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Dialogue of Friendship – Event Explores How Diverse Communities Can Live Together

‘Hate can unite bad forces – it is important to be anti-hate.’ This was one of the many messages to emerge during the discussion at an interfaith gathering in the Irish School of Ecumenics in Trinity College Dublin on Saturday morning (May 20). Against the backdrop of a series of anti-migrant incidents which have hit the headlines in Ireland in recent weeks, ‘Dialogue of Friendship – Living Together in Diverse Communities’ was particularly well timed. Organised by Places of Sanctuary Ireland (Sanctuary in Faith Stream) with the Church of Ireland Interfaith Working Group, the morning involved a mix of ideas and practice but most of all facilitated connection.

Among the other key points raised by speakers was the idea that closer relationships can change people’s hearts. Participants heard that a public representative, who had not been supportive of migrants, began to advocate on their behalf after getting to know someone who was seeking asylum in Ireland. Another speaker pointed out that “you don’t have to agree with me to accept me” while another suggested that “if you are dealing with a person of faith, then you have the grounds of understanding”. The keynote speaker, the Revd Dr Stephen Skuce, summed the discussion up by observing: “If we can continue to welcome and continue to accept each other and help people to belong and keep if fun, we’ll be able to do something positive”.

Introducing the morning, one of the organisers, the Revd Abigail Sines a member of the Church of Ireland Interfaith Working Group and a steering committee member of the Sanctuary in Faith Stream, pointed out that if anyone had been watching the news they would be aware of an increase in anti-migrant sentiment. “You will have seen the level of vitriol and we are part of that. We are all members of society so we are part of it,” she commented.

Opening proceedings, Archbishop Michael Jackson, chairperson of Dublin City Interfaith Forum, said that the dialogue of friendship offered a generous space in which to know, understand, befriend and be befriended. “Among whom is this friendship shared? It is shared intentionally and trustingly with those who are Other to one another and who may not have had cause to see themselves in this light before. This in itself is a dawning of realism and a learning about ourselves. Dialogue is first and foremost about knowing ourselves and having the confidence to offer this knowing to others as a friendship in itself in the hope of a reciprocal response in the boomerang of dialogue,” he commented. He encouraged participants to consider a number of aspects of dialogue: humility, curiosity, authenticity and generosity.

In his keynote address, Dr Skuce observed that there are differences between religions but there are also commonalities. He is currently Superintendent of the North Western District of the Methodist Church in Ireland and previously worked with the Methodist Church in England and served as mission partner in Sri Lanka. He suggested that Christians tended to believe that they had exclusive insights on Jesus but said that other religions, for example Islam, have a good scriptural understanding of Jesus as does Judaism.

He also spoke of the need to be willing to learn and share and to be changed. “We can run the risk of having a monologue rather than dialogue if you are not willing to be changed,” he stated. He also said that there was a need to recognise that God was not working exclusively within the Christian community but that he was at work in other faith communities and this recognition was regularly acknowledged in the Old and New Testaments. Referring to Irish Celtic tradition (St Patrick’s Breastplate), Dr Skuce said that as followers of Jesus Christ we see Christ in everyone we meet, no matter what their faith tradition and that when we engage and share with one another we hope that others will experience something of Christ within us.

Good news case studies and stories of people relating across diverse communities saw ideas being put into practice in a number of contexts. The Birds with Wishes creative collaboration featured international dialogue between school children in Aleppo, Syria and Dublin. Muhammad Achour, founder of Places of ARcture, outlined his Birds with Wishes intercultural project which forged links between children in Aleppo and Dublin via Christ Church Cathedral. The Syrian architect worked with a friend in Aleppo and eight boys and eight girls created artworks to illustrate their wishes. Their works were posted to Dublin where they were exhibited in Christ Church Cathedral, which is a Cathedral of Sanctuary, during Refugee Week in 2021. People were invited to send messages back to the children which facilitated international dialogue. Continuing the project in 2022, a creativity summer camp was held in the cathedral for children who are asylum seekers and local children.

