Neil McNicholas: Mutual respect is not a leap of faith

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BEFORE I became a priest, I worked for several years in the Middle East in a country where all religions other than Islam were banned – and so, therefore, was any form of proselytising. For four of those years I worked the evening shift helping to operate a recreation facility along with Muslim colleagues.

One of them, an elderly man, had a great love of information and learning – he was always reading, absorbing knowledge, and full of questions. He and I would have long conversations about all sorts of things including our respective religious beliefs and what we believed in common and what we didn’t.

We weren’t out to convert one another, it was just curiosity and a desire to learn, but with a mutual respect for our differences.

In the middle of the complex that is Amsterdam’s Schipol Airport there is a “Meditation Centre” – a non-descript non-denominational prayer room – which, over the years, I have used on a number of occasions to catch up on my prayer time while waiting interminably for connecting flights. Many airports have such rooms, but they can take some finding.

The last time I was there I found myself sharing the room with a Muslim family and a young Jewish lady. There are not many places where you will find Muslim, Jew and Christian praying together – not saying the same prayers, of course, but praying to the same God and that’s a start.

Certainly where I was working in the Middle East no non-Muslim would ever be permitted to even enter a mosque, and there weren’t any synagogues or churches for Muslims to visit even if they had wanted to.

People use that room in Schipol because they want to pray. Therefore it doesn’t make any difference what their religion is – it is simply a place of peace and quