Pressing issues for interreligious dialogue
July 09 2010
Since Bangladesh emerged from the blood-soaked liberation war of 1971 it remains one of the most secular predominantly Muslim countries in Asia.
The country is 90 percent Muslim, 8 percent Hindu and 2 percent from minority religions including Christianity and Buddhism. Mostly these live in relative peace, although there are isolated incidents of torture of minorities. These generally occur after a change of governments.
The vision following the war of independence was for a country based on religious freedom and communal harmony which has helped Bangladesh maintain its secular image even as it faces serious challenges in development and progress.
Christians in Bangladesh, unlike many Muslim countries in Asia, have enjoyed more interfaith harmony and good interreligious relationships with local Muslims - both clerics and lay people - than any other minority group in the country.
The Catholic Church in the country had always been on good terms with Muslims and other religious communities.
That said, there have been unfortunate incidents. On April 28, 1998, a Church-run girls' school in Dhaka was attacked by a Muslim mob that had been provoked by a group of fundamentalists when the school tried to demolish one of its old buildings adjacent to a mosque.
The mob vandalized the school building, looted valuables and vandalized statues of the school's patron saint, Saint Francis Xavier, as well as the cross. The government did not catch or punish the culprits.
Since then there has been no major oppression of Christians.
The Catholic Church's Episcopal Commission for Christian Unity and Interreligious Dialogue (ECCUIRD) organizes different inter-Church and inter-faith programs and seminars regionally and nationally all year round.
These programs have become more frequent in recent years. People from different religions are often good friends and invite each other to attend cultural and religious festivals.
The Church over the years has contributed to socio-economic development through different Church organizations.
Christians in Bangladesh are mostly respected for their contribution to education and health. There are about 800,000 Christians in the country or 0.03 percent of the population. There are about 400,000 Catholics.
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Recent interreligious activity in China took the form of aid to quake victims, Muslims visiting a cathedral and Buddhists attending a Focolare celebration.
Catholic relief workers joined hands with Tibetan Buddhist lamas earlier this year to bring relief aid to the earthquake victims in Qinghai province.
One aid beneficiary, Venerable Minam Rinpoche, 44, a lama who runs a four-story library near the epicenter of the quake said he was touched by the interreligious cooperation.
He said he hoped to see further cooperation that would enhance friendship between Catholics and Buddhists as well as between ethnic Han and Tibetans.
Muslims in the southeastern city of Nanning visited the Our Lady of China Cathedral in the capital of Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region last November in an exchange program.
The program, initiated by the Muslims, aims to help both communities recognize the common roots of their faith and foster mutual respect.
The Focolare movement is also helping to bridge religious divides.
Buddhists were among those who attended the movement's 40th anniversary celebrations in Hong Kong in March.
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In the past two decades, forums of Indian bishops, Religious and priests have increasingly stressed the need to engage in interreligious activities to help build peace. They have also noted that political agendas are dividing people along sectarian lines more often.
The Pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which came into the limelight in early 1990s when it started championing emotive Hindu religious causes, is the governing party in five Indian states now. It continues to pursue its desire to see India as a Hindu nation.
Church leaders have noted increased Hindu radical activities and riots against Christians in BJP ruled states. Some states have introduced laws against conversions and cow slaughter, which Christian leaders say target their people.
Besides Hindu radical action, increasing Islamic fanaticism has also begun to threaten Indian Christians. Extremists last week, for example, chopped off the hand of a Catholic professor for allegedly insulting Islam in an examination paper.
Most anti-Christian activities stem from suspicions about Christians' social service, misunderstandings about their culture and ignorance about their faith. Christian leaders have been suggesting increased dialogue and interreligious actions to remedy the situation.
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The Indonesian Church tries its best to dialogue with various sectors of society.
The Church works with lawmakers, NGOs, Islamic organizations, human rights organizations, academics, and at the same time tries to reach out to people at the grassroots, including religious extremists.
Muslim hardliners have increased their attacks on churches over the past few years and this has made Christian-Muslim dialogue difficult.
In the long run, such attacks not only curb religious freedom, they also harm democracy.
However, one possible unifying factor for religions is the fight against corruption, rampant in the country, and poverty. More than 30 million people live below the poverty line.
In a recent congress, religious leaders agreed to be involved in teaching moral values in schools as they believe that corruption is the result of a loss of such values.
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South Korea is a country known for its religious harmony.
