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- Added March 17th, 2017
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By Colin Gibson in All Sorts
The meeting of different faiths provides examples of interconnections leading to understanding.Open Education began its 2017 series with a very special event, one that even drew an ODT reporter and camerawoman. For nearly two hours, people of different faiths, Christian and Muslim, sat quietly beside each other to make a combined audience for a talk on the Lampedusa Cross now in the possession of the Mornington Methodist congregation.
It was only a brief moment in the long and generally acrimonious history of Christianity and Islam when the two faiths touched fingers, signaled when we all spoke to our nearest neighbours in Arabic and English, As-salam alaikum-Peace be with you.
That expression of goodwill might have been considered connection enough. But interfaith dialogue is much more complex (and difficult) than that. And as I thought about what had happened I began to realise that the evening had brought about a wonderful chain of connections reaching across continents and languages and faiths and cultures and time.
At 8.15, at the conclusion of the formal part of the evening, one of the Islamic leaders asked for the prayer room which I had promised to set up to deal with the difficulty that 8 o'clock is one of the set hours for prayers for orthodox Muslims. He went quietly off to the room, having checked on his iphone compass the direction of Mecca, and knelt down on a carpet. This was no ordinary piece of carpet, though he could not have known that. In 1979 a desperate Russian woman fleeing economic chaos in Russia carried with her that carpet, a family heirloom, and sold it to a carpet dealer in Istanbul. Later that same year, Jeanette and I were in Istanbul as tourists and purchased the carpet and had it shipped to New Zealand. How wonderful to think that a Muslim leader in New Zealand, attending a talk on the 2017 refugee crisis, should be gifted a prayer mat by an anonymous Russian Orthodox woman, enduring her own economic migrant crisis 38 years previously.
Our proceedings would have been impossible without the services of Ahmet Mahmood, an expert in Arabic and English. His fluent translation of all I said made the connection between those who knew only the English language and those who knew only the Arabic language in that room. Difference in language is one of the greatest barriers of all to inter-racial and social harmony (witness the appalling statistics of illiteracy among Maori prisoners). Understanding what the other person is saying to you is a precious, liberating experience. Another reason for saying As-salam alaikum-Peace be with you to each other. Different languages, the same meaning.
The great Lampedusa cross, with its blue-green upright and orange cross-piece, now cradled in a superbly crafted block of New Zealand rimu timber-itself glued together from throw-away bits of timber- presided over our session. Constructed from two pieces of wood salvaged from shattered refugee vessels and joined together into a cross shape, it is as potent a symbol of connection as you could wish. It now connects the tiny island of Lampedusa, the frontier of Europe standing in the Mediterranean Sea only 70 miles from the North African coast, with our much larger island on the opposite side of the world, which is now taking into its community some of the shattered refugee families escaping from war and poverty on the African continent.
Even more than that, as I pointed out in my talk, such a cross connects all human beings of many cultures and over a vast period of time, for, millennia before the foundation of Christianity, the earliest crosses represented the making of fire (by rubbing two sticks together) and became the insignia of gods and kings. Indeed, it was not till the 4th century AD and the triumph of the Eastern Roman Emperor Constantine, that the cross was adopted as the official symbol of Christianity.
During the evening I showed a short film clip from an Italian-made documentary on the arrival and reception of refugees on the island of Lampedusa. Exhausted from lack of food and water, drenched in diesel fuel from being hidden below decks, stripped of all possessions but the clothes they wore, they were taken off insanely overcrowded fishing vessels, given a simple thermal blanket, bussed to a reception centre, searched for weapons, and photographed like any criminal with a number held behind their head. That some of them were still able to smile and thank their rescuers seemed a miracle.
A suddenly another connection. A woman from one of the Syrian refugee families present at our meeting bravely stood up and in halting English, begged us to help stop the war in Syria, where so many (and so many children) had died. She explained that even this little film scene had profoundly moved her, for her own brother had fled the war in Syria and sailed to Lampedusa, and must have endured the same process on arrival, before continuing on to Germany. And it was she who when we gathered for supper contributed her own gift of sweet home-baked Syrian cake-as a gesture of thanks for what we had done. What little we had done in the face of such a monstrous conflict, carried on by those indifferent to the fate of men, women or children. Indifferent to the core values of any religion-Muslim or Christian- indifferent to the claims of morality, of decency, of humanity of any kind.
'Only connect', said the great English novelist E. M. Forster. Truly, on Wednesday night we discovered something of what that might mean.