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Interfaith Dialogues and Forgiveness: One Common Ground

Talk by Hon. David Kilgour 

Secretary of State (Asia-Pacific) and

Member of Parliament for Edmonton Southeast

Hotel Borobudur, Jl. Lapangan Banteng Selatan, Jakarta, June 24, 2002


*Check Against Delivery

Permit me to say at the outset how much I appreciate the opportunity to address you today.  My colleague, Gurmant Grewal, a Canadian M.P. of Sikh faith, was unable to be here but extends his greetings.

The Indonesian Council on World Affairs has played a positive role in building bridges between faith communities after September 11thLast December, members of your organization and the Islamic Millennium Forum organized an international summit in Jakarta to counter misconceptions about Islam.  The results speak for themselves: 150 Muslim leaders and representatives from fully 50 countries participated.  Included in the Joint Declaration was a call for justice for the world’s diverse communities and a call for Islamic nations and other countries to end global conflict.


Canada and Indonesia have worked together on interfaith matters since the 1950s.  Links to your Muslim community started through the Institute of Islamic Studies (MIIS) at McGill University in Montreal.  This led to a partnership involving your Ministry of Religious Affairs, the State Institute for Islamic Studies in Yogyakarta and Jakarta, and McGill University.

Canadians support Indonesia’s efforts to harness the power of education as a weapon in the fight against ignorance.  In 2001, your Minister of Religious Affairs signed a Memorandum of Understanding confirming Canada’s continuing support for education in Indonesia.  The Indonesian Islamic Social Equity Project with IAIN is the third consecutive Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) financed project in the field of Islamic studies in Indonesia.  From an initial program of scholarship in 1987, the project has evolved and now seeks to strengthen IAIN’s capacity to support teacher training and community development.  Mr. Grewal and I were fortunate enough to visit their facilitates on the weekend.  In the words of their rector, IAIN in Yogyakarta is “the prototype for inter-religious dialogue and harmony.”  We were also told that one of their objectives is to create a centre for religious diversity.  Canada is committed to further supporting other such initiatives in the coming years.

Canada also supports Indonesian religious organizations that are active in initiating inter-faith dialogues.  I understand that Muhammadiyah recently organized a meeting called “Islam and the West working together for a peaceful world.”  Influential leaders in both communities launched a nation-wide movement to promote inter-faith solidarity.  As recently as last week, the Nahdlatul Ulama hosted a meeting with leaders of Muslim organizations, Churches and the international community.


On a more personal note, I am a member of the Muslim-Christian Dialogue in Canada.  Our group brings together the two religious communities.  Three months ago, Reverend James Stevenson, Rabbi Arnold Fine and Imam Shaikh Gamal Solaiman started a tri-logue with the three monotheistic religions called the Abrahamic Faiths Peace Community.  Interest in the group has increased; so has the extent of the challenges.


These challenges, however, are far from insurmountable.  Consider here a book, The Forgiveness Factor-Stories of Hope In A World of Conflict (Grosvenor Books, 1997) by Michael Henderson.  Throughout the book, Henderson tells the stories of citizen-diplomats of all backgrounds who have found the strength to being faith communities together through forgiveness, breaking cycles of violence in the process.  Given the situation that now exists, not only in Indonesia but all over the world, I’d like to share a few of these stories with you.


In 1971, Joseph Lagu was the military and political leader of the guerrilla movement in the south of Sudan during the first civil war between the predominately Muslim north and largely Christian south.  A plane from the north crashed one day in a region controlled by Lagu’s soldiers, and there were twenty-nine survivors.  His colleagues wanted them killed but, in reflecting overnight, Lagu recalled that Jesus, when asked how many times one should forgive, had replied, “seventy times seven.”  The northerners were released unharmed; their message about this at home helped to persuade the government of the day to negotiate the Addis Ababa agreement, which ended seventeen years of armed conflict.

In 1994, Lagu and another Sudanese general, Mohamed Zein elAbdeen, a Muslim and a northerner, shared a podium together at a spiritual retreat centre in Caux, Switzerland.  The northerner told the audience: “We generals are living in one room, very friendly.  He (Lagu) starts in the morning reading his Bible; I read the Koran . . . [W]e can share together because we believe in the same God.  A just and lasting peace can only be achieved through a process of reconciliation, compromise and confidence-building.”


In 1975, Ms. Abeba Tesfagiorgis was arrested by the Ethiopian government for her activities in the Eritrean independence movement and spent the next six months in a tiny cell.  As a believer, she managed later to forgive the individual who had betrayed her but could return to Eritrea only after it won independence in 1991.

Speaking two years afterwards at a symposium on regional cooperation in the Horn of Africa, she challenged the politicians and government officials present to use their education to serve others rather than themselves.  “Reconciliation and healing take time but you win as an individual, as a family, and as a nation,” she said at a later occasion.


In 1987 in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, Gordon Wilson heard his 20-year-old daughter, Marie, say, “Daddy, I love you very much,” just before she died in the rubble of a bomb blast.  The next day, in words which reverberated across the world, he said to the media: “Marie’s last words were of love.  It would be no way for me to remember her by having words of hatred in my mouth.”

