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A Short Summer course on Interfaith Engagement: In Theory and Practice

Fiera di Primiero, Italy from 25-30 August 2017

Sitting on a bus headed towards the little township of Fiera di Primiero where our course on interfaith dialogue would be held, little did we know that we were about to embark on a life-changing experience, a journey on which we would get glimpses of God’s love and His potential plan for establishing unity on earth around the Oneness of His being.

For roughly six days, 17 Catholics and 23 Shi‘a Muslims, including university students, seminarians, and professionals from all parts of the world, gathered in the picturesque valley of Northern Italy, just beneath the Dolomite Mountains to attend a summer programme that emerged after the second series of dialogue entitled Wings of Unity. Sponsored by the province of Trent, the programme was organised by Sophia University Institute of Loppiano, Italy – an academic institute established by the Focolare Movement, represented by its president Professor Piero Coda – in conjunction with the Islamic Centre of England (ICE) in London, represented by its director Hujjatulislam Dr Mohammad Ali Shomali.

Strangely enough, even though we had come for an interfaith dialogue, in part to understand and befriend our Christian brothers, most of the Shi‘a participants, including myself, spent the first night mainly getting acquainted with members of our own group. On the dinner table, each group was happy to converse among themselves, a fact that would dramatically change as the shared bonds around the unity of God grew in the coming days. The next morning, the dialogue officially began. Professor Piero Coda asserted the significance of the municipality of Primiero as the birthplace of Chiara Lubich, founder of the Focolare Movement. He described this course as one that is made up of both theory and practice; the goal was not only to understand theological perspectives of both faiths on the unity of God but to also experience a sample of that unity together in the coming days.

Dr Shomali then explained the thinking behind this initiative. One of the driving forces was the verse of the Qur’an which reminds us that God guides those who do their best to seek Him, he explained. To truly seek God, one cannot be satisfied with searching for the Truth within the scope of his own school of thought. Rather, a careful and sincere study of all sources is a must. This idea was welcomed by Professor Piero and the joint initiative of the dialogue was born. They named it Wings of Unity, with wings symbolising complementarity and coordination for the shared goal of flying towards God.

The day’s highlight was a keynote lecture by Professor Coda on the epoch-making novelty of the culture of unity. He reminded us that everything in life is a gift from God and so is the unity we shared amongst ourselves. But as much as unity is a gift, it is also a lifetime commitment. Professor Coda said that we are experiencing a shift in interfaith dialogue. After a long period of religious conflicts, a new era is potentially emerging in which each religion sees itself as a colour of the rainbow, with its own identity and culture, all while being part of a greater united whole. This vision is accompanied by an attitude shift during our interactions with other faiths, whereby we are more determined to ‘walk together and experience together rather than to teach each other’.

 

Dr Shomali took up the baton, shedding light on the culture of unity in relation to man and creation. All Abrahamic traditions share three principles of faith, namely: the unity of God, prophethood and resurrection, he said. Although these three principles have been formalised in all Abrahamic traditions, they should not be regarded equally, for there is nothing that should be put on the same level as the unity of God. From this perspective, he continued, although these three articles of faith are established principles in our religion, prophethood and resurrection are actually sub-principles under the main and core principle of the unity of God.

On Day 2, Dr Bennie Callebaut, a professor at Sophia University, provided a rich overview of the history of the Focolare Movement, Chiara Lubich, her life, her philosophy and her hometown where she was first inspired. Next, a collective scriptural meditation session was held, in which students engaged in fruitful conversations and made connections between excerpts from the Bible and the Qur’an on a single theme.

The afternoon session’s highlight was the presentation given by Rita Moussallem and Roberto Catalano, co-directors of the Focolare Movement’s International Office for Interreligious Dialogue. They summarised the historical stages of interfaith dialogue from the viewpoint of Roman Catholicism. Although there have been doctrinal challenges to approaching interfaith dialogue, each generation was met with new developments that paved the way for a clearer understanding of how we must encounter and unite with the other.