There are various groups committed to interreligious dialogue, such as the Catholic bishops' Committee for Promoting Christian Unity and Interreligious Dialogue, the Korean Council of Religious Leaders and the Korean Conference on Religion and Peace.
Active participation in dialogue activities by religious communities has boosted understanding and cooperation among religions in South Korea.
The Catholic Church’s good relations with Confucianism and the late Cardinal Stephen Kim’s friendship with Buddhist monks have also made Catholicism a respected religion.
The bishops' interreligious committee is presently stressing the need for dialogue to reach the grassroots level.
Committee president Archbishop Hyginus Kim Hee-joong of Kwangju is expected to attend the upcoming meeting in Thailand.
He is a member of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.
Almost half of South Korea's 50-million-strong population say they do not belong to a religion. Buddhists make up 23 percent, Protestants 18 percent, Catholics 10 percent and other religions 1 percent.
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Christian relations with Malaysia's Muslim community have been severely tested after a high court allowed a Catholic publication to use the word "Allah" to refer to God in its Malay section.
Churches have been attacked and even burnt following the Dec. 31, 2009 court decision in favor of the Herald weekly.
Three Muslims charged with setting fire to the Metro Tabernacle Church in Kuala Lumpur on Jan. 7 are expected to be acquitted as witnesses at the recent trial have been unable to confirm important details.
There are also ongoing court cases between Sidang Injil Borneo, an evangelical Church based in East Malaysia, and the government over the Church's right to use "Allah" for God.
However, many Malaysian bloggers, most of them Muslim, said they see no problem in Christians using the word during a meeting in May.
Herald publisher, Archbishop Murphy Pakiam of Kuala Lumpur, is expected to speak on relations with Muslims at the upcoming Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue meeting.
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The Church has organized prayer sessions with people of other faiths and has published books on interreligious dialogue. These have helped the Myanmar Catholic Church reach out to people across society.
For example, there have been three prayer programs with Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus for Nargis cyclone victims, peace in Myanmar and for Pope John Paul II when he passed away.
In Mandalay, the Church runs the St. John's Education Center and students from different religions attend computer, English and Italian classes there. Through this the Church has been able to get in touch with various people and some Buddhist monks.
Many people do not know what it means to "dialogue," however, and some leaders of other religions think that to dialogue is to teach.
Another challenge is that the Catholic Church in Myanmar is rather westernized. The way the Church talks and lives is dissimilar from mainstream Burmese culture.
Father Mark Tin Win, the secretary of the Episcopal Commission for Interreligious dialogue, told ucanews.com that Archbishop Charles Bo of Yangon archdiocese and chairman of the commission will attend the meeting in Bangkok next week.
There the archbishop will outline what the Catholic church is doing to interact with other religions and what is planned for the coming year.
The Church also conducts a range of seminars for seminarians and Religious congregations as well as lectures on interreligious dialogue and inculturation for final-year students of the St. Joseph Catholic Major Seminary in Yangon.
In addition, the priests-to-be learn Buddhist meditation and also visit leaders of different faiths including Buddhism and Islam.
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Interreligious dialogue in Pakistan consists mainly in interfaith meetings between Muslim clerics and Christian clergy. Leaders of other minority religious groups such as Hindus, Sikhs and Bahais make rare appearances.
Muslim ulama (scholars), Catholic priests and laypeople are frequent participants in committees run by the government, dioceses and priests.
They usually discuss the need for peace and harmony in the war-torn country. "A terrorist has no religion" and "no religion preaches violence" are oft-repeated formulas. Another frequently addressed issue is alleged blasphemy committed "by foreign media".
However disagreement quickly takes over the scheduled theme whenever there is debate on the country's blasphemy laws. Christian communities have been attacked for allegedly flouting these laws and Church groups have often stressed the need for dialogue on this matter.
It would be fair to say that interreligious dialogue in Pakistan has not reached the point of "walking the talk." Till then, Pakistanis will have to suffice with anecdotes of Prophet Muhammad's kind acts and religious leaders standing together at photo opportunities.
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The Singapore Catholic Church has been actively involved in interreligious dialogue for decades, especially after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the US.
Various Church leaders have taken the initiative to hold dialogue sessions with Muslims and leaders of other faiths, sometimes at venues belonging to various religions.
The archdiocesan Council for Inter-Religious and Ecumenical Dialogue (IRED) was formed a few years ago to actively promote dialogue with other Christians and followers of other religions as well as form Catholics on such dialogue.
