As a Catholic priest, Fr Patrick McInerney reflects on his experience of Muslim hospitality at iftar meals during Ramadan and its positive contribution to building better interfaith relationships.  In these challenging times, he chooses friendship over fear, to be “with” rather than “against”.    

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, These opening lines from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities could equally describe the two sides our present times, of the past month of Ramadan in particular.

On the one hand there is the extraordinary goodness, generosity and hospitality of Muslims inviting others to iftar meals at the end of the day of fasting.  It is offered to families, neighbours, people of other faiths and the wider community, in private homes and in public halls, served to a select few or offered magnanimously to hundreds.

On the other hand, there is the appalling violence inflicted by misguided elements in the name of a perverted religious ideology who have committed criminal assaults on innocent civilians in Manchester, Kabul, Marawi, London, Manila, Melbourne and Tehran, to name but a few.

These two realities stand in stark contrast to one another.  They are incompatible.  They force us to choose.  In which of these two worlds do we want to live?  The world of fear, suspicion, terror and violence?  Or the world of peace, harmony, justice and good relations?

I choose the latter.  I refuse to allow a few misguided, criminal extremists to divide the world into “us” and “them”.  I choose to be “with” rather than “against”.  I choose to reach out in friendship, not to cower in fear.  I choose to pray for others, not prey on them.   As Pope Francis said in Cairo:  “what is needed today are peacemakers, not fomenters of conflict; firefighters and not arsonists; preachers of reconciliation and not instigators of destruction.”

Nearly 800 years ago, during the height of the Fifth Crusade, St Francis of Assisi travelled from Italy to Egypt.  Risking his life, he crossed the no-man’s land between the two warring armies locked in conflict.  His purpose?  To propose peace.  He was taken to the Sultan, Malik al-Kamil, and spent several days in the Muslim camp.

Today there is widespread Islamophobic suspicion, fear and sometimes even outright hostility towards Islam and Muslims.  In my experience, meeting people, listening to them and getting to know them, is the best way to break down stereotypes, prejudices and fears.   In the contemporary context, the historic example of the meeting between St Francis and Sultan Malik al-Kamil is very relevant.  Two men of faith, meeting face-to-face, in a time of conflict, has an urgent summons to us today to work for peace in our times.

In many Christian traditions, sharing bread and wine in ritual remembrance of Jesus is called “Holy Communion”.  I witness that the Muslim practice of iftar is also sacred and also builds communion. It is a special time of bonding among families, relatives and friends, and increasingly, with people of other faiths.

As a Christian Catholic priest who daily celebrates the Eucharist and receives Holy Communion, I am thereby committed to building social communion across the barriers of country, language, culture and creed.  I freely choose friendship and solidarity with Muslims, believers from other religions and all people of good will in service of the common good.

I thank the many Muslims for their hospitality and example during Ramadan.  I take this opportunity to wish them all ‎‎ عيد مبارك (Eid Mubarik = Happy Feast Day).

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”  These opening lines from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities could equally describe the two sides our present times, of the past month of Ramadan in particular.  

On the one hand there is the extraordinary goodness, generosity and hospitality of Muslims inviting others to iftar meals at the end of the day of fasting.  It is offered to families, neighbours, people of other faiths and the wider community, in private homes and in public halls, served to a select few or offered magnanimously to hundreds – and this is all the more remarkable because this gesture or outreach and welcome comes from beleaguered communities under constant siege from a barrage of bad press.

On the other hand, there is the appalling violence inflicted by misguided elements in the name of a perverted religious ideology who have committed criminal assaults on innocent civilians in Manchester, Kabul, Marawi, London, Manila, Melbourne and Tehran, to name but a few.  Killing and maiming victims indiscriminately, these criminal acts tarnish the reputation of the religion that is the guiding light for one fifth of the world’s population.

These two realities stand in stark contrast to one another.  They are incompatible.  They force us to choose.  In which of these two worlds do we want to live?  The world of fear, suspicion, terror and violence?  Or the world of peace, harmony, justice and good relations?

I choose the latter.  I refuse to allow a few misguided, criminal extremists to divide the world into “us” and “them”.  I choose to be “with” rather than “against”.  I choose to reach out in friendship, not to cower in fear.  I am honoured to be invited inside to the other’s table, rather than hiding behind walls and bans that keep that supposed “enemy” outside.  I choose to pray for others, not prey on them.   As Pope Francis said in Cairo:  “what is needed today are peacemakers, not fomenters of conflict; firefighters and not arsonists; preachers of reconciliation and not instigators of destruction.”

