Bishops Study Islam and Catholic-Muslim Relations

March 17, 2003 By Public Affairs Office
WASHINGTON (March 17, 2003) -- Twelve Catholic bishops inaugurated the interreligious institute for bishops at a three-day program on Islam and Catholic-Muslim relations, March 10-13, 2003. The institute, the first of three to be sponsored by the Subcommittee on Interreligious Dialogue of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), took place at the Center for Continuing Formation, St. Mary's Seminary and University, Baltimore.

The bishops began their short but intensive course with an opening session on major movements, broad themes, and significant trends within contemporary Islam. Several bishops expressed a desire to learn about Islam and democracy and the relationship of events in the Middle East and the current war on terrorism to attitudes among Muslims today. Speaking at that session was Professor John Esposito, Director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Relations, Georgetown University. Bishops participating in the institute were sent Professor Esposito's recently published primer on Islam, What Everyone Needs to Know about Islam, in advance.

There followed sessions introducing major aspects of Islamic life, belief, and spirituality, the Qur'an, Muhammad, and various forms of Islam. Father Thomas Michel, SJ, facilitated these sessions. Father Michel is secretary for interreligious relations for the Jesuits and travels worldwide promoting interreligious dialogue and mutual understanding among religious groups. He also dedicates half his time to ecumenical

relations for the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences. The Asian bishops began offering Bishops' Institutes on Interreligious Affairs in 1979.

Father Michel conducted Qur'anic study sessions at the start and finish of each day's work, so that the bishops would become somewhat familiar with a few important passages in the Qur'an. Joining him in leading Qur'anic study for one of the evenings was Dr. Mohamad Bashar Arafat of Baltimore, a friend of Cardinal William Keeler, who had invited him to that evening's session. Father Michel and Dr. Arafat spoke on the significance of the Fatiha or "The Opening," the first Sura or discourse of the Qur'an, recited by Muslims 17 times at prayer each day.

Concluding the third evening of the institute was a session on the references to Christians and Christianity in the Qur'an. Speaking at this session was Father Sidney Griffith, ST, Director of the Institute for Christian Oriental Research at the Catholic University of America. Father Griffith drew the bishops' attention to several passages in the Qur'an demonstrating that Christians had a significant place in the environment in which Islam arose and that the Qur'an presumes an audience familiar with Christians and Christianity.

Dr. John Borelli, staff for the Subcommittee on Interreligious Relations and Associate Director of the USCCB's Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations, coordinated the institute and spoke on the history of Christian-Muslim relations and the approach of the Catholic Church to relations with Muslims since the time of the Second Vatican Council. Both Father Michel and Dr. Borelli are consultors to the Holy See's Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. Father Michel served on the staff of the Pontifical Council from 1981-1994.

Providing financial support for the institute is the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA). Msgr. Robert Stern, Secretary General, spoke to the group on the final morning about the work of the relief agency in Islamic lands and the important relationships which he and his staff have with Muslims. He made available a series of articles on Islam and relations with Muslims appearing in CNEWA's bimonthly journal Catholic Near East.

The Subcommittee on Interreligious Dialogue, chaired by Bishop Tod D. Brown, Orange, California, assists the Bishops' Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs (BCEIA). The interreligious institute for bishops is a project of the Subcommittee designed to offer bishops the opportunity to study and discuss Islam, the Qur'an, and relations with Muslims with specialists. The next institute will be offered March 15-18, 2004, at Vallombrosa Center, Menlo Park, California. Over the course of three years, the Subcommittee hopes to offer the institute to 40-60 bishops.

The bishops attending this year's institute were: Cardinal William H. Keeler, Bishop John P. Boles, Bishop Blase Cupich, Bishop Joseph Gerry, O.S.B., Bishop Ibrahim N. Ibrahim, Bishop Francis X. Irwin, Bishop Nicholas Samra, Bishop Carlos A. Sevilla, SJ, Bishop Richard Sklba, Bishop Jaime Soto, Bishop James Tamayo, and Bishop Joseph Younan.

For more information contact:

Dr. John Borelli
202 541-3020