by Victor Edwin SJ
St Ethelburga Centre for Reconciliation and Peace is a small building in the heart of London that offers a peaceful place where people of all faiths build healthy relationships across political, religious and cultural divisions. St Ethelburga's is a place where different faith traditions work together to promote reconciliation and peace "by creating safe space for difficult encounters, advancing practical models for reconciliation and inter-religious cooperation, and celebrating those who put them into practice, we can demonstrate an alternative to violent conflict." A short prayer for an end to violence which is displayed at the Centre was one of the most beautiful prayers that I have ever prayed.
God of life
“Every act of violence in our world, between myself and another, destroys a part of your creation. Stir in my heart a renewed sense of reverence for all life. Give me the vision to recognize your spirit in every human being, however they behave towards me. Make possible the impossible by cultivating in me the fertile seed of healing love. May I play my part in breaking the cycle of violence by realizing that peace begins with me... “
The medieval Church of St Ethelburga in Bishopsgate was one of the oldest buildings in the City of London. It escaped the Great Fire of London in the 17th century and survived the bombing of London in the Second World War unscathed. In 1993, a huge IRA lorry bomb targeted at the financial centres and banks all around, devastated the church. "10 years and 3 million pounds of fundraising later, it reopened as a Centre for Reconciliation and Peace providing a unique place of meeting inside its restored mediaeval walls." I had the opportunity to attend a program in this oasis of peace to reflect on Christian-Muslim Relations.
Our meeting took place in the Tent at St Ethelburga's. "The Tent is a remarkable new space dedicated to the meeting of faiths. It is modeled on a traditional Bedouin design, and set in an Andalusian garden. Specialists form Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Israel collaborated with young people in the UK to create a circular space in which people of different faiths can meet as equals to explore the differences between faiths." We were a group of Christians from different traditions and smaller number of Muslims. The theme for the day was "Understanding Jesus and Muhammad for Muslims and Christians". We reflected on Muhammad, the prophet of Muslims. It was felt that Christians needed to have a learned and dignified understanding of Muhammad in order to carry forward the dialogue between Christians and Muslims. Muslims view Muhammad as the exemplary role model of Qur'anic teachings. Muslims believe that he was sent to establish a pathway on earth to lead people to Paradise. However in history Christians have often spoken badly of Muhammad; such an attitude closed the doors of dialogue. While not being able to share the Muslim view of him as a sinless exemplar in all ways, we were encouraged to look at elements of his life that could indeed act as a model of virtue for Christians.
The important question is: as a Christian what can I say about Muhammad? Within Christian theology, is there a space for a positive understanding of Muhammad? One needs to explore from within one's own tradition. As a Catholic Christian I have a beautiful starting point: the Catholic Church's Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (Vatican Council II Documents). In this document the Council Fathers expressed their great esteem for Muslims in this way: ''Upon the Muslims, too, the Church looks with esteem. They adore one God, living and enduring, merciful and all powerful, Maker of heaven and earth and Speaker to men.'' It is also important to speak of Muhammad with dignity drawing upon the Muslim sources as well as our own faith traditions. Surely, the Spirit blows where she wills and God uses people who are not Hebrews (e.g. the Queen of Sheba and Cyrus the Persian) in a prophetic role. The teacher, Dr Chris Hewer, St Ethelburga Fellow in Christian-Muslim Relations, talked about a comment by the 8th Century Nestorian Katholikos Timothy. When asked by the Muslim Caliph what he thought of Muhammad, Katholikos Timothy said "Muhammad walked in the way of the prophets." Muslims and Christians have a different definition of the term prophet; for Christians they are not sinless, perfect exemplars of a Godly way of life, for example, but it is important that Christians should be able to speak of Muhammad in a dignified and informed way.
In the session I was happy to meet Sadat Malik, a man of Pakistani heritage, who was born and brought up in the UK. During the tea break someone asked me about the relationship between India and Pakistan. I said that both Indians and Pakistanis want to live in peace with one another. However, the political and ideological powers that control both India and Pakistan do not want peace. They create situations that fuel animosity between people. Sadat Malik joined us and told me that he was delighted to hear such a remark. He asked me whether I was involved in any way in peace related activities between India and Pakistan. It gave me an opportunity to tell him of my involvement in the Pakistan India Peoples' Forum for Peace and Democracy and about the joint convention that I attended in Delhi. I told him the many delightful conversations I had with human rights activists, students, teachers, children and trade unionists from Pakistan. It was an eye opener for me to see how ordinary people long for peace and good neighborly relations with India. He too affirmed that common men and women want peace so that they can get along with their lives. We talked about his work with financial institutions, the present credit crunch and my research on Christian-Muslim relations. We now keep in touch with one another through e-mail. After the program I had a long and interesting conversation with Dr Chris Hewer. First we talked about The Common Word, the document on which I am working for my MPhil dissertation. The Common Word is a Letter issued by 138 Muslim religious scholars to the Pope and other Christian leaders inviting them to enter a dialogue on what could be mutually recognised and accepted in both religious traditions. The Muslim leaders proposed the "Love of God and Love of Neighbour" as a common starting point for such relations. We discussed many issues connected with the Letter. Chris told me that this document has the potential to carry forward the process of Christian-Muslim dialogue. However, it needs to be studied carefully and discussed in length, especially the areas that are ambiguous. We dropped in for a meal at a Polish restaurant near Clapham Common. The meal was delicious and it was a great celebration of life and learning for me.