PERHAPS surprisingly, there was a distinctly secular flavour to the interfaith dialogue taking place at the Taizé Community’s “Weekend of Friendship Between Young Muslims and Christians”. It’s not that most of those participating were not deeply committed to their respective faiths, nor that there was any sense of antagonism, but simply that there was an understanding that the most fruitful dialogue is born of friendship.
This is something that we see modelled by Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of al-Azhar University, in Egypt, Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb. The Weekend of Friendship at Taizé happened in the light of — and partly as a response to — the document co-written by the Pope and the Imam: Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together (”Human Fraternity”), which, in turn, arose from their growing friendship.
Of course, this is far from the first time that two significant leaders, Muslim and Christian, have found mutual understanding and friendship. This year includes the 800th anniversary of St Francis of Assisi’s visit to, and dialogue with, Sultan Al-Kamil during the Fifth Crusade.
Thankfully, relations between these two great faiths are considerably better than in St Francis’s day, and yet the Taizé meeting took place against the backdrop of growing tensions, both in France and further afield. A new law concerning religious meetings of more than 1000 people means that Taizé has the more or less constant presence of two armed police officers, as well as bag-checks at the doors to the church. The Taizé Brothers are reportedly not particularly happy about this, and there is certainly something lackadaisical about the whole process: each time my bag has been checked, the scrutiny has been cursory at best.
The Taizé Community has long been a source of ecumenical friendship. Founded in the 1940s by the Swiss Protestant Brother Roger as an ecumenical order, it has a desire to engage in interfaith dialogue which should not be surprising. Nor should the dissatisfaction at the imposition of mistrust that the presence of these new security measures brings — and not only to the Brothers.
When I asked visitors about these new arrangements, they expressed frustration, and even anger. “It just makes me feel scared,” one Christian I spoke to said, “and not of my Muslim friends.”
ONE of the first seminars of the weekend was with a panel of women who had recently walked “interreligious pilgrimages” together: the St Francis Way, and the Camino de Santiago. I interviewed two of the panellists: Julia, a 30-year-old Christian from “Austria and Germany — and Europe”, and Semra, 26, a Muslim from Germany. I asked about the first sentence of the Human Fraternity document which refers to all people as “sisters and brothers in humanity”.
“After three days of pilgrimage,” Semra said, “I felt like I was walking with my sister in spirit. Sisterhood and brotherhood are central. Before, I thought this was difficult to grasp, but, when we started to walk together, I didn’t do it because of the document, or because of interfaith dialogue. I did it with Julia, because Julia is Julia.”
Everyone I spoke to seemed to have similar thoughts. “Ultimately,” another said, “what matters most is what’s happening on the ground, not what’s happening between two leaders most of us will never speak to.”
Some young Muslims I spoke to saw the Weekend of Friendship as a way to reflect on their own faith by observing and enjoying the faith expressed in the Christian services at Taizé. This outlook is mirrored in Julia, who, while Christian herself, is drawn to Islam because “Muslims have questions about God that Christians often aren’t asking.”
There is a kind of charming honesty to these reflections: the ability to derive joy from the practice of a faith that you do not personally adhere to is surely a positive within a society grappling for inclusivity and trust. It also hints at a trend among younger people of faith. As one Christian put it to me at “Oyak” (the only bar in Taizé), “millennials seem to be drawn to socially conscious communities, irrespective of which religion they may personally follow.”
Yet, a deep commitment to faith and to many of its traditional practices remains, and this is often accompanied by personal and social difficulties. For Semra, for example, her decision to wear a headscarf intersects with her identity as a BAME woman: “I grew up Muslim in Bavaria; so it marked me to belong to a religion, and to belong to this religion as a minority. I don’t know what it is to be invisible.”
I LATER wondered aloud to Sam, 25, a Christian from New Zealand, whether the drive towards a more personal form of interfaith dialogue has anything to do with a sense of being ignored — or even betrayed — by politicians and others in power.
Unlike many, Sam is critical of the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, who, having been almost fiercely neutral on religious matters, after the recent white-supremacist terrorist attack on a mosque in Christchurch, donned a headscarf to visit the survivors and victims’ families. “But, sadly,” Sam acknowledges, “it often takes such events for anyone to pay attention.”
This truth hints at the fact that interfaith dialogue is most often pursued by those who have little or no choice in the matter. “Being a minority,” Semra says, “I can’t divide by religion who I’m more connected to.” Perceptive words indeed, and a good example of why interfaith dialogue requires more involvement from those who are not from minorities — not to speak over the voices of those minorities, but to stand with them in solidarity and understanding. As Sam points out, interfaith dialogue “cannot simply be the act of speaking, but must be a conscious and practical effort”.
Adam Spiers is an educator and freelance journalist.