Interreligious dialogue more urgent than ever


On Sunday, April 14, Jews, Christians and Muslims gathered at Congregation Beth El in Voorhees to attend a symposium, hosted by our Jewish-Catholic-Muslim Dialogue of Southern New Jersey, titled “Islamic Sharia Law: Myths and Facts.” There were more than 100 participants.

One of the opening speakers was U.S. Rep. Rob Andrews (D-NJ) who spoke eloquently about the plight of the Pilgrims who came to this land seeking religious freedom. He promised to spread the word in Washington about our gathering and how South Jersey was modeling religious tolerance and dialogue. When he sat next to me on the bimah he shared that he felt Congress was very close to accepting a bipartisan plan to overhaul the immigration law. He said that the bishops of the United States were very helpful in their support and suggestions.

Imam Sohaib Sultan, the Muslim life coordinator and chaplain at Princeton University and author of “The Koran for Dummies,” spoke of the fear that many Americans have about Muslims in general and the particular fear of some that Muslims are bent on imposing Sharia law on the nation.

“Let it be clear in this room and beyond this room. When people talk about regulating and imposing bans on sharia, they are regulating and imposing bans on Islam itself,” he said. He proceeded to present an explanation of Islamic law, customs and practices and fielded difficult questions that often revealed some of the fears and misgivings of non-Muslims. Unperturbed, he answered questions concerning women rights, honor killings, penal codes, Muslim views of Jews and Christians and violent reactions over perceived insults to Muhammad.

Participants shared food and conversation afterward.

The next day at the Boston Marathon, bombs killed three innocent people and injured more than 140 people. We all saw the images of the two women killed and the heartbreaking photo of young Martin Richard in his white first Holy Communion suit. Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston released a statement that said, in part, “ We stand in solidarity with our ecumenical and interfaith colleagues in the commitment to witness the greater power of good in our society and to work for healing.”

On Wednesday the U.S. Senate defeated a bill that would have expanded background checks for gun buyers, with little outcry from a nation stunned by the violence in Boston.

At a meeting at the Cherry Hill Jewish Community Center of our Jewish-Catholic-Muslim Dialogue to discuss our Sunday program and our sacred Scriptures, I was asked to give the opening prayer. One of the Muslim participants asked me to pray that the individuals involved in the Boston bombings not be a Muslim, (the identity of the bombers was not yet known.) After the prayer some of the Muslims in attendance shared their fears that should it be a Muslim that perpetrated these horrendous crimes, Muslims throughout the country will experience dirty looks, rude comments and other painful reactions from some angry and fearful neighbors. Not only will Muslims feel the sting of bias, all immigrants may feel the same intolerance. The bill Congressman Andrews spoke of could be in jeopardy.

Here in our own diocese, Bishop Sullivan will be saying a Mass on Friday, May 3, at 7:30 p.m. at Divine Mercy Parish in Vineland in support of immigrant families and a comprehensive reform of immigration reform.

We would all do well to reflect on the advice that Pope Francis gave to our compatriots in Boston. He prayed that “all Bostonians will be united in a resolve not to be overcome by evil, but to combat evil with good (cf. Rom 12:21), working together to build an ever more just, free and secure society for generations yet to come.”

May we never give in to the nativistic fears that would cause us to demonize an entire religious group because of the criminal actions of a miniscule and heretical subgroup or to turn our backs on the rights of human beings that come to us from other nations to seek a better way of life.