A personal experience of Muslim-Christian dialogue – Novena 4

The OLA Provincial Leader, Sr Kathleen McGarvey, presented a reflection on the fourth evening of the Novena of Prayer in honour of Our Lady. The Novena will conclude with the SMA Annual National Pilgrimage to Knock on Saturday, 23 May 2015.

Sr Kathleen shared about her personal experience of Muslim-Christian Dialogue. The following is an edited version of her sharing which many people afterwards commented favourably on.

Queen of Peace is an invocation to our Lady which is very necessary in our world today where there is so much violence and conflict, so often done in the name of religion. Working for peace in the field of Muslim Christian dialogue is a path of mission in which I was very much involved in Nigeria and it is one in which I still try to be involved in and from Ireland. Working for peace is part of the mission of the Church, and as we know, mission is the responsibility of every baptised person. Jesus tells us: “Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God” (Mt.5:9). Muslims too believe this: in the Qur’an, it is stated: “And the slaves of the Most Beneficent (Allah) are those who walk on the earth in humility, and when the foolish address them (with bad words) they say: Peace (on you)!” (25:63).

Mary is called Queen of Peace for many reasons. Primarily, because she is the mother of Jesus, the Prince of Peace. From the little we know of Mary in the Gospels she certainly seems to be a woman who was at peace with herself and with God. In the messages given by our Lady at Fatima and Medjugorje she asks people to pray for peace, and throughout the ages and all over the world, Mary has inspired people to work for peace.

Muslims too have the highest respect for Mary. In the Qur’an, Mary is the only woman mentioned by name and she is mentioned thirty times, far more often than in the New Testament. A whole chapter of the Quran is named after Mary (Q 19). Muslims believe Mary was chosen above all women (Q 3:42), she was a virgin, Jesus was her son, born miraculously by the will of God, without a father, but they insist that neither Mary nor Jesus was divine. The village of Fatima in Portugal, where Our Lady appeared and where Peace is so often prayed for, is named after a Princess who was named Fatima after the only daughter of Muhammad the prophet (founder) of Islam.

With such distrust between Muslims and Christians and so much violence done in the name of Islam today, we pray that Our Lady, Queen of Peace, will touch the hearts of all of us, Christians and Muslims, and will help the world grow in understanding and in peace.

In Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, as well as in so many other parts of the world today, the most barbaric and cruel form of violence and injustice is committed in the name of religion, in the name of God, and mainly in the name of Islam. About a fifth of the population of our world today is Muslim. Most Muslims are very good peace-loving people going about their daily lives, with their joys and sorrows, trying to fend for their families, build communities and obey God.

We hear a lot on the news about Nigeria: we hear about religiously framed terrorism, ethnic and religious riots, insecurity, corruption and what not, all bad news! Fr Maurice and Fr Johnny, and I’m sure many of the other priests and sisters here tonight who lived for many years in Northern Nigeria, could tell us a lot of good news about that beautiful country. It’s a country with a population of about 165 million with Christianity and Islam being the major religions, neither religion predominating at national level. In their daily lives, most Nigerian Muslims and Christians live together in peace most of the time, many are friends, some are intermarried, most work, study and play together on a daily basis, sharing life as human beings in a multi-religious society must do. However, there is a deep underlying distrust between Christians and Muslims which can erupt into violence very easily and this tension has cost the country tens of thousands of innocent lives.   In the last few years, the growing presence and violent terrorist tactics of a radical militant group called Boko Haram, which claims to be Muslim, brought another whole dimension of insecurity and distrust into the region. All of this is a source of grave concern to the people of Nigeria and adds a very preoccupying dimension to mission in Nigeria today.

The reasons for the violence are many, of course. In Northern Nigeria, the majority tribe is Hausa Fulani of whom at least 98% are Muslim. There are numerous other minority indigenous tribes as well as many members of non-indigenous tribes who are Christian. This religious and ethnic configuration is an important detail since it is in fact the focus for the contestations, claims and counterclaims that are at the root of much of the conflict there. However, poverty is the major cause and behind the poverty there is injustice and corruption. Violence erupts because of tension and competition over scarce resources, such as markets, farmland, political appointment and so on.

