Muslims, Catholics Break Bread, Build Bridges
This story was originally published by the Chicago Tribune.
Living in Lebanon as a child, Nuha Dabbouseh remembers how she and a Christian friend would help each other through their respective religious fasts. Her friend would observe the Muslim month of Ramadan with her and, in turn, she would observe the 40 days of Christian Lent with her friend.
It was a gesture shared by children a long time ago, Dabbouseh said, but on an evening when Muslims and Catholics were coming together over dinner and a mutual desire for respect, it was a fitting and relevant anecdote to share with tablemates.
The 19th-annual Catholic-Muslim Iftar, sponsored by the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago, was held Monday night at the Zakat Foundation of America in Bridgeview.
Nearly 200 people gathered to, first, hear experts talk about ways to build bridges across both religions, and then to break the day’s fast at sunset in the Muslim custom of Ramadan.
In a large room inside the foundation that Helil and Donna Demir started just months before 9/11, Catholics and Muslims shared tables and stories as the evening’s panel took turns addressing Islamophobia in today’s volatile and violent world.
Archbishop Blase Cupich was among the keynote speakers.
Calling the event “an important opportunity to learn more and become better acquainted with our neighbors,” Cupich said, “This is a model for what can be done in neighborhoods all over Chicagoland.”
Cupich said the recent killing of 49 people in Orlando underscores the need for more dialogue.
“After almost two decades of interfaith iftars, thankfully, we have a solid foundation here in Chicago on which to continue to build rapport, to nurture our friendship and to address topics of mutual concern,” he said.
Citing Pope Francis, Cupich told the crowd, “Muslims, Hindus, Catholics, Evangelicals — we are all children of the same God. We have to live in peace. We want to be integrated.”
Jamie Merchant, spokesman for the Zakat Foundation, said, “It’s really important that faith communities come together right now with a strong message of solidarity. It’s important that we back each other up and not allow each other to be demonized because of the actions of a few misguided individuals.”
Azam Nizamuddin, adjunct professor of theology at Loyola University, challenged both Catholics and Muslims to look at the issue differently.
“A lot of people think Islamophobia is simply another phase of discrimination,” he said. “But is it merely another rite of passage of immigrants from other lands who take their lumps for awhile and then find acceptance through social integration? Are we simply another version of Irish in early 20th century, or Jews in late 19th century, or even Catholics of 75-80 years ago?”
He said the issue demands that Americans dig deeper, into the pockets of those funding hate-mongering. The public needs to recognize that there are people who are funded to purposely promote bigotry and hate, he said.
That can be countered, he said, “by reaffirming our Christian and Muslim commonalities.”
Rita George-Tvrtkovic, associate professor of theology at Benedictine University, brought her children, Luka, 11, and Anya, 9, to the event.
During her speech, she offered ways Catholics can fight Islamophobia. They include mutually studying the past and understanding the effect it still has today; by being open to newcomers; and by persevering in friendship.
The time to get to know the people at the nearby mosque is not after something happens, she said. “You have to establish friendships and relationships first, and then when things happen in the world, you can call your friends.”
The Rev. Thomas Baima, vicar for inter-religious affairs with the Archdiocese of Chicago, said even though terror attacks, such as those in Paris, California and Orlando, are perpetrated by a few, too often the tendency is to blame an entire religion.
“The media understandably portrays the sensational side of things,” he said. “The reason this (dinner) is so important is it shows the other side, the common side. Here are Muslims and Catholics who are neighbors getting together as friends, as they have for 18 years.”
Baima said the Iftar provides a balance and projects an image of acceptance and understanding.
“We see the misuse of religion in the terrorist acts, which need to be condemned by all religious leaders. What we don’t see immediately are the neighborly acts, the common life of ordinary believers who reject violence in the name of religion. Frequently the Muslim community is asked where are the other voices? Tonight you see the other voices.”
He added there are more similarities than differences between the two faiths, including the ease with which either religion can be misinterpreted.
“Anything that’s being said negatively about Islam could equally be said about Judaism and Christianity,” Baima said. “All of our sacred texts have passages that could be twisted by fundamentalists to condone whatever ideas they have. But that’s not the way the mainstream communities interpret the texts.”
After the speakers finished at precisely 8:32 p.m., which was officially sunset, the buffet line opened and iftar, the meal served at the end of the day during Ramadan, began.
Muslims headed first to the foundation’s prayer center to practice their faith and then joined their Catholic dinner mates in line for shish kebab, chicken tawook, baba ghanouj and hummus, supplied by Al Bawadi Authentic Mediterranean Grill in Bridgeview.
Nuha and her husband Muhamad Dabbouseh, president of the Islamic Cultural Center of Greater Chicago in Northbrook, were joined at a table by Melissa Keegan, who handles the ministry of care at St. Patricia’s Church in Hickory Hills, and her father, Charles Keegan, deacon at the church. Medical student Catherine Jimenez, who attends the University of Illinois Chicago, also took a seat.
Much like at any dinner, discussion ranged from an explanation of religious practices, in this case Ramadan, to stories about family members and talk of health issues.
Muhamad Dabbouseh said: “We are just like everyone else. We are peaceful people who want to raise our families. The people who are violent have nothing to do with Islam. In any religion there are extremists. But a terrorist is a terrorist. If someone who is Christian creates a terrorist act, they don’t say he is a Christian, they say he is a terrorist. And, around the world, Muslims are being killed by terrorists, too. If you don’t agree with their ideology, they kill you.”
Despite the efforts of many Muslims to show Christians in America and Europe that they strive to be law-abiding citizens, Dabbouseh said fear and hatred are still concerns.
Jimenez said she attended the dinner “just to learn more.”
“I have several classmates who are devout Muslims. I just want to learn more about the faith,” she said.
A devout Catholic, Jimenez said, “I guess I am following the Pope’s example.”