‘We need to engage with our Muslim neighbours’

01/05/2015

Very Rev Peter G Williams
Very Rev Peter G Williams.

First published in Catholic Outlook May 2015

From the Diocesan Administrator,
Very Rev Fr Peter G Williams

Dear Brothers and Sister in the Risen Lord,

As we continue our joyful 50 days of Easter Time I hope and pray that all of you have gained new insights and have experienced many blessings in your contemplation of the Paschal Mystery – the dying and the rising of Christ.

What has been troubling this Easter and is exercising the minds of many people has been the increasing number of Christians around the world who are undergoing persecution to the point of martyrdom for their belief in Christ.

An article in La Stampa on 4 April 2015 reported:

“According to Open Doors International this year less pressure on Christians was witnessed in 11 countries but it has remained stable in seven other countries and increased in 29. World Watch Monitor observers agree on the fact that 2014 was a tragic year with at least 4334 people killed in the name of Jesus and more than a thousand places of worship were destroyed for the same reason.”

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, Boko Haram, Al-Shabab, Al Queda, Jemaah Islamiyah are all familiar names. It is these organisations (mostly) that are responsible for the greatest atrocities on Christians and their places of worship.

It is true that there is a broader anti-Western and anti-US ideology underpinning these organisations, but they claim to act in the name of Islam and are motivated by their interpretation of the Qur’an.

I am very mindful that there are clergy and people in the Diocese who have migrated to Australia and have in their former homelands been subject to persecution and marginalisation from Islamic majorities. They often will speak about their experiences and hold grave fears that a similar pattern will emerge here.

But we must not think that such will be the experience here. There are complex cultural, social, economic and historical reasons behind the experiences that Christians have in majority Islamic lands.

Given the current percentage of the population that identifies as Muslim (2.2% in the last census) it is hard to imagine that being the case. This is not to suggest that all the followers of Islam are violent and seek to annihilate anyone who is not a Muslim, but we rarely hear the voices of the majority of Muslims many of whom are as dismayed as we are about the current rise in terrorism.

Over Easter we witnessed rallies around Australia from a group identifying itself as Reclaim Australia and whose central message seemed to be anti-multiculturalism and anti-Islamic. As one commentator said rather dryly: “One wonders what the Indigenous people of Australia would have made of these rallies.”

It seems it is all too easy to remain suspicious of our neighbours, including those of other religious beliefs. At times, an event like the Lindt café siege occurs and our suspicions seem confirmed and there is a rash of anti-Islamic rhetoric on our airwaves and racist behaviours emerge.

As long as we are not engaging in any meaningful and respectful way with the Islamic community these unhelpful prejudices will only fester. Recently, at a meeting I confessed that I didn’t know how many mosques or prayer halls there were in the geographical boundaries of the Diocese of Parramatta.

It is my intention to enhance the work of our Commission for Interfaith Dialogue by establishing contacts with local Muslim groups in order to understand what challenges they face and what they perceive to be a way forward that respects all believers, no matter what their religion.

Bishop Emeritus Kevin Manning when Bishop of Parramatta was very active in his engagement with the Muslim community and did much to promote mutual respect and understanding. He is greatly honoured by mainstream Muslims for his reaching out to them.

It is also worth recalling the words of that great Vatican II document, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, where the Church recognised the deep connection we share with those of other religious faiths, particularly the Muslims, who, “professing to hold the faith of Abraham, along with us adore the one and merciful God”.

In the Diocese of Parramatta we need to engage with our Muslim neighbours, not just at a diocesan level but also at a local level where groups might exist and have established places of worship.

Establishing a mechanism for dialogue is a way forward and I think is preferential to just ignoring that peoples of other faiths exist in our midst. And it is also not to be simply focused on the followers of Islam. There is a growing number of Hindus in the Diocese and a large number of Buddhists.

At this time when we remember the first words of the Resurrected Christ to His disciples were: “Peace be with you” so we too might pray that “the peace of Christ that passes all understanding” will prevail in our lives and we strive to witness to the Risen Christ and also participate in the life of our local communities,

With all joy in the Risen Lord,

Very Rev Fr Peter G Williams

Diocesan Administrator

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