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Reform Magazine | August 22, 2017

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Simon Jenkins: How to listen to other faiths

Simon Jenkins: How to listen to other faiths

Every few months my doorbell rings and I see two familiar West Indian ladies, one tall, the other short, through the frosted glass. I’ve never been a fan of the JW brand, and so I decided a couple of years ago that the quickest way to deal with them was to love them to death. Rather than shut the door, I threw it wide and thanked them warmly for delivering my copy of The Watchtower, agreed the second coming was imminent, told them I sadly couldn’t talk right now and sent them on their way with my thanks and blessings ringing in their ears.

This strategy was fine in the short term – the Romans should have used it on St Paul – but unexpectedly over several visits we became doorstep friends. Jasmine and Olivia have excellent memories and ask about my family. My thanks for their visits have become sincere. Acting positive has a way of making you positive.

I thought about this when I read a report that the President of Iran, of all people, had tweeted a blessing to the Jews for their new year: “As the sun is about to set here in #Tehran I wish all Jews, especially Iranian Jews, a blessed Rosh Hashanah.” The authenticity of the tweet was contested, but it made me notice how political and religious leaders now routinely say Happy Hanukkah / Diwali / Easter / (insert festival of choice) to other-faith communities.

For example, earlier in the summer, Pope Francis greeted Muslims at the end of Ramadan: “I send you my prayerful good wishes, that your lives may glorify the Almighty and give joy to those around you. Happy Feast to you all!”

The Vatican has been sending such greetings since the 1960s, but these were Francis’ own personal greetings. And after his recent washing the feet of a Muslim girl in a juvenile prison, his words sounded warm and generous.

Goodness only knows it wasn’t always like this. Papal bulls in the 15th Century allowed rulers to enslave Muslims and forbade Christians to eat, drink or bathe with them. You don’t need to go back the 15th Century: Pastor Terry Jones (pictured), who on 11 September 2010 burned the Qur’an outside his church in Gainesville, Florida, was this year arrested with 2,998 kerosene-soaked copies. In the spirit of “an eye for an eye”, he planned to match the number of people who perished in the Twin Towers.

The paranoia which fires right wing Christians also drives the persecutors of Christians in Egypt, Pakistan and other Islamic countries. This vengeful instinct tells us that generosity towards people of religions I don’t agree with is urgently needed.

There are some small signs of hope, the best coming from ordinary believers. During the Arab Spring, pictures posted on Twitter showed Christians in Tahrir Square, Cairo, linking hands to protect Muslim protesters as they knelt on the ground in prayer. This image of believers helping others practise different beliefs was a parable worth contemplating. This August, Muslims returned the compliment by making a human chain in front of St George’s Church in Sohag, Egypt, to protect it from attack by sectarians.

Last January, an imam went to the Kasr el Dobara Evangelical Church, near Tahrir Square, to wish the Christians there a happy (Orthodox-timed) Christmas. The church quickly filled up with Muslims from the mosque to heartfelt applause and tears from the regular congregation. The imam was invited to speak. “We need to understand the spirit of Egypt, the spirit of Islam and the spirit of Christianity in a new way,” he said. “We need to cooperate and collaborate where we agree and dialogue among ourselves where we disagree.”

The next time Jasmine and Olivia come round with my copy of The Watchtower, maybe I’ll invite them in for a cup of tea and a chat – and who knows, maybe even a pray.

Because it’s only when I start listening and being a friend, rather than leaving it to popes and imams, that people of different and conflicting faiths will learn how to share this planet together.

Simon Jenkins is the editor of shipoffools.com. Follow Simon on Twitter: @simonjenks

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This article was published in the October 2013 edition of  Reform

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