religious studies and the William H. Shannon Chair of Catholic Studies at Nazareth College.
Sister of St. Joseph Judy Greene, a member of the Muslim Catholic Alliance’s education subcommittee, said the alliance has helped build friendships between both communities.
“It’s been an opportunity to get to know other people, not just reading about it and learning about it,” Sister Greene said.