IFTAR DINNER 2021
St Mary’s Cathedral House
Welcome to the eleventh Iftar ‘breakfast’ hosted by the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney. It is with great joy that I’m able to welcome you all back to my place tonight, after a year of forced separation due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We were especially conscious of the hardship the COVID-safety restrictions imposed upon our Muslim brothers and sisters during last year’s Ramadan. Gathering is perhaps the most natural of human activities, but especially so for worshipping people, and its loss was keenly felt. So it’s great to be back together in person!
I acknowledge and welcome from the Muslim Community: Dr. Ibrahim Abu Mohammed, Grand Mufti of Australia; Sheikh Kamal Mousselmani, Chair of the Supreme Islamic Shiite Council of Australia; Sheikh Shafiq Abdullah Kahn; members of the Australian National Imams Council (ANIC) and the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils (AFIC); and other imams, sheikhs and representatives of the Muslim Community.
From the Jewish Community I salute: Rabbi Dr. Benjamin Elton from the Great Synagogue; Rabbi Jeffrey Kamins from the Emmanuel Synagogue; Rabbi Zalman Kastel from ‘Together for Humanity’; Mr. Michael Ossip from the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies; other Jewish Community leaders; as well as faith leaders and representatives from the Buddhist, Hindu and Ba’Hai communities;
From the Christian Churches I recognise: their excellencies Bishop Emilianos of Meloa, representing Archbishop Makarios of the Greek Orthodox Church; Bishop Daniel of the Coptic Orthodox Church; Bishop Peter Hayward of Wollongong, currently Administrator of the Anglican Diocese of Sydney; Bishop Michael Stead, Anglican Bishop of South Sydney; Rev. Simon Hansford, Moderator of the Uniting Church Synod of NSW-ACT; along with clergy, religious and lay representatives of various Christian confessions;
From the Catholic Church I acknowledge: Bishop Antoine-Charbel Tarabay of the Maronite Diocese of Australia; Bishop Terry Brady, Auxiliary Bishop of Sydney; Mr Chris Meney, Chancellor of Sydney; Sr Giovanni Farquer RSJ, Director of our Archdiocesan Commission for Ecumenism and Inter-religious Relations;leaders of Catholic tertiary institutions and the Catholic school system; and other clergy, religious and lay people representing our religious congregations, agencies, ministries and parishes;
From the First Australians I salute Lisa Buxton, Director of Aboriginal Catholic Ministry, who led our acknowledgment of country. I join her in acknowledging the elders past and present of the Cadigal clan of the Eora nation, traditional custodians of the land on which we meet tonight.
And I welcome all other community leaders and faithful. It’s great to have you all in my home!
The word rival comes from the Latin rivalis, which itself derives from the word rivus, meaning a river or stream. It initially meant two people who shared or used the same stream. But it came to have its modern antagonistic sense through a quirk of slang, in which rivalis was colloquially used in ancient Rome to refer to someone who shared the same mistress, and was thus a ‘rival’.
The history of the faiths represented in this room has at one time or another embodied both senses of the word rivalis. The three great Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, for instance, all share a common source: the stream of divine grace that flows from the one transcendent Creator God, through our common Father Abraham, the prophets and the Book. Other faiths, too, share with us the great messages of peace, love, salvation. We are all truly rivals, in the sense of people who drink from the same stream. And as desert people like the first Jews, Arabs and Christians knew well, a common drinking hole can be a great source of unity, of laying aside differences in the face of common need. We have often co-existed as good neighbours and collaborators and recognised each other as children of the one God, Adonai, Allah.
Yet too often we have been rivals of a different kind. In many parts of the world, we still are. We have disputed over the physical and spiritual water holes, fought rather than co-existing as neighbours, ignored each other rather than collaborating as friends. Hurts have been nursed over centuries, so that what should have been a shared stream of grace is bloodied and muddied by attempts to proselytize, conquer or enslave.
How are we to resolve this tension? In the realm of music, composers sometimes add a different melody on top of or underneath an existing melody, so that, while the two are independent and different melodies, they work together, in harmony, interdependently, as a single piece of music. We call this ‘counterpoint’, from the Latin punctus contra punctum, point against point. It is recorded as far back as the Harmonika Stoicheia Ἁρμονικὰ στοιχεῖα of Aristotle’s student Aristoxenos, in the use of the drone (a held open fourth or fifth interval) underneath much classical South Asian music, in the mediaeval Jewish devotional and folk music known as klezmer, in the arabesque vocal ornamentation of Moorish Spain, in the great renaissance and classical works of Catholic, Lutheran and Anglican polyphony, in the duets, trios, quartets (and more) in opera, in the novel counterpoint of modern ‘Jewish’ composers such as Mahler, Mendelssohn, Meyerbeer and Schoenberg, in the repertoire of Muslim-American composer Mohammed Fairouz, and in the harmonized singing of Pacific Islanders, barbershop quartets and the like.
A very common trope within counterpoint is the use of ‘imitation’, where the counter-melody mimics the original melody. We think of Row, Row, Row Your Boat sung as a round, with each person starting at different points. What is interesting about musical imitation is that, although it is possible for the different voices to sing identical words and melody, this is not necessary: in fact, the music is often the more beautiful where there are the subtle differences between the different voices. The counterpoint can introduce a different but harmonious note, key or melody, while still largely imitating and certainly complementing the main melody so the music retains its structure and depth.