Nargis Mohammadi, from Afghanistan, volunteered for the creativity camp and explained that having grown up in a Muslim country she had never been into a church. She said the experience was really good for her and volunteering was her first work in Ireland. “I learned that if we accept each other and if we show love we will see love. It is very good to know about other religions. I learned that while we might not pray together we can live together,” she said adding that volunteering helped her to make friends with people from different cultures and ethnicities and afterwards she was able to find a job.

The Revd William Hayes of the Presbyterian Church in Tullamore spoke of the Tullamore Welcome Centre which has been running at the church for 10 years following an approach by the local council. They began in 2013 welcoming Hazara refugees from Afghanistan who had come to Tullamore. They met on Thursday afternoons offering a welcome, basic English lessons and meetings with Gardai. The church decided to continue and over the last 10 years they have welcomed people from around the world. “None of this was going on on the grounds of interfaith work. It was people working together and working for the community,” Mr Hayes said.

Batool Amiri said that when she arrived in Tullamore she worried about walking into a church with a hijab and being Muslim was concerned that she didn’t know what to do. But she said when she got there people acted as it if was normal and were very friendly and helpful. Máire McKay spoke of the development of Tullamore since she arrived from Scotland in 1983 to the present day when the community is more diverse. “So many people have come and it has totally enriched my life,” she said.

The second panel session focused on relating across diverse communities and was moderated by Br Kevin Mascarenhas who chairs the Sanctuary in Faith Stream. A Roman Catholic born in Pakistan, he is a Presentation Brother currently serving in Cork.

Fahmeda Naheed, coordinator of the SALAAM (Sustainable Alliances Against Anti-Muslim Hatred) is a contributor of the Garda Review magazine and a member of the Ethnic Minorities Domestic Abuse Observatory, as well as an ambassador of Schools of Sanctuary and a cooking instructor. She spoke of the broad range of work she is involved in to promote dialogue and respect. “When I study Islam, public service is essential. I can do prayer in church or at home. But I have to go out to the community. It is our duty to use our blessings to serve our community… My aim in life is that I want to have formal and informal integration in Ireland… Today’s question is not whose religion is better but rather whose religion does best for the world,” she stated.

Naomi Green is a PhD student from Belfast focusing on the inclusion and integration of Muslims in Northern Ireland. She told her story of growing up in a Baptist home to learning about the Church of Ireland and later about Catholicism. After the Twin Towers attack in New York she started studying Islam and when she went to London she met Muslims and then went to a Mosque in Belfast to start learning about Islam from Muslims. She said that in the media Muslims are often portrayed as “uniquely angry: and Islam as being intolerant.

“Islam is not incompatible with the West… I know that some people may be deeply uncomfortable with the idea that Islam and Christianity have commonalities but Islam is in the Abrahamic tradition… Accepting the idea that we may worship the same God doesn’t require us to work in the same way,” she commented. She challenged people not to compare the best practice of their own belief with the worst perception of others’ and to be discerning about what they see on social media and in the media. She added that it was important that Churches take a lead in how communities respond to situations. “Hate can keep bad forces united. So it is important to be anti-hate,” she commented.

Reflecting on the Day

Rabia Tabassum of the Amal Women’s Association, reflected on the day writing: “It was eye-opening to learn about the common grounds and common values that different religions share. I appreciate the speakers for sharing their insights and experiences on working towards the same objective of peace and equality.”

For Church of Ireland ordinand Siobhán Wheeler, the “Birds with Wishes” case study of collaboration with Christ Church Cathedral Dublin left an impression: “I very much enjoyed meeting such an eclectic group of people. For me a highlight was seeing the interaction with recently arrived non-Christian immigrants within the cathedral space.”

The Revd Dr Stephen Skuce, summing up his observations at the end of the day, shared: “When we met on Saturday there was the clear recognition that we learn from others – be they people of different faiths, those who have moved to Ireland and those in the room. We are enriched by each other. We saw again that we all have more than one identity and so being Irish or Christian is not our only identify – we have multiple ways of belonging.  And when we join in with those from other faith backgrounds, the experience is usually fun – it enhances our lives and gives greater meaning to us.  We live out our faith in a constantly changing country, and are part of that ongoing change and development.”

With thanks to Lynn Glanville, Diocesan Communication Officer for the United Dioceses of Dublin and Glendalough, for reporting on the day and providing photographs, and to our attendees who gave us permission to use their reflections on the event.

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