We have had a rather busy and productive year here in South Jersey with our interfaith relations. Just this past week the Jewish-Catholic-Muslim Dialogue of Southern New Jersey met to plan for the coming year and to redouble our efforts for stronger ties of communication and advocacy in our local community. With the rapid and tumultuous upheavals in many of the Middle East countries that affect so many of our coreligionists, we have felt it necessary to pray and work harder for peaceful solutions that respect the religious freedom and integrity of all Jews, Christians and Muslims in the Middle East.
One of the more glaring and recent upheavals in the Middle East that has led to the massacre of over 1,500 civilians is Syria. Earlier this month, Pope Benedict XVI met with the new ambassador of Syria, Hussan Edin Aala, and explained to him that “human dignity should be at the heart of institutions, laws and society.” He added, “Syria is a place dear and meaningful to Christians, from the origins of the church. Since the meeting of the Risen Christ on the road to Damascus, Paul became the Apostle of Nations, many great saints who have shaped the religious history of your country. Many are also the archaeological evidence of churches, monasteries, mosaics of the early centuries of the Christian era that connect us to the origins of the Church.”
The pope added, “Syria has traditionally been an example of tolerance, coexistence and harmonious relations between Christians and Muslims and today’s ecumenical and interfaith relations are good. He also expressed his hope that Syria will move toward a solution to the present unrest that will be based on justice and solidarity. He said these “real reforms” in political, economic and social development must respect freedom and peaceful “coexistence.”
Our Jewish-Catholic-Muslim Dialogue of Southern New Jersey issued our own statement on the unrest unfolding in Syria. The statement explains that “we support the people of Syria in their courageous struggle to attain a peaceful democracy that ensures human rights, security, religious freedom and economic promise for all its citizens. We recognize that this revolution has a broad foundation; encompassing all faiths, social classes and ethnic backgrounds of the nation. We condemn the use of violence against peaceful protesters.”
Our hope for the future of Syria is that “we urge a peaceful transition to a new elected government by means of free and fair elections; we recognize that democracy cannot be achieved without fostering appropriate democratic institutions such as an independent judiciary, free political parties, the separation of powers and the creation of a civil society, as well as the democratic principles of pluralism, limited government, accountability and equality.”
It is the firm belief of our Dialogue members that the “vast majority of Muslims in the world are in favor of peaceful democracy.” And we feel that “the most effective way to combat terrorism and extremism is to promote democratic institutions. Only then can a political state be created where citizens enjoy freedom of speech, freedom to determine their own futures and the freedom to practice their own faiths in the spirit of enlightened tolerance, humanity and compassion which lies at the core of all the great religions.”
The statement ends by hoping that “the people of Syria will act as a light to their neighbors in the Middle East to bring freedom, security and peace in the entire region. We express our support for the people of Syria and our hope that they will forge a nation in which their highest dreams and aspirations can be realized. Let Syria take its place in the modern world as a nation committed to freedom, democracy, economic prosperity, religious tolerance and peace. This is our hope and our profoundest prayer.”
I am convinced that a comprehensive and lasting peace in the Middle East will not be successfully achieved unless the voice of religion, especially the voice of the spiritual and ethnic descendants of Abraham, are heard and valued. The armies, generals and politicians must respect the hopes and aspirations of the people of faith. Shalom, Salaam, Pax!
Father Joseph D. Wallace is coordinator, Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs, Diocese of Camden.