Finally, picking up from his discussion on Day 1, Dr Shomali delved deeper into the discussion on the origins of monotheistic faiths. He explained that all three Abrahamic religions are not distinct with different messengers. Rather, the Quranic view is that each prophet only presented a new edition of the same and only religion of submission to God. Hence, it can be understood, he pointed out, that in all of God’s communications to humankind there was always a harmonious call for unity.

The tryst at the Cima della Rosetta, one of the more accessible peaks of the Dolomites, on the third day, certainly transformed the programme into an experience. Shortly after everyone reached the mountain peak, some of the Muslim brothers spontaneously began to recite God’s praises and some of the renowned supplications of Imam al-Sajjad(a) (the fourth Imam of Shi‘a Muslims). They were quickly joined by their Christian co-travellers with a beautiful hymn, all of whom merged in united prayer to God. Later, congregational prayer was performed with a number of the Focolare present.

Once back at the town hall of Tonadico, Dr Shomali and Professor Coda held an open Q&A session. A sister asked, “How can we practically live what we lived here?” Professor Coda responded: “We can do many projects, but the first thing is that if we do not have the love of God inside us, there is nothing. When I met Dr Shomali there was the love of God. […] We started this walk together. I think it is because I was able to find the presence and love of God inside his heart”.

After touching on the main obstacles for unity under God, Dr Shomali added that “working for unity is in a way easy, but also it can be very difficult since it can be seen as the highest level of human development, that we would be fully united under God. […] [This work] needs a sacrifice.”

On Day 4, Dr Mahnaz Heydarpour contributed a comprehensive overview of the core concepts of Islamic spirituality and the centrality of divine love therein, arousing a standing ovation from a tearful audience. She shared a blend of scholarship and meaningful experience to show how divine love became central to her life and is central to Islam. She presented some of the most important steps, prerequisites, paradigms of enhancing our spirituality by gaining nearness and similitude to God.

She showed how the love of God, His creation and a fellow believer in Him is an integral part of spiritual wayfaring.

Next, guided by his book entitled Unity of God and Unity in God, Dr Shomali went on to talk about the immense benefits and consequences of the Muslim and Christian faith communities especially in light of the return of Jesus son of Mary(a) and the coming of Imam Mahdi(aj). He ended by inviting those who seek unity in God to look to the example of a human body, wherein every part takes what it needs and puts back into the bloodstream what it wants to share, acting as a single whole, as is demonstrated among the Focolare. Only then, he said, can we reflect the image of God as the ocean reflects the sun.

The day closed with a compelling presentation by Dr Paolo Frizzi on the importance of interfaith engagement with respect to the most important world transformations. Dr Frizzi – who is a core member of Wings of Unity, a coordinator of the summer interfaith programme, and the academic coordinator for Sophia Global Studies – explained that the courses at Sophia University Institute are designed with God at the centre of learning and humility and unity are crucial to student development.

The events of the fifth day transcend what can be spoken. “I think we have experienced the welcome of your soul”, Professor Coda professed, “We not only met God at the top of the mountain but also in the valleys of your soul.” Chiara, he continued, wrote something very beautiful in the house next to us here: ‘God says only one word: Love. And this word is pronounced by God in infinite tunes. And each one of these tunes repeats Love, to God and to others.’ This is what we have experienced in these days. One word from God, but in infinite tunes which always speak love, and therefore they’re never out of tune, and they learn more how to play in harmony. […] We have experienced Paradise. […] We can play the harmony of love if we are in tune with God. […] I beg you, whoever feels that God has called him/her to live this kind of experience deep down in your heart, please say yes to God.’’ His humble and insightful words left a deep impression on us.

As the course came to its end, Dr Shomali recalled verses from chapter al-Sharh and concluded: “I think what we have seen today is the result of very hard work, not just,  a few months of preparation. Centuries of work! Prophets and messengers have left with us the message, but then true believers in the course of history tried to remind us of the core of the message which was hidden, and we have people who are inspired every now and then to work for unity and based on their work now we have been able to establish this. […] We ask God to bless all of them. I ask that you dedicate your lives to God – not the God of any tradition or nation, but the God of all […]. Try to be the most humble and the least of the servants of God, and just pave the way for other people. […] We want to serve everyone so that they go towards God. That is the great honour.”

