Symposium promotes harmony between Catholics and Muslims

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PROVIDENCE — Cardinal Blase Cupich, Archbishop of Chicago, and Imam Shaykh Abdool Rahman Khan, of the grassroots group Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), were two of the high-profile guests in attendance for a symposium on Catholic-Muslim relations held at Providence College last week.
Both Cardinal Cupich and Sheykh Khan are co-chairs of the National Muslim Catholic Dialogue, an organization dedicated to promoting harmony between Catholics and Muslims.
Dr. Sandra Keating, a theology professor at Providence College who specializes in interreligious dialogue, with an emphasis on Catholic-Muslim dialogue, organized the Oct. 18 symposium, held in the Ruane Center for the Humanities.
The two main speakers were the English-born Catholic prelate Cardinal Michael Fitzgerald, and Dr. Zeki Saritoprak, a professor of religious studies at John Carroll University in Ohio.
Many students and professors from Providence College, as well as Catholic and Muslim clergy, were also in attendance at the symposium.
Providence College President Father Kenneth Sicard said the event was designed to promote an interfaith dialogue, something the college does well year-round.
“The fundamental concept that brings us together tonight — dialogue based on friendship and respect — is familiar to us at Providence College,” he said, noting how the night’s events were born out of a long tradition at the college of fostering interreligious dialogue on campus.
“As people of faith, we are called in charity and love to share God’s gifts to us with our sisters and brothers from all traditions, and I am so pleased that we are advancing this conversation tonight.”
Cardinal Fitzgerald focused on his experiences with the Islamic world, particularly in Africa, over the course of his long career. Born in England in 1937, his priestly formation was with the Missionaries of Africa, a society for priests and religious formed in the mid-19th century that focused on missionary, educational and humanitarian work in Africa.
While studying for the priesthood, Cardinal Fitzgerald spent time in Tunisia studying French and Arabic, the two main languages of the region. Ordained a priest for the Missionaries of Africa in 1961, he continued his studies at the Pontifical Gregorian University and later the London School for Oriental and African Studies, where he furthered his knowledge of the Arabic language as well as of the Islamic religion. He spent most of the late 1960s and 1970s teaching at the Pontifical Institute for Arab and Islamic Studies before being sent to Sudan in 1978 to minister to the needs of the Christians of that region. In particular, he worked with Catholics in the predominantly Muslim regions of Sudan and was also charged with overseeing Catholic-Muslim relations in the region.
During this time, he launched several academic journals that specialized in interreligious dialogue, and was eventually appointed to be the secretary, and later president, of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. He was consecrated a bishop in 1992 by Pope St. John Paul II, as titular bishop of Nepte in Tunisia, and served as the official Vatican diplomat to Egypt, and later the League of Arab Nations. Even though he retired from active ministry in 2019, he was appointed the same year to the College of Cardinals by Pope Francis.
One major element that served as a thread connecting Cardinal Fitzgerald’s experiences is the importance of cultural exchange in interreligious dialogue, and how the former can help to bring about deeper appreciation and cooperation between different groups when challenges arise in the latter.

“When there is difficulty in religious dialogue, it is possible to engage in cultural dialogue,” Cardinal Fitzgerald noted. “Religion should not be an obstacle to dialogue between different people.”
Another major theme in his lecture was the possibility of Catholics and non-Catholics understanding and learning from one another. He went on to note that not only is there a possibility for such mutual enrichment, but we must embrace this process of learning from one another with a sense of enthusiasm, a process that requires a sense of mutual trust.
Cardinal Fitzgerald noted how openness to people of different religious persuasions was pivotal in his work as an educator and scholar who very often worked with Muslim thinkers and students over the course of his career, and how a lack of such openness and mutual trust was often the source of religious and ethnic tensions in parts of the world where Muslims and Christians live side-by-side.
Cardinal Fitzgerald was followed by Dr. Saritoprak. A native of Turkey, Dr. Saritoprak spent most of his education focusing on Islamic theology, philosophy, and law. Starting his career as a professor at the University of Harran in Turkey, he went on to serve a series of research and teaching roles at many prestigious American universities, including the Catholic University of America, Georgetown University, and, most recently, John Carroll University.
Dr. Saritoprak built on many of the themes in Cardinal Fitzgerald’s lecture. He noted, for example, the importance of knowledge in interreligious dialogue, and that knowledge of another’s beliefs is not rendered impossible by religious or ideological differences. He called to mind the time in which Cardinal Fitzgerald briefly lectured on the Koran at John Carroll University. When asked what he thought of the Cardinal’s presence, he said, “I prefer Archbishop Fitzgerald teach Islam than an ISIS person.”
The lecture was generally well received by those in attendance.
“The lecture was very enlightening,” said Father Joseph Ekwoanya, a Catholic priest from Nigeria who is currently studying theology in Providence College’s graduate program.
He noted that the experiences of the speakers parallel his own experiences in Nigeria, which has a large number of both Christians and Muslims who are often in tension with one another.
“This is why today’s talk is very important. It sheds light on the relationship between Christians and Muslims,” Father Ekwoanya said.
Imam Saffet A. Catovic, a Muslim clergyman associated with the Office of Interfaith and Community Alliances at the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), noted that the most immediate challenge that Muslims and Catholics face in their journey together are issues pertaining to social justice, especially global warming.
“Muslims make up one-quarter of the population, Catholics make up another one-quarter of the world’s population. Together, we can do a lot,” Imam Catovic said.
When asked her view on what she saw as the biggest opportunities and challenges that define Catholic-Muslim dialogue, Dr. Keating said, “I think it’s the same thing it’s always been, which is, we have a lot of preconceived notions about each other. And most people who are involved in dialogue find that, when we get to know people who belong to the other religion, we have a very different attitude than we imagined.”
Cardinal Cupich expressed similar sentiments.
“It always does come down to these kinds of exchanges that are needed in order to correct misperceptions that people have of each other. We have found that, the more we learn of each other, the more we learn we have so much in common,” Cardinal Cupich told the Rhode Island Catholic.
He went on to assert that events like those that took place at Providence College provide an opportunity to “continue building on the successes already [accomplished],” which in turn provide us with “an inspiration to do everything possible to break down those walls of ignorance.”
This is particularly important at this time, the Cardinal noted, since the National Muslim-Catholic Dialogue has been on hiatus due to restrictions related to gathering in public that resulted from Covid-19.

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