As is the case the world over, women and children are always hardest hit by violent crises. During my seven years in Northern Nigeria I was very involved in interfaith relations and in peace building, trying to build trust and positive relations between Muslims and Christians. I worked in dialogue at many levels, in the Church, with Government bodies, with NGOs, with youth, but I worked especially with women. Dialogue in Nigeria, or indeed anywhere there is conflict, is not always easy.

In 2010 we invited all the women leaders of women’s faith groups to meet to see if we could work together for peace. From that we set up the Women’s Interfaith Council that has as its motto ‘Women of Faith, Mothers of a Culture of Peace’. We had many meetings, seminars, and workshops for the women so that they could together analyse the conflict and find ways to work together for peace. We also invited men to many of the events so as to conscientize both women and men on relevant issues in the field of conflict/peace building and to allow them to discuss these issues openly and with sincerity. We held press conferences, published press statements, and used the radio and television to transmit calls for peace. We arranged for Muslim and Christian women faith leaders to speak together on the radio and on television, about equality, non-violence, reconciliation and conflict resolution.

After various outbreaks of violence, such as after the terrible post-election violence in 2011, we paid solidarity visits to some of the areas that had been destroyed and to the camps of persons who had been displaced as a result of the conflict. The women donated food, clothes and hygienic materials and we distributed these to the displaced people as a means of giving some relief to those affected by the violence. Anywhere we went it was as Muslim and Christian women together and this gave a loud witness of solidarity and love. When a Catholic Church was bombed in Kaduna in October 2012, we paid a solidarity visit to the bomb victims who were still receiving treatment in the hospital. Again all the women’s faith groups donated relief materials. Together we also visited the Church that had been bombed and we prayed together on the site where the bomb had hit. We also held an interfaith solidarity prayer, with up to three hundred Muslim and Christian women together, dressed in black to show that we are together in mourning for the loss of our children, sharing the pain and suffering. and together in faith crying out to the same One and only God.

Some of these experiences were indeed very touching; probably the solidarity visits to the victims of violence were the most touching of all. It was great to see women form friendships with one another across the religious divide and be able to overcome the prejudices they had about each other. Their courage was admirable: they were not afraid to speak out even on the television about the need to forgive one another and live together in peace. It was of course very challenging to be involved in dialogue when few people believe in it. Most of the Christians even in my own religious community and in my parish simply could not bring themselves to trust Muslims or to believe dialogue was possible or could be fruitful. So much money and effort has been put into dialogue and peacebuilding but violence continues and people are therefore sceptical about it. However, my belief is that if we can’t live together on earth we will certainly not live together in heaven; hence the only way to a better tomorrow is to learn to understand one another, and join hands to build together a better world.

Someone said: “When the power of love overcomes the love of power the world will know peace.” Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, gives us a great example. She asked no questions about people’s religion; she simply had compassion, shared their suffering and did what was in her power to bring them love and peace.   Mother Teresa also gives us great advice: “Let us not use bombs and guns to overcome the world. Let us use love and compassion. Peace begins with a smile. Smile five times a day at someone you don’t really want to smile at; do it for peace.”

The work that I was doing in Nigeria, and which continues strong today even though I am no longer there, was possible because of the money donated for mission in Ireland and because of the prayerful support from home. I take this opportunity to thank you very sincerely for your faithful and continuous support of missionaries.

Here in Ireland today there are about fifty thousand Muslims; many of them have immigrated here from different parts of the world, and some are Irish who have become Muslims for one reason or the other. Quite a few efforts are being made to help Muslims integrate into Irish society. However, many more efforts are needed to help us understand one another and live together in peace. I encourage this parish and all of us here to be involved in whatever way we can.

Let us ask Mary, Our Lady Queen of Peace, who is so respected by Muslims as well as by Christians, to bring peace to our world. Through her intercession may the people of Nigeria today as well as people all over the world, and here in Ireland, learn to see God in each other and to be instruments of peace.