Contemplation

 Leandro, one of the students at Sophia University Institute, said, “I had never met Muslim believers.  […] What we shared on the mountain […] when we were praying altogether […] makes me feel really optimistic. In the beginning, I couldn’t imagine how this experience would be […]. I’m always being surprised by God’s plans for each one of us […] I think He always has bigger plans than what we can imagine. As we receive this gift, this gift comes with a great responsibility, to share with others what we lived in these days.’

“Coming here, it wasn’t very clear how the relationships were going to be […]. You come here and you don’t know what will unfold […]. I think it’s very beautiful that within a few days we were feeling that we moved our friendship to the brotherhood. It taught me that I need to give the opportunity to others, spend more time with them, listen to them, and also share my story with them; and leave everything to God so that He will move this relationship from what appears to be just friendship into a brotherhood type of relationship. So I think we have to be patient and open, and try to carry on with this type of work […].” said Mahmoud.

“Now, not only did I see or feel God’s love and His voice strongly through my religion but also through yours, through Islam. He also gave me new brothers and sisters, which is more than I could ask for,’ said Diego, adding in that moment on the mountain ‘of being one, of praising God through both religions’, it was just a really amazing feeling, it was a different kind of experience. We were high up there but I felt even higher, and I could feel God’s love through us […] and also through the nature that was around us.”

“[Before this trip,] the concept of sharing the love for God […] was an abstract concept […] but over the last five days, I felt that we can love God together and it doesn’t matter that I’m a Muslim and you’re Christian. What matters is we love God.  And I have hope now, that when the Imam Mahdi comes with Jesus, we can stand up together and say, ‘We worked together and we can serve you together.’ I think over the last five days that has really touched me, and I have hope. I have hope for the future and I have hope for humanity.” said Fatimah.

“It was the first time that I listened about unity from brothers and sisters of another religion. For me, to continue in this way doesn’t make sense if I am just with my brothers and sisters (from the Focolare Movement).  It just makes sense if we are together.” said Catarina.

“For me, it was very difficult to come to terms with this idea of how we can experience God – Muslims and Christians – in a relatable manner while in our belief systems some of the points are so different that it’s not possible for us to feel the same. This was really something that was a major obstacle for me to unite with Christians. […] There must be something that is beyond concepts […]. Throughout the days we were here, I think my answer, personally, deep within myself, came to me when we were in the mountains. There, I closed my eyes and suddenly the sun […] was shining on us. […] I felt that behind me there was so much energy, and I couldn’t say if the energy was Muslim or Christian; I just knew it was pure. […]”, said Reza.

“In these days I experienced that you have the same love, because love is one and you have God’s love in your life, so you also have Jesus’ love. I want to express my gratitude to Shaykh Shomali and Piero Coda and the other scholars and all of you because you prepared the path of unity, and this week can help us to have a better understanding and experiential knowledge of God, and also ask God to purify our ways of thinking about God and purify our way to do theology also.” said another student at Sophia University.

“I remember at Sophia we used to say: this is the school where there is one master, only one teacher; it’s not Piero, it’s not Bennie -it’s God.  And I feel here that this one school at the End of Time we just began now.” said Noemi, a former student at Sophia University.

As we were returning to our hotel that day, the streets of the township of Fiera di Primiero saw faithful Christians and Muslims walking side by side as they shared the never-ending tunes which always speak love.

