by Rev. Chloe Breyer
ICNY Executive Director
Treading in the footsteps of his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, Pope Francis 1 brought a message of peace to an important part of the Muslim world. Like Saint Francis who in the middle of the devastating Fifth Crusade in 1219, set sail to Egypt to cross battle lines and met with Sultan al-Kamil—Pope Francis’s most recent pilgrimage to Turkey included an encounter with Islam that was both respectful and open-hearted. While there, the Pope issued statements on Islamophobia and Christian Muslim partnership such as the one below given in Ankara on November 28, 2014:
“As religious leaders, we are obliged to denounce all violations against human dignity and human rights. Human life, a gift of God the Creator, possesses a sacred character. As such, any violence that seeks religious justification warrants the strongest condemnation because the Omnipotent is the God of life and peace. The world expects those who claim to adore God to be men and women of peace who are capable of living as brothers and sisters, regardless of ethnic, religious, cultural or ideological differences . . .
“We, Muslims and Christians, are the bearers of spiritual treasures of inestimable worth . . . Recognizing and developing our common spiritual heritage – through interreligious dialogue – helps us to promote and to uphold moral values, peace and freedom in society”
Not long after Pope Francis’ return to Rome, the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue led by Monsignor Jean-Louis Cardinal Tauran hosted the third of a four–part Catholic-Anglican-Sunni-Shia dialogue that began more than a decade ago at the National Cathedral in Washington. The Summit series was inspired by then-President of Iran, Mohammad Khatami and his idea of a dialogue of civilization.
The Interfaith Center of New York’s work on Muslim-Catholic service partnerships in the Bronx, Manhattan and Staten Island was honored at this dialogue. As a member of the Anglican/Episcopal delegation led by the 8th Bishop of Washington John Chane, I was able to share with our Iranian Shia, Jordanian Sunni, and Roman Catholic counterparts three important things about the Interfaith Center’s grassroots work:
First, I discussed the importance of our location in New York City. I said that The Interfaith Center of New York is an organization that works with hundreds of grassroots religious leaders from at least 15 faith traditions in the five boroughs of New York City, a metropolis of 8 million people with over 180 languages spoken in the homes of children enrolled in the public schools. (In some neighborhoods like Flushing over half the population comes from outside the United States). New York has the most ethnically and racially diverse Muslim population of almost any city in the world with 10 percent Muslim families in the public schools and public school holiday honored on one of the two Eids.
Second, I explained that in keeping with ICNY’s mission to let dialogue emerge from shared concerns, we worked with Catholic and Muslim hunger activists in the Bronx and encouraged them to discuss joint challenges faced by their respective communities. Together, Muslim and Catholic food pantry volunteers went and spoke to their local politicians about fighting hunger in the poorest Congressional district in the country. Also, we got Catholic Charities workers who had an expertise in immigration issues to teach workshops on the subject for the Imams in the West African community in Harlem for whom immigration issues were a major challenge.
Finally, I was able to share with the Jordanian delegation in particular who face a massive number of Syrian refugees and war orphans, ICNY’s efforts to involve Muslim families in the foster care system in Brooklyn and Queens while at the same time educating foster care agencies about the needs of Muslim families.
One of the agreed outcomes of this Christian-Muslim Summit in Rome was “to assist our youth to develop a sense of well-being and fraternity by promoting a network to identify good practice examples of interreligious education, experiential programs, university studies, textbooks, etc., and to communicate these to the mass media and wider public.”
ICNY and its partners have already begun this work and exchange good practice examples of interreligious education and experiential programs through our Religious Diversity for teachers and social workers. Having an international platform to share our local work gave it new meaning and reminded us that peacemaking on a small scale or larger one is what we do day-to-day. Francis’ steps can be our steps too.