During this month, with the view of encouraging dialogue, I would like to share my experience in an association that seems to me quite promising for sharing and meeting among brothers and sisters of different religions.
The association Gamaat al ikhà ad-din (“association of religious fraternity”) was really a fraternity school in my religious experience during my stay in Egypt. I met Fr. Christian van Nispen Tot Sevenaer who influenced me a lot. Fr. Van Nispen is a Jesuit priest, philosopher, theologian and a professor in Islamic studies. He was at the origin of this association. Besides he shared his experience in his book Christians and Muslims: Brothers before God ? (1)
I was ten years in this movement and my experience with them wasvery fruitful for my progress in dialogue and Muslim-Christian encounters.
The fraternity met once a month on a Friday, for over ten years, to regularly share religious experiences. The meeting is far from a simple debate; it is a meeting of exchange and sharing that goes beyond personal conflicts. It is also a time to live together, a relationship of friendship and fraternity. Along the way we were able to exceed the weight of prejudice, misunderstanding, political and social bindings. Members come from all over.
The association has a very sharp and broad vision of the quality of dialogue that should prevail in its sharing. The meeting is an opportunity to plan and work for peace. Those who do not plan for their meetings for peace should expect failure.
The monthly meeting takes place in a fraternal atmosphere, respectful and humble. We do not try to put our differences and diversity under the carpet, hidden or even erased. Instead, the talk seeks to overcome differences, barriers and prejudices as together we grope in the uncertainty of our religious experiences with pain and suffering, all in search of life, with boldness and courage. The human truth in a prepared mind makes the flowers grow even in the desert and in the rocks of hatred and violence.
During the meeting, two approaches are used; an academic look, scientific, rigorous, culturally respectful, and the other, one of the friendship of life, often around a meal or participation in ceremonies and religious festivals.
New members are often invited to cultivate a knowledge of its history and that of others. The participant follows certain attitudes, internal principles and regulations. The sharing from older members is useful. Discretion and maturity are very useful tools to accommodate the other and his/her message without suspicion and with respect.
Then an important element of the group is being humble to allow each religious tradition the right to explain and being vulnerable to meet the other in his integrity for a true encounter and mutual understanding. This positive attitude towards the other person and tradition encourages a neutral link for exchange and dialogue. Still, one must be invested with the spirit to continually seek the common link for these meetings. This aspect invites us to let ourselves be surprised and questioned by other religions and cultures.
In addition, the group makes bold adventurous advances away from our religious differences even when conflicts and havoc multiply. The group is always looking for a way to clear the field so that everyone sees in the other a partner and not an enemy. Because in the end, all the members care about the happiness of all. But to always keep positive attitudes, we often revert to the values that drive the group. Muslims and Christians are given the space to talk about their religions and address some questions and comments on events that bother others.
After studies, social sharing and individual stories, the group is mobilized to act together in the area of justice, peace and development in solidarity with the needy.
These activities and sharing strengthen ties between members before God and humanity; the bonds that unite us grow every time. This encounter fosters dialogue and sharing, but more importantly, our sharing strengthens our ties and does not give opportunity for jihadists and fundamentalists to sow discord and hatred. For we are all artisans of peace and happiness for humankind. When there is a will, there will always be a way.
By Fr. Simon Onoja, SMA
Christian van Nispen tot Sevenaer, Chrétiens &Musulmans, Frère devant Dieu?, Paris, les Editions de l’Atelier, 2004.