The IRED has organized visits to Hindu and Taoist temples, a mosque and a Buddhist lodge to help Catholics appreciate other faiths better.
In December last year, an IRED official helped to organize the China-Singapore Religious and Cultural Exhibition in Singapore.
In recent years, more parishes are beginning to invite representatives of different religious groups to participate in their community activities, such as parish feast day celebrations. Visits to other religions’ places of worship are usually conducted as well. Lay parishioners are usually the ones that put forward such suggestions.
The Catholic Church is also represented on the Inter-religious Organisation, one of the oldest inter-faith organizations in Singapore.
According to government statistics, 42.5 percent of Singaporeans are Buddhists, 8.5 percent are Taoists, 14.9 percent are Muslims, 14.6 percent are Christians and 4 percent are Hindus. Chinese Singaporeans make up about 75 percent of the island's 4.8 million people.
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Interreligious dialogue in Sri Lanka is the focus of political attention in the wake of the long civil war between security forces and Tamil rebels.
The Sri Lankan prime minister plans to form an All Religion Conference (ARC) to boost interfaith relations in the country, a move welcomed by religious leaders.
"The ARC will strengthen friendships among religions … and suspicions among them could be minimized through discussions," Prime Minister Disanayaka Mudiyanselage Jayaratne said in a July 7 press release.
The ARC will have decision-making powers on religious affairs in Sri Lanka, said the premier, adding that he will hold discussions with religious leaders before formally setting up the body.
Religious leaders have hailed the move.
Prominent Buddhist monk Ittapana Dhammalankara Thero said he applauds the prime minister's decision to launch such a body after the civil war.
"There are a few interreligious conferences in the country … which work for national unity" but which are not registered, said the monk.
Development, political solutions and reconciliation among communities are some of the major issues to be handled at this time, he said.
Catholic priest Father Felician Ranjith Perera said the government move was "a good decision."
"We have to realize that there are spiritual and philosophical differences in every religion. But we can work together to build religious harmony for the good of the country," said the priest who is the editor of the Messenger Catholic weekly.
Mohamed Nafin Mohamed Moulavi, from the Maradana Muslim Mosque in Colombo, said he also welcomes the setting up of the ARC.
Once finalized, ARC branches will be set up in all major districts of the country, state reports say.
The conversion of Buddhists to Christianity, meanwhile, is a major challenge, said Madampagama Assaji Thero, executive secretary of the Inter-religious Peace Foundation.
Although most Christian church leaders work with Buddhists peacefully, "some evangelical Christian groups work with NGOs to convert people to Christianity," he said. "It is harmful to the religious harmony in the country."
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In Thailand, the Church is increasingly working with Buddhist and Muslim groups on peace and justice issues, especially in the aftermath of the recent political violence that killed 90 and injured more than 1,800.
Lay Catholics are taking an active role in civic society movements to build understanding in society together with people of other religions.
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The Church’s work for interreligious dialogue in the Philippines focuses on education campaigns and joint activities with Muslims, the largest group of non-Christians.
The primary aim is to eliminate centuries-old animosity rooted in the entry of Christian settlers into southern Philippines.
Peace and development in the south is a priority of the Episcopal Commission on Interreligious Dialogue, its chairman, Jesuit Archbishop Antonio Ledesma of Cagayan de Oro, told ucanews.com.
Government estimates peg the Muslim population at between 2 and 5 million people or about 5 percent of the Philippines’ 80 million people.
Muslim communities, traditionally centered in Mindanao, southern Philippines, have now spread to Manila and other Philippine provinces. They comprise mostly families of merchants who fled fighting between government troops and Muslim liberation armies.
Catholic and Protestant bishops in Mindanao have been working with ulama (Islamic scholars) for peace and development in the region.
They have worked with the Philippines government in co-hosting an Asian congress on interreligious dialogue. They have also conducted exposure programs for priests, Protestant pastors and imam (Muslim prayer leaders) as well as for Muslim and Christian youths from Indonesia.
The Pontifical Institute for Foreign Mission priests and the Mission Society of the Philippines are also active in another interreligious initiative called the Silsilah Dialogue Movement.
Other initiatives include the Claretian Fathers' Peace Advocates Zamboanga and the Ministry of Peace and Interreligious Dialogue of Cotabato Archdiocese.
Archbishop Ledesma told ucanews.com that efforts are also underway toward dialogue with indigenous people focusing on inculturation of the Catholic faith.
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