Testimonials:

Unita in Italia by Br Ahmed Khweir:

We ventured into the heart of Europe once again

Ready to experience, ready to gain

Another step on the journey of unity

Another step on the path of love

We had all the essentials, in trusting companions, spiritual leaders and a setting that makes the spirit awe

We will be constantly asked, what we saw

We scaled heights in mountain and in spirit,

But this wasn’t a trip to stay physically fit,

This was a journey of exploration of the heart

Everyone keen to get on the same cart,

The language of Unity came in one real form, love

This love isn’t material, nor observable unless in its effect

One example is how the dove glides and graces land, this is a dove with a designer that must be perfect

We have countless examples of this perfection in creation

It’s impossible to recollect in paragraphs of summation,

We greeted this land and its people,

Where smiling is a norm and landscape charmed by their steeples

The smallest municipality in Italy they say

You might say an Ideal space for a fraternity,”

Our prayers were true; we only wanted to be with you, the Divine

We had people in the vicinity that walked with a glowing shine

We graced some views from the Dolomites that photos and videos cannot do justice

Many of us wanted to get as close as possible to the precipice

We prayed together in an ultimate tribute to The One

This mountain, so domineering from down below was a place of sanctuary up above,

It just takes moments of reflection to see the inner beauty,

It was clear that these mountains were holding hands in unity,

their origin from tectonic plates twinning in crystallisation and purity

In this, we have an example to emulate,

We also have spiritual masters who are on their way to formulate

Our days were filled with interaction and dialogue of unity

All corners of the globe represented in its sublimity

The goal wasn’t uniformity

It was to bridge lives with wings of unity

 

Sr. Mariam Al-Awadi:

Originally, I did not know what to expect from this summer course. I feel truly humbled, honoured, grateful and privileged to be given this valuable experience. It broadened my perspective on the importance of unity and love for one another. To believe in God is truly a gift and to work together to call people towards God is an even bigger gift. My favourite part of the trip was our unified worship on top of Rosette Mountain. There, everyone gathered naturally without being called upon, gravitating towards a few brothers in sincere prayer. We felt serenity and happiness as we prayed together in Arabic, English, and Latin to our One Lord. I pray this course continues to unify us in times of division and extends its branches further and its roots deeper.

Sr. Adeelah Nasser:

Nothing could have prepared me for what we experienced in the interfaith course in Italy. It was a beautiful adventure of the heart and soul. I left Italy feeling uplifted, elevated, and with a certain calmness, I haven’t felt before. The learning we received came not only through the lectures but also through the shared experiences and melding of our hearts and minds. I wish everyone could experience something like this in their lifetime.

Sr Fizza Hasan:

If you ever get an opportunity to be part of the ‘Wings of Unity’ Summer Course then grab it with both hands – trust me you will not regret it! There are few precious experiences that make your soul peaceful and enliven your hope in society – this was one of them. I decided to embark on this adventure upon the recommendation of a teammate who took part in this last year. I could talk about the journey, the breathtaking sights, the wonderful lectures and workshops but what really stood out for me were the fantastic group of people, Christians and Muslims that attended from all over the globe which I was honoured to be amongst for six days. It was refreshing to meet so many like-minded people who were eager to learn and extend their own knowledge, share their stories and think practically how to apply their newfound learning within their respective communities. My sincere gratitude and thanks go to Dr Sheikh Shomali, Dr Heydarpour and Professor Coda for having the vision and purposeful meaning to integrate two faiths together, and to all the people that were involved in making this fabulous course happen in the picturesque setting of Fiera di Primiero.

Dr Salam Al-Attar:

When believers in God gather and praise the Oneness of God, the blessings and Mercy of God showers upon them and opens their hearts to reap the benefits of their interaction. This summer, in the valleys of Primiero, Italy two seemingly different faith groups reaped a transformational experience of true brotherhood in humanity and in faith. It became evident throughout the course that the love and subservience to the Almighty that fuels our daily lives were manifested in the physical and spiritual unity amongst all of us. This course was a testament to the genuine existing bond between brethren in faith, particularly in our Christian and Muslim teachers (and their respective institutions). The knowledge acquired compelled us to take our relationships with each other to a higher level by being one with each other in the servitude of the Almighty God.

It was rewarding to partake in this unique relationship in God and I sincerely pray for all the continued success of organisers and participants. May the fruition of all the seeds of wisdom sown by our teachers and mentors pave the way to a brighter, more united, future for all.

 

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