On the surface, it was speeches and a light meal, but on a deeper level it was building relationships.
Top Catholic and Muslim leaders in Edmonton say that despite differences they continue to build bridges between two of the world’s biggest religions.
Already the two communities – and their faith, education and social service agencies – work together on housing, refugee settlement, education and social justice issues, but there are now calls on both sides to do much more, not only on social issues but to understand each other in a deeper way.
“The Catholic Church here at the local level and around the world, and I want to emphasize this, is deeply and irrevocably committed to Christian-Muslim dialogue in all its many forms and wherever it may be found,” Archbishop Richard Smith said. “We’re not turning back.”
He was speaking at a meet-and-greet with leaders of multiple Muslim branches on Aug. 28 in St. Albert, the historical heart of Catholicism in Alberta. The event included tour of the Mission Hill site, including Mary’s Grotto and the cemetery where many Oblate missionaries are buried. It came a year after Archbishop Smith’s visit to Al-Rashid, the first mosque built in Canada and the largest and oldest in Edmonton.
Catholic and Muslim leaders say their cooperation helps each community get to know each other, building on what Pope Francis has called a “culture of encounter” to break down barriers.
“The most dangerous challenge facing Christians and Muslims is misconception, misunderstanding, how to deal with the other,” said Imam Nasser Ibrahim of the Al-Rashid Mosque. “You have to listen to others.”
“I’m very happy to mention this, for Muslims and Christians, that the safest country for Muslims and Islam today is Canada,” Imam Nasser said. “This kind of event is amazing. It translates, it describes, the true teaching of the Bible, the true teaching of the Koran. Jesus is not far.”
The Catholic Archdiocese of Edmonton and the Intercultural Dialogue Institute (IDI) cooperate in hosting an annual iftar and friendship dinner at Providence Renewal Centre during the month of Ramadan. And Archbishop Smith hosted a gathering of Muslim leaders at his home following the January 2017 shootings at the Quebec mosque, as a reminder of their shared values and trust.
Local Catholic and Muslim leaders say the relationship should be expanded.
“My hope is to celebrate decades of understanding between the Archdiocese of Edmonton and the Muslim community with women and youth projects that strengthen and give back to all communities,” said Dr. Nahla Gomaa, a member of the Edmonton Council of Muslim Communities, a coalition of 12 faith-based organizations.
“Combating racism is an example. Reducing violence is another example. Being against hunger everywhere in the world is a third example,” said Gomaa, a member of Annoor Mosque in southwest Edmonton. “This relationship is aiming at a better society to live in.”
Archbishop Smith agreed, adding their cooperation should go beyond the level of faith alone.
“I’d love to see us take common stands against domestic violence in this province. That’s a huge issue here,” Smith said. “We tend to focus upon, and rightly, standing up against violence that’s perpetrated against a religious community … But far, far more serious and prevalent is the violence that’s happening against women and children – and sometimes against men – within the home.”
Archbishop Smith noted there are future opportunities for biblical and koranic scholars in Edmonton’s Catholic and Muslim communities to work together in academia – and beyond.
“What about an encounter between a Muslim family and Catholic family, to share traditions and just to talk and get to know one another so it goes beyond this high, official level?”
Muslim leaders say Islam and Catholicism have commonalities that some may be unaware of.
“Practically, our faith is perfected only when we believe in the scrolls of Abraham, the Torah of Moses and the Gospels of Jesus, peace be upon them all. All prophets are paternal brothers,” said Imam El-Sayed Amin of the Rahma Mosque in west Edmonton. “There is a road map which we need to draw together and hope to apply from today for better Christians and Muslims in Alberta at large.”
Sofia Yaqub, a director of the Edmonton Council of Muslim Communities, said: “If you are truly practising your religion, no matter if it’s Catholic or if it’s Islam, you will try to be useful to other people.” At the same time, there was caution against the rise of the fringe groups who use faith for self-interest.
“You would say there’s no godliness in the actions that we’re seeing claimed by those who say that they believe in God, be it in the name of sectarianism – which has really ravaged parts of the Middle East – to extreme movements within the alt-right which also preach about God,” said Imam Sadique Pathan, the outreach imam at Al-Rashid.
“The question I have is ‘Which God are they claiming?’ because it is not the God that I have. And I don’t think anyone in this group can relate to that God that they’re referring to. We can indeed come together here to be the example for the future how communities can thrive together.”
Of the meeting between Edmonton Muslim and Catholic leaders, Pathan said: “This is a testimony of the fruits of taking that first step.”