I have been fortunate to live and work in two cities with great ethnic, cultural and religious diversity. Fortunate, because I have learned a great deal from people - Jewish, Muslim, Sikh and Hindu in particular - who have taken the trouble to befriend Christians by offering hospitality in their places of worship, helping us to understand their life, giving time to discuss issues of faith and social justice, being willing to make common cause in the pursuit of the common good.
But it is the personal, intimate encounters that leave the most vivid memories. In Coventry, I remember how one afternoon, I was called across to the Cathedral by someone who wanted to see a priest. You never know what this request may be about. On this occasion it was an Asian woman, a Muslim I think, who had just come out of the maternity ward with her baby born 72 hours ago. She wanted to ‘present’ him to God in a holy place before she took him home and asked if I would say prayers with them both. When we had done this, she pressed a banknote in the infant’s tiny hand and helped him give it to me for the Cathedral. It was an unforgettable moment.
In Sheffield, I found myself on the rota to preach at a special service due to be held on the very evening of 9/11. When external events suddenly create urgent theological and spiritual imperatives, you tear up the sermon you had planned and start again. Having to preach that night helped me to see how we must try to bring Christians and Muslims together as soon as possible to make sure what had happened in the US would not put good community relations in the UK at risk.
So I asked one of the senior imams to come to the diocesan synod to give an address. He opened by saying that as people of the Book, it was imperative that all of us as children of Abraham should work together for understanding and reconciliation in our world. Then he turned to the bishop and said: ‘You are a bishop for us Muslims as well as for Christians. We look to you to help us all find the ways of peace, and we thank you for the part you play as a spiritual leader in the life of our city’. Since then, I have heard other leaders of faith communities speak to us Christians in similar ways, but in the aftermath of the terrible events of September 2001, it was especially potent and memorable.
Here in Durham, I recall how we used to be visited by an elderly blind imam from Saudi Arabia who came to England each year to escape the searing heat of the Saudi summer. He was a highly respected theologian and ethicist who had taught clergy serving in the Great Mosque at Mecca. He used to stay with a Muslim community in Newcastle, and once asked them to take him to their favourite place in the North East. So they brought him to the Cathedral.
I took him round on a tour. It took a long time because he wanted to know everything, and relished the opportunity for some friendly dialogue across faith, all of which had to be done through an interpreter. He especially loved Cuthbert’s shrine where he said he strongly sensed the presence of a holy man, just like we have in Islam. He gave me an Arabic-English Qur’an in which he had marked up all the passages that speak positively about Christians. When I asked about those that were negative he replied: ‘I can tell, coming here, that you are all faithful people of the Book. Those other passages don’t refer to faithful practising Christians’.
We all have good stories to tell about encounters like these that affirm our God-given common humanity – if, that is, we are willing to reach beyond the narrow confines of our upbringing, histories and often lazy assumptions to take the risk of meeting people who are different. The ability to live with difference and embrace it is one of the most trustworthy indicators of being adult. This has always been the case. But in contemporary Britain the need to do this has become urgent. It doesn’t need this blog to point out the risks posed to a stable democratic society by extremists who have their own reasons for undermining it. They may be radicalised Muslims bent on indiscriminate killing and maiming. Or they may be people seduced into hating their Muslm neighbours by far-right Islamophobic tendencies on the other.
So I warmly welcome the statement put out today by the Christian-Muslim Forum’s co-chair who is also a senior officer of the Muslim Council of Britain. It represents the best of the noble faith that is Islam. Notice the reference to 'our Archbishop'.
The Muslim communities of Britain, like the rest of the country are shocked and appalled by the horrific murder in Woolwich. The murderers chanted slogans during their heinous crime claiming to do it in God’s name. Far from it. As our Prime Minister rightly concluded, this is a betrayal of Islam. Indeed, this is a truly barbaric act that has no basis in Islam and we condemn it utterly and unreservedly.
Our thoughts and prayers are with Lee Rigby’s family and friends and especially his two year old son. Drummer Rigby was a serving member of the Armed Forces. Muslims have long served in this country’s Armed Forces, proudly and with honour. This attack on a member of the Armed Forces is dishonourable, and no cause can justify this murder.
This crime has heightened tensions throughout the country. The Muslim Council of Britain calls on all our communities, Muslim and non-Muslim, to come together in solidarity to ensure the forces of hatred do not prevail.
I am immensely grateful for the leadership of our Archbishop during this most difficult time and thank leaders of all our faith communities for their support. Your local Muslim communities will welcome your support and I encourage you to knock at the doors of every mosque and offer them your neighbourly love. The Christian Muslim Forum is here to support you in that endeavour.
As we pray for our nation to heal, we also pray for peace and justice throughout the world. Amin.
Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra
Co-Chair, Christian Muslim Forum
Assistant Secretary General, Muslim Council of Britain