Nearly 800 years ago, during the height of the Fifth Crusade, St Francis of Assisi travelled from Italy to Egypt.  Risking his life, he crossed the no-man’s land between the two warring armies locked in conflict.  His purpose?  To propose peace.  He was taken to the Sultan, Malik al-Kamil, and spent several days in the Muslim camp, even being permitted to preach to the Sultan’s court, before being allowed to return safely to the Christian camp.

Today there is no civilizational war between Christians and Islam as there was then—unless we count the many proxy wars that are being waged—but there is widespread Islamophobic suspicion, fear and sometimes even outright hostility towards Islam and Muslims.  In my experience, meeting people, listening to them and getting to know them, is the best way to break down stereotypes, prejudices and fears.   In the contemporary context, the historic example of the meeting between St Francis and Sultan Malik al-Kamil is very relevant.  Two men of faith, meeting face-to-face, in a time of conflict, has an urgent summons to us today.

If we truly want peace in our world, if we genuinely want to live by faith rather than by fear, then, like St Francis of Assisi, Christians and Muslims must both keep on crossing the “no man’s land” between our respective traditions.  We must keep on meeting face-to-face, as did St Francis and Sultan Malik al-Kamil.  We must keep on talking with and listening to each other, coming to know and respect each other’s similar but different expressions of shared faith in the one God.  We need to discover that the ‘other’ is my ‘brother’ from a different mother, friend not foe, kin not alien, collaborator for the common good, not its destroyer.  We need to share food and conversation to nourish both body and spirit.  We need to break down prejudices, fears and stereotypes and to build relations, friendships and community.

There are irreconcilable theological differences between Christians and Muslims—over the Blessed Trinity, the role and identity of Christ as Son of God, the role and identity of the Church as the universal sacrament of salvation, the status of Holy Qur’an, the status of the Prophet Muhammad—but we also have much in common:  belief in God who speaks to us in various ways, the angels as mediators between the heavenly and earthly realms, the prophets who speak in God’s name, the scriptures which are the recorded word of God, the Day of Judgement when all will be held accountable for their actions and that God’s providence guides the unfolding of the universe towards its final destiny.

Moreover, the moral principles of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are common, though we differ on particulars.  In fact, these values—truth, justice, freedom, the ethic of reciprocity (treat others as you want them treat you)—are universal.  They are common to all religions, cultures, ethics, societies and people of good will.  Accordingly, all of us who share our one and only planet earth as our common home, must learn to live together in peace and harmony, forging mutual respect, friendships and good relations in every town, city and country across the globe.  Together we must create a global civilisation of love.  And as for those irreconcilable theological differences, when we come to understand them properly, each within our own traditions, we will discover that they impel us to dialogue, relationship and collaboration, rather than set us apart from each other, let alone against each other.

There will be mistakes along the way—misunderstandings, disappointments, hurts, broken promises, fall-outs over personal, social, political and other issues (we are all prone to individual and communal egotism which gets in the way and disrupts relations)—but with mercy, compassion, trust and goodwill on all sides, supported by faith, hope and trust in God’s higher purposes for all of us and for our world, we can overcome these mistakes, learn and grow, rise above grievances, admit faults, restore justice, forgive and forget, forge ahead and build a better tomorrow.

St Francis of Assisi reached out to the Muslim “enemy” to promote peace. Sultan Malik al-Kamil responded in kind.  Given the bonds of friendship and mutual respect the two men forged, when the Christian army were trapped in the flood plains of the River Nile, the Sultan gave food, supplies and safe passage to his “enemy”, enabling them to survive.  This magnanimous gesture of human kindness by the Sultan to those who, although in desperate need, because of their prior aggression did not deserve compassion, countered the propaganda of war so dramatically and effectively that the peace that ensued lasted for years.

During Ramadan Muslims come together in the evening to break the fast at the end of the day with the iftar meal.  In many Christian traditions, sharing bread and wine in ritual remembrance of Jesus is called “Holy Communion”.  I witness that the Muslim practice of iftar is also sacred and also builds communion. It is a special time of bonding among families, relatives and friends, and increasingly, with people of other faiths.  Through this religious-social ritual of sharing hospitality, of opening their homes and their hearts, Muslims have been leading the way in promoting a welcoming, united, fraternal and harmonious society.  This is what is needed to forge our multicultural, multi-religious Australia.  As a Christian Catholic priest who daily celebrates the Eucharist and receives Holy Communion, I am thereby committed to building social communion across the barriers of country, language, culture and creed.  I freely choose friendship and solidarity with Muslims, believers from other religions and all people of good will in this noble cause.  May we all work together for the common good.

I thank the many Muslims for their hospitality and example during Ramadan.  I take this opportunity to wish them all ‎‎ عيد مبارك (Eid Mubarik = Happy Feast Day).