Throughout the world, and especially in regions where CNEWA serves, different churches and religions are increasingly in contact with one another. In the past, and in some places still, regrettably, those encounters are hostile. However, since the mid-20th century, Christians have become increasingly interested in engaging other faiths in a positive way.
“Nostra Aetate,” the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, published in October 1965, set the tone for how the Catholic Church and Catholic believers should interact with the other religions of the world, such as Judaism and Islam, and with the great faith traditions of Asia, such as Hinduism and Buddhism.
At about the same time as Vatican II, some countries, such as the United States, opened immigration to people from Asian countries, immigrants who had been excluded under legislation such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 6 May 1882. This policy resulted in the influx of people from Asia and, hence, Asian religions. In a relatively short period of time, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists went from being exotic “orientals” in faraway lands to being neighbors, friends and members of our families.
While the efforts of these new immigrants to integrate into U.S. society did not occur without some friction and unfortunate instances, intellectual curiosity, a very laudable sense of civic solidarity and a desire to understand friends and neighbors better eventually led people to begin learning firsthand about the great religions of the world.
In many of their countries of origin, believers of one faith rarely encountered believers of other faiths. People of one faith tended to stay together and have minimal interaction with the other. This, of course, provided rich soil for caricatures, stereotypes, fears and outright prejudices to develop.
John Courtney Murry, S.J., a leader in the promotion of religious freedom, was reflecting on the American experience of Catholics and Protestants living and working together as friends and neighbors. Among his conclusions were that when people learn to live as neighbors, the fear and prejudices of “the old country” can be dismantled through positive and cooperative interaction with others.
An encouraging sign of a creative attempt to spread interreligious understanding has surfaced recently in Islam — the interreligious iftār. Currently, practicing Muslims worldwide are observing the month of Ramadan. For 28 days, from 12 April to 12 May this year, and from sunrise to sunset, they will refrain from putting anything — food, drink and even cigarette smoke — into their bodies, focusing their actions on prayer.
At the end of each day, they will ceremoniously and festively break the fast. The breaking of the fast is called iftār in Arabic. Unlike in Christianity and Judaism, where fasting is primarily penitential, repentance does not play a major role in Ramadan, which tends to be a rather joyful observance.
The iftār can be held at home, although often it is held communally in the mosque. Recently, Muslims have started inviting non-Muslims to the iftār as an outreach to the broader community. Cultures where Islam traditionally resided are renowned for their hospitality and the lavishness with which they treat guests. This creative activity has become increasingly popular in the United States and Canada, even in a time of pandemic.
In the National Capital Region of Canada, for instance, there is a virtual Ramadan celebration planned for 20 April 2021. So important is the commitment to interreligious engagement, even in a time of pandemic, that the Muslim community provided a way to maintain the “new tradition” in a safe and responsible way. Likewise, up until the pandemic, a festive iftar was held near Parliament Hill and attended by politicians and citizens of all faiths.
In many areas of the U.S., especially urban areas, mosques and Islamic centers will plan an interfaith iftār in order to build and strengthen relations with the broader non-Muslim community. This effort is highly commendable. Non-Muslims should respond positively, get to know their Muslim neighbors and begin to understand them and their faith. The success and spread of the interreligious iftār is an encouraging sign in a world where bigotry has become measurably more prominent.
A Franciscan Friar of the Atonement, Father Elias Mallon is the external affairs officer for CNEWA.