Right from the horse’s mouth!

Fr Patrick and Rabbi Zalman Kastel presentation Malek Fahd Islamic School. Photo: CCCMR

Fr Patrick and Rabbi Zalman Kastel's presentation at Malek Fahd Islamic School. Photo: CCCMR

NSW secondary schools have a "Studies of Religion" course in which teachers present information about other religions in accordance with the curriculum. This course is very important as it enables the students to learn about religions other than their own. This knowledge contributes to better mutual understanding and cooperation between students from different religions, which fosters peace and harmony in society. This will be especially important as the students advance to tertiary education and careers where they will study and work with people of all faiths and worldviews. 

I commend the staff of the Malek Fahd Islamic School system, who went a step further. Theirs is a Muslim school with three campuses in Western Sydney. In addition to teaching the curriculum, they invited Rabbi Zalman Kastel from the Jewish tradition and me, a Catholic priest, to address their senior students doing the Studies of Religion course. The imam at each campus, who is also the Islamics teacher and school chaplain, also participated. The rabbi and the priest each presented on the principal beliefs of their respective religions, Judaism and Christianity. Afterwards, the students asked questions. 

I presented on Catholic Christianity. I first made the point that our three religions are called "Abrahamic", and that we all claim descent from Abraham. I then explained that, as the name implies, Christians are followers of Jesus Christ. To introduce Catholic teaching authorities, I shared that Jesus chose 12 apostles from among his disciples, whose teaching office is carried on by the Pope and bishops. I also said that we follow the Bible. This is important, for the Qur'an refers to Jews and Christians as "People of the Book". I also shared how the churches are organised in parishes and dioceses, a community of communities – that is, we are a structured or organised religion. I presented the text of the Creed, which has been handed down since apostolic times – that is, we have an ancestry or tradition that goes back centuries. Finally, I made the point that beyond all texts, practices, rituals, and structures, Christianity is ultimately about a personal relationship with Jesus Christ which informs the whole of our Christian living.

What is important in this engagement is that instead of the Muslim students reading or hearing about Judaism and Christianity, they met with a Jew and a Christian; they met with members of those religions. It was more than studying a text, but was an interpersonal encounter between believers. They were able to hear a living witness to those religions "right from the horse's mouth", so to speak. The fact that the guests were religious leaders made the encounter even more authoritative. 

Rabbi, Priest, Imam, Teacher. Photo: CCCMR

Rabbi, Priest, Imam, Teacher. Photo: CCCMR

Perhaps even more important than hearing us speak, the students were able to ask us questions. We encouraged them to ask any question that came to mind. And the questions were challenging! Why do you call Jesus the son of God? Can you explain the Trinity? It is great that the students felt free to ask such questions because it is only by asking and answering questions that Jews, Christians and Muslims will come to understand and know each other better, even if we disagree on fundamental beliefs. We can still respect each other as fellow believers. 

My friend, Imam Farhan Khalil, has also hosted me to present the Principal Beliefs of Christianity to his Studies of Religion at the Australian International Academy. I have also presented to Granville Boys High School.    

Rabbis, priests and imams are usually very busy providing various services within their own religious communities. It is not often that they go into a school classroom, let alone that of another religion. Muslim students having the opportunity to listen to and to question a rabbi and a priest in a free-flowing conversation is very rare. I hope that it becomes more common so that students are empowered to promote better mutual understanding and cooperation in our multicultural, multireligious society.

Rev Dr Patrick McInerney, Director, Columban Centre for Christian-Muslim Relations.

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