Interreligious dialogue called critical to solving ‘family problems’

NEW YORK – Problems among Christians, Muslims and Jews are “family problems,” because the three traditions, sharing an ancestor in Abraham, have much more in common than what divides them, said the Italian founder of a monastery community in the Syrian desert.
Jesuit Father Paolo Dall’Oglio spoke on “The Hospitality of Abraham: A Model for Interreligious Dialogue” July 25 at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in New York.
Father Dall’Oglio leads the Monastery of St. Moses the Abyssinian in Nebek, Syria, some 50 miles north of Damascus. The monastery community is dedicated to hospitality, dialogue and building harmony in an area where Christians, Jews and Muslims have lived together for centuries, said Father Dall’Oglio.
“Since the time of Mohammed, the monastery in the desert has played an important socio-spiritual role, one that is much appreciated and respected in the Muslim world,” he said. “Our greatest wish has been to rediscover afresh that role of hospitality and take it forward in a more explicit and conscious way.
“Interreligious dialogue is not only a matter of being kind to each other, of being welcoming and respectful, but it is a progressive exercise in conceiving one another,” the Jesuit added. “We each have a theological vision based on our spiritual tradition and capacity to conceive universality. Listening to one another with loving curiosity gives us access to the intimacy of (the others) and can bring us to harmony and reciprocal belonging.”
Father Dall’Oglio acknowledged that it easier to overcome age-old divisions and prejudices with small-group dialogues than it is on an international scale. For example, a group of 100 young Syrian adults from diverse backgrounds visited the monastery in late July.
“Syria is a place of harmony, more than a place of tension,” he said. “You feel the deep agreement of Syria to change through gradual development and progress without a bloodbath. We do not accept to be divided by belief community, because what we have in common is much more than what divides us.”
Nonetheless, open discussion of sensitive issues is discouraged in Syria. “We can speak in examples and parables, as Jesus did,” said Father Dall’Oglio. “The conversation over tea is different from the speech on television.”
Violence in the region has many causes, he said. “People are so upset, so desperate and feel so (helpless) that they understand that the only way is resistance,” Father Dall’Oglio said. “This is called ‘terrorism’ in the West, but there is a distinction between local resistance and international terrorism, like al-Qaida.”
Suicide bombings are “a moral, religious and social tragedy” that grow out of “the feeling of being completely hopeless without means of reaction,” he said. “A suicide attack is against both inside cancers and outside enemies.”
A “naive realism of the passage to eternal life” is also a component, he said. “This is a problem with the theology of Islam and has also been a problem with Christians. The relationship between religious vision and violence is an effect of history for each of the groups, because some people consider violence as a religious duty.”
Dialogue is critical because inconsistent political policies and unrealistic self-images have divided the people in the Middle East from the people in the West. “When we in the West look into the mirror, we see an idealistic image of ourselves and do not see the real economic and social behavior of our community,” said Father Dall’Oglio. “I believe the image in the mirror and then am astonished that others hate me!”
He said the “best service the West could offer to the Islamic world is a passion and long-lasting consistency in proposing, not imposing, democracy.”
Father Dall’Oglio’s monastery community is also working with a movement called the Abraham Path Initiative. Its goal is to open cultural and religious tourism along the 700-plus-mile route of Abraham’s travels through present-day Syria, Turkey, Jordan and Israel.
He likened it to the annual pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. “Why not have an interreligious, intercultural path in the Middle East as an educational effort?” he asked.
The 52-year-old priest grew up in Rome and entered the Jesuits in 1975. He was sent to Lebanon by Father Pedro Arrupe, then the Jesuit superior general, to learn Arabic and Islamic culture. During his seminary studies in Rome, he returned each summer to the Arab world.
He first visited the cliff-top monastery of St. Moses in 1982. At that time, the monastery, which dates to the sixth century, was in ruins. Restoration of the buildings began in the 1980s with state, church and private participation. In 1991, he received church permission to use the property and established the monastery community.

Catholic Review

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