A sacred trust


A Notre Dame Sister who has been active for many years in interfaith dialogue reports on initiatives which highlight complexities within Islam and the positive steps that are being taken to promote better understanding.

The world continues to be appalled at the atrocities carried out in the name of religion.  At present the violence is associated with Islamic extremism, though all religions have been involved in war and engaged in violence at some time in their histories as we were recently reminded by Pope Francis.  His timely reminder came during an interview with journalists as he returned to Rome from a visit to Poland. Ines San Martin, the Vatican correspondent for Crux, reported on the Pope’s response to a question as to why he never spoke about Islamic terrrorism or fundamentalism when condemning attacks such as the recent murder of Fr Jacques Hamel:

‘I don’t like to talk about Islamic violence, because every day, when I read the newspaper, I see violence and read about an Italian who kills his fiancé or his mother- in-law. They are baptized Catholics. They are violent Catholics.  If I speak of Islamic violence, then I have to speak of Catholic violence too’.

In spite of this, many people still have a sneaking suspicion that Islam is violent at its core.  After all, wasn’t it spread by the sword?

This was one of the questions discussed at a recent colloquium on Islam organised by the Bishops’ Committee for Interreligious Dialogue and the Conforti Institute in Coatbridge.  Islam did spread rapidly, and did so on the back of Arabic expansionism and empire building, as well as Arab commercial interests, much as Christianity did on the back of colonialism.  Angus Hay’s interactive maps showed the interplay between Christian and Muslim empires over the centuries and how the exhaustion of the Byzantine Empire had brought a welcome acceptance of Islam as a new and energetic religion.

Hans Kung has a dictum: no peace in the world without peace between religions, no peace between religions without dialogue between religions and no dialogue between religions without an investigation into the foundations of the religion.  Those who introduced the various topics covered by the colloquium: origins and expansion, sharia law, movements such as Salafism and the place of women in Islam, did just that.  They allowed us to see the idealism at the heart of Islam, the need to understand the context into which a religion is born and in which it develops, the difficulties of ongoing interpretations as the religion rethinks its faith in the light of new historical and cultural contexts, the hardening of attitudes which were not present in its origins or in the teaching of its founders.  The colloquium opened a window into the complexities and diversity within Islam and hopefully expelled misrepresentations, misunderstandings and even fears and suspicions that people are often not able to express.

Dianna Eck, Professor of Comparative Religion and Indian Studies at Harvard University, maintains that

People of every religious tradition depend upon one another to interpret one another fairly and accurately.  We are the keepers of one another’s image.  This is one of the most critical aspects of our interdependence and it is a sacred trust’.


Northern Nigeria

To do this in the case of Islam is to stand in solidarity with our more moderate Islamic brothers and sisters who are anxious to maintain and witness to their Islamic identity while educating the world about its true meaning and practice.  One way of doing this, I think, is to publicise the good things that happen in the Muslim world and Muslim attempts to reach out in friendship to other faiths.

Good things do happen and a there was a recent report in the World Council of Churches newsletter about the opening of the International Centre for Inter-Faith Peace and Harmony (ICIPH) in Kaduna, Northern Nigeria, a region in which more than 20,000 people have died in interreligious violence over the last three decades.  It is the most recent in a growing number of interfaith initiatives in Nigeria which are courageously battling the effects of Boko Haram.  At the formal opening of the Centre, Malam Nasir EL-Rufai, governor of Kaduna State, shared his experience of the way that religious leaders, both Christian and Muslim, sometimes speak and act in ways that hinder interreligious peace – a good reminder, not just to religious leaders but to all of us, that our words about one another can contribute to or hinder peacemaking in our own contexts.

Fr Jacques Hamel

The recent murder of 92-year old Fr Jacques Hamel in Rouen appalled all right minded people of all religions.  The Bishops’ Committee received a number of letters of condolences.  The latest came from the Imam and President of the Central Mosque in Glasgow. The letter reads:

Dear Honourable Archbishop Emeritus Mario Joseph Conti,

We are writing to offer our sincere condolences following the horrific murder of your colleague, Father Jacques Hamel of Rouen.  This barbaric attack on the Church of Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray during morning Mass on 26th July shocked and saddened our congregation.

Father Jacques Hamel served the Catholic Church for over 50 years and had been a positive ray of light in many people’s lives.  His loss will be deeply felt by his family, friends and congregation and our thoughts remain with them in these difficult times.

The Covenant of Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) in the 7th Century to the Christian Monks of Saint Catherine Monastery of Mount Sinai was a pioneering document. It promised freedom of worship, movement as well as security, protection and civic rights.

In a similar spirit, the Muslim Community pledges to work together with the Christian Community in the Abrahamic way of love and mutual understanding to build bridges and overcome the great challenges of our time.

Yaa Rabb Arhamnaa – “My Lord, Have Mercy On Us”

May peace be with you.

Archbishop Conti replied:

Your letter comforts us above all in the conviction it engenders that we have a common interest and a shared commitment to work together for the respect that our Faiths deserve in our society as agents of reconciliation and of peace.

The aim of our Committee for Interreligious Dialogue is precisely so motivated, and I am glad of the opportunity to assure you of this and to express the gratitude of the Catholic Church to the many we have encountered in our work to date whose words and example have increased our knowledge of and respect for the genuine heart of Islam, of which your letter is further testimony.

These are small steps but important none the less. They sow the seeds of peace and strengthen the bonds of friendship which we hope will grow and flourish so that the Kingdom of God will indeed be revealed in our midst.

Public lecture

The reference to the covenant that the Prophet Mohammed made with the monks of St Catherine’ Monastery in Sinai is the Imam’s letter is an interesting one and a good example of how important it is to go back to the foundations of our faith as Hans Kung suggested.  The contents of this covenant were covered in Open House and are to be the subject of a public lecture in the Trades House, Glasgow on 19th September (see below).  They give an insight into an Islam quite different from that perpetrated by extremist groups which are characterised more by intolerance than respect for one another’s faith and freedom of worship.

The lecture is being promoted by the Catholic Bishops’ Committee for Interreligious Dialogue, the Episcopal Church’s Committee for Relations with People of Other Faiths, the Presbytery of Glasgow’s Ecumenical and Interfaith Committee and the Scottish Ahl-alBhayt Society

Sister Isabel Smyth is Secretary to the Catholic Bishops’ Committee for Interreligious Dialogue, Joint Secretary to the Council of Christians and Jews, and honorary fellow of Interfaith Scotland. 


The Covenants the Prophet Mohammed made with the Christian World

Trades House Glasgow

19th September 2016

6.00 – 9.00 pm


To register for the lecture, email events@scottishahlulbaytsociety.org or phone 0141 339 8174

The Pope’s statement can be found at https://cruxnow.com/world-youth-day-krakow2016/07/31/pope-francis-denies-islam-violent

Diana Eck, Encountering God: A Spiritual Journey from Bozeman to Banares is published by Beacon Press 2003.

For information about the Kaduna Centre see news@wcc-coe.org Aug. 19th -26th


Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.