PJ McClean was arrested in 1971 for his struggle against British rule in Northern Ireland.  While in prison, he began to re-examine the hatred in his life and finally concluded that, “Catholics and Protestants and people of no religion all need a level playing field so that all can feel themselves to be equal parts of the community and each enjoy a fair chance to move ahead.”  As he puts it, “Society as a whole has paid dearly because unfairness created alienation, and alienation became a breeding ground for terror . . . A cease-fire in the head is every bit as necessary as the cease-fire on the streets.”  PJ currently represents his political party, the Democratic Left, at the Forum of Peace and Reconciliation that has been meeting weekly in Dublin since 1994.


During 1992/93, an ancient Muslim shrine, Babri Mosque, was destroyed near Bombay, unleashing riots leading to hundreds of civilian deaths.  Ms. Barve, a Hindu, was appalled at what had happened and worked to set up peace meetings between the two faith communities and citizen-police committees.  Later, she even managed to get the young men of the Muslim and Hindu faiths to play table tennis, volleyball and cricket with each other instead of throwing stones or worse.

In earlier years, Ms. Barve had begun to build friendships with Muslims across India.  In 1984, following the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by two Sikh bodyguards, there was terrible violence against many innocent persons of the Sikh faith.  Ms. Barve worked hard after that to rebuild trust and break the chain of mutual hate and revenge.


As a son-in-law of Somalia’s president, Yasuf Omar Al-Azhari led a golden life until a military junta took over the country in 1985 and he was forced into six years of solitary confinement.  In the early months, he was tortured daily, but one night he prayed.  His prayers freed him from hate, despair, and depression.  The next morning, the guards found a new person – calm, brotherly and submissive.  The torture stopped.

In 1991, Al-Azhari was freed when the Supreme Revolutionary Council was deposed and its head, General Siad Barre, took asylum in Nigeria.  The prisoner found his family living in a hut in Mogadishu.  His wife had been told that he had perished attempting to escape.  Nonetheless, after two years, he felt obliged to forgive Mr. Barre, aged 887, and travelled to Nigeria to do so.  He describes what occurred at the meeting: “I went all the way there just to tell him, while he was still alive, that I forgave him.  I could see tears flowing down his cheeks.  I thanked God for letting me fill the heart of such a man with remorse.  He said to me, ‘Thank you.  You have cured me.  I can sleep tonight knowing that people like you exist in Somalia.’”

Today, Al-Azhari is working for peace and reconciliation in Somalia, which is without a government, a judicial system, police or schools and where at least 40 percent of the children die before reaching ten years of age.  “Love has been planted in my heart and I vowed there to serve my fellow countrymen and women to reconcile and settle differences with harmony, love and forgiveness.”


Another book, Exclusion and Embrace, by Miroslav Volf of Croatia has much of Importance to say to all of us everywhere on the subject of inter-faith reconciliation, hatred of “otherness,” ancient wrongs, and the self-defects of all of us, including the most victimized.

Let me quote several paragraphs in Volf’s powerful book: “A Serbian journalist . . . comments: ‘How many mothers in Bosnia have sworn to teach their children hate and revenge!  How many little Muslims, Serbs and Croats will grow up listening to such stories and learning such lessons!’  How many children around the globe, we could continue to ask, are growing up with ‘jihad,’ ‘war,’ ‘crusade,’ ‘revenge,’ ‘hatred,’ not only inscribed in their names but woven into the very fabric of their lives.  For reconciliation to take place, the inscriptions of hatred must be carefully erased and the threads of violence gently removed. 

Elsewhere, he writes: “There can be no peace among nations without peace among religions.  Since religious peace can be established only through religious dialogue... reconciliation between the peoples depends on the success if the inter-religious dialogue.”


Real dialogue and understanding can only begin with genuine love and forgiveness. This is the challenge we muse address together: in Indonesia in Canada, and anywhere that misinformed religious beliefs can be misconstrued to foster hatred and violence.


Believers and non-believers alike must rise above ignorance, find a common ground, and work together. It is not enough to live and let live; each of us must actively and constantly be part of the community, helping reduce our differences and interacting with the different faiths. I understand that in North Sulawesi, Christians protect Muslims as they go to pray in the Mosques and Muslims protect Christians as they go to pray in the Church.


Islam and Christianity, like all monotheistic religions, teach that all faiths have in essence one common message: the existence of a Supreme Being, the one and only God whose sovereignty is acknowledged through worship and respect for God's teaching and commandments.


Let me close with a passage from a book called "Essential Sufism,'' by James Fadiman and Robert: Frager. ''The great religions and mystical traditions of the world share the same essential truth. The various prophets and spiritual teachers are like the light bulbs that illuminate a room. The bulbs are different, but the current comes from one source, which is God. It is the same light; each of the individual bulbs receive electricity from a single source. The quality of the light is always basically the same, and so is the original source."


If we can come to recognize this shared origin of our two faiths, there will be a real ground for a true dialogue.


Thank you.

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