This notion of imitative counterpoint offers us a way of understanding our gathering here tonight, and, indeed, all year round. It is common to most or all of us here tonight to seek to imitate the divine – yet our first thought might well be: how could I? Surely this is an impossible, even blasphemous, aspiration? God is infinite, all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving, all-holy, while I am limited, ignorant, weak, half-hearted, sinful. But here our reflection upon counterpoint might help. If we imagine the life of God as the principal melody, then each of us may craft the melody of our own life in imitation of that. Though our different faith traditions may not all start on the same note, we recognise that none of us imitates Him perfectly, but we try and then trust Him to fit our feeble attempts into a greater harmony, an even more beautiful music. In the process we hopefully let go of the grudges, bitterness and hate that make us spiritual rivals and makes our ‘music’ cacophony, and assume the divine qualities of tenderness, forgiveness and peace that ensure musical harmony.
Which brings me back to the question: need rivals be enemies? Well, since last we met, we’ve heard a resounding ‘no’ to religious antagonism. On 4 February 2019 Pope Francis of the Catholic Church and Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, met in Abu Dhabi to sign the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together, also known as the Abu Dhabi Declaration. In it the two leaders committed to “a culture of dialogue as the path; mutual cooperation as the code of conduct; reciprocal understanding as the method and standard.” They called on us all, as faith leaders, “to work strenuously to spread the culture of tolerance and of living together in peace; to intervene at the earliest opportunity to stop the shedding of innocent blood and bring an end to wars, conflicts, environmental decay, and the moral and cultural decline that the world is presently experiencing.” They asked both religious and civil leaders and influencers “to rediscover the values of peace, justice, goodness, beauty, human fraternity and coexistence, in order to confirm the importance of these values as anchors of salvation for all, and to promote them everywhere.” They repudiated terrorism as “deplorable” and said it threatens the security of people and disseminates panic, terror and pessimism. And they insisted that such violence “is not due to religion, even when terrorists instrumentalize it. It is due, rather, to an accumulation of incorrect interpretations of religious texts and to policies linked to hunger, poverty, injustice, oppression and pride.”
A year later, Pope Francis issued his encyclical letter, Fratelli Tutti: On Fraternity and Social Friendship, which he said was particularly inspired by the Abu Dhabi Declaration that “God has created all human beings equal in rights, duties and dignity, and has called them to live together as brothers and sisters”. This claim, he insisted, was “no mere diplomatic gesture, but a reflection born of dialogue and common commitment.” His long and rich encyclical “takes up and develops some of the great themes raised in the Document that we both signed.” (FT5).
Just before the pandemic drove the world into lockdown, religious leaders here in Australia signed onto the Abu Dhabi Declaration at a meeting sponsored by the Australian Catholic University. These included Archbishop Adolfo Tito Yllana (Apostolic Nuncio to Australia), Bishop Michael McKenna (Chair of the Catholic Bishops’ Ecumenical and Inter-religious Commission), Melkite Bishop Robert Rabbat, Chaldean-Catholic Archbishop Amel Nona, Sydney Latin-Catholic Bishop Terry Brady, Dr Ibrahim Abu Mohammed (Grand Mufti of Australia), Sheik Shafiq Abdullah Khan (Chair of the Australian Islamic Cultural Centre), and Professor Hayden Ramsay (Deputy Vice-Chancellor of ACU). On that note I would like to thank Sr Giovanni Farquer RSJ and the Archdiocesan Commission for Ecumenical and Interreligious Dialogue, for all the work they do to make us sharers of the same stream, rivales in the good sense, not enemies.
Earlier this year Pope Francis made another visit to the Middle East, this time to Iraq, a land close to the origins of all three great Abrahamic religions, a land where many Christians in recent memory were killed or driven out by ISIS, and here we think especially of Archbishop Nona’s home of Mosul. In Iraq Pope Francis met Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in the holy city of Najaf, where both pleaded for an end to religious extremism and violence. It was a significant moment in the progress of peace and friendship to which we all aspire, and Sheikh Kamal Mousselmani will say a few words about that visit in a little while.
So there have been some real strides in inter-religious dialogue in the COVID era. But none of us should imagine that all is sweetness and light with respect to freedom and respect for religion in our world today. Our various churches and faith traditions have campaigned together in recent times to protect human life, to guarantee religious freedom, to preserve our ability to present Special Religious Education in state schools, to resist the imposition of ideological programmes upon faith schools, and to ensure that places and activities of worship are treated fairly, in the face of negativity from some public health officials towards all worship. These and other challenges will continue in our culture, but happily they draw us together as people of faith.
Perhaps the most appalling continuing example of religious persecution in our world today is the genocide and brainwashing of the Uighurs in China. Our hearts are torn open at the horrors occurring there daily, and as a Christian leader I condemn this unconditionally.
So how do we respond? Politically, of course, we seek to change, to influence, to intervene. But we are not political leaders or even, first and foremost, political influencers. No, we begin by making a choice: to insist that sharing the same divine stream should be a cause for celebration and collaboration, not contest. We respond with friendship. We respond with prayer.
In her 1979 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Mother Teresa said: “There is so much suffering, so much hatred, so much misery, and we with our prayer, with our sacrifice, are beginning at home. Love begins at home, and it is not how much we do, but how much love we put into the things we do.” We here tonight know the truth of these words. We do not gather to pay mere lip-service as Christians, Muslims, Jews and others, or to engage in a baroque dance of one toe in, one toe out, then twirl it all about. No, we put faith and hope and love into our gathering, each of us in our own way, contributing to the great polyphony and trusting God to conduct the music.