Christian, Jewish and Muslim students exit comfort zone

(Photo: WCC)From left: Mataiva Dorothy Robertson, Yusef Syed and Oriya Gorgi; participants in the "Building an Interfaith Community" program in Bossey, Switzerland in August 2013.

Young Christians, Jews and Muslims, some of whom initially feared compromising their faith, have shown they can debate sensitive issues regarding their beliefs, at a meeting near Geneva.

Together they spent nine days seeking to break religious stereotypes, promote mutual respect and enhance their understanding of religions looking beyond a focus on conflict at a meeting that ended Friday.

They took part in a summer course titled Building an Interfaith Community, and were hosted by the World Council of Churches' Ecumenical Institute of Bossey in Switzerland from August 12 to 30.

"The course is an opportunity for me to learn about religions other than mine," said Jewish student Oriya Gorgi, a 21-year-old from Ashdod, Israel.

A student of religious and cultural studies, Gorgi considers the course an academic opportunity to address issues pertinent to religious communities that otherwise might be considered too sensitive.

"In Bossey we have discussed several issues, ranging from the place of feminism in Islam to common values of peace within Christianity and Judaism," said Gorgi quoted in a statement issued by the WCC.

"The discussions here are intense and intriguing, and we are not always in agreement. However, by the end of our conversations I always discover something new about even my own faith. This is the discovery that leads us to mutual respect, tolerance and acceptance of the other," she said.

Gorgi noted that her experience at Bossey has challenged her perceptions based on media reports that often depict religion merely as a source of communal divisions.

"Our faiths have more commonalities than we think," she said.

At Bossey participants also shared different expressions of prayer and spirituality, along with attending scholarly lectures and taking part in a variety of discussions.

Mataiva Dorothy Robertson from the Methodist Church of New Zealand said that initially she feared compromising her Christian faith identity. These fears arose from her traditional upbringing in the South Pacific.

"My understanding of faith was somehow restricted to 'my truth' only. However, I ended up embracing the interfaith community wholeheartedly," she said.

"Conversations with my Muslim and Jewish brothers and sisters gave me the knowledge I lacked," stated Robertson. This dialogue, she stressed, reinforces the need to be respectful of other faiths, an attitude that can help foster mutual understanding and trust.

Robertson referred to Scriptural Reasoning sessions as one of the highlights in the course. "In-depth insights from Bible, Quran and Torah showed me how religions share common values of humanity which can be used to build interfaith harmony, justice and peace in communities."

"When I return home I hope to collaborate with interfaith networks in New Zealand," she added.

Similar experiences were shared by Yusef Syed, an 18-year-old Shi'a Muslim from Ireland. Born to Pakistani parents, Syed has been working with the interfaith groups in Dublin.

"There cannot be black and white understanding of any religion. By participating in the course I have realized how important it is to break stereotypes attached to faith identities," Syed said.

"It is challenging to create a community of diverse beliefs. Once we engage in dialogue, we realize that a deep knowledge of religions exists behind the face of politics.

"One of the great things in the course is to create such a diverse group of friends," he said.

This year the course brought together 25 participants from Brazil, Germany, Ireland, Israel, Lebanon, New Zealand, Nigeria, Palestine, Sweden and the United States.

Initiated in 2007, the course is jointly organized by the Ecumenical Institute of the World Council of Churches (WCC), the WCC program on inter-religious dialogue and cooperation, Fondation pour l'entre-connaissance (Inter Knowing Foundation) and the Fondation Racines et Sources (Roots and Sources Foundation).

Copyright © 2013 Ecumenical News