Frank exchange of views at Christian-Muslim meeting

Penang Bishop Sebastian Francis led a delegation of priests and lay people to meet Penang Mufti Wan Salim Mohd Noor and his colleagues at the mufti’s

Mar 04, 2016

By Anil Netto
Penang Bishop Sebastian Francis led a delegation of priests and lay people to meet Penang Mufti Wan Salim Mohd Noor and his colleagues at the mufti’s office on the 48th floor of Komtar on Monday, February 29.

It was the first meeting between a Penang bishop and the state mufti and comes on the heels of KL Archbishop Julian Leow’s meeting with the Wilayah mufti recently.

Also participating in the meeting were members of the Penang State Fatwa Council and a researcher with the Syariah Court in Batu Gantung.

Though it was a cordial meeting, the discussion, this time, extended beyond just pleasantries.

“From an Islamic perspective, we look at our differences in religion in the same way we look at our physical differences in ourselves — our appearance, skin colour, culture, language — those are, indeed, natural and should be accepted by everyone of the faithful,” said Wan Salim said. These differences were part of God’s will, he said. What we want to discover are our commonalities not our differences — because we face common challenges...”

But, to me, even some of these common challenges may have different interpretations and spiritual approaches, especially over the loaded terms of “liberalism,” “LGBT” and all that they imply.

The two-hour closed door meeting touched on some of the issues that have been troubling both sides, such as the mutual suspicions among followers of these monotheistic religions, both mandated to carry out missionary or evangelical work.

Among the issues raised were hudud and Islamic law, and the overlapping jurisdiction of Syariah and civil courts, especially in child conversion cases such as Deepa’s.

The mufti made it a point to denounce those who gave Islam a bad name, namely IS and other extremists. IS, he said, does not refer to authoritative Islamic sources in justifying their conduct and their concept of jihad is wrong.

Bishop Sebastian acknowledged that there are many threats that could destroy our lives and our unity — economic problems, political problems, the influence of extremists who want to divide us. “We have to overcome this together. At this time, we are called to be bridge-builders, whether you are politicians, journalists, activists or religious leaders — I think God is calling us to be bridge-builders.”

Apart from dialogue sessions among religious leaders, one priest felt we should also involve people at the grassroots in joint activities. He gave a concrete example: youths from both sides could come together to engage in confidence-building activities, such as cleaning up a village or kampung. Such activities could help them to get to know one another.

Another suggestion was to involve Muslims, Christians and people of other faiths in welfare work to dispel suspicions about their motives.

The dialogue was once again coordinated by bridge-builder Abdul Rahman Kasim, who pushed ahead with the event under difficut personal circumstances (his wife is in ICU).

Before the event ended with lunch, the mufti suggested a follow-up meeting later; perhaps this time the Church could play host, he said.
For me, this time, unlike other similar meetings, the discussions appeared to go a bit deeper than just scratching the surface with cordial exchanges. We are probably still at the confidence-building stage but, there is a bit of an opening up now. We realise that we can be friends and that can help promote more frank exchanges.

But much deeper discussions and joint activities still have to be held to promote greater understanding, not only at the leadership level but also at the level of the faithful. This will take time. It is a journey, after all.

An activist later told that me one shortcoming of the dialogue meetings held so far is that the views of women have not yet been heard. This is something to bear in mind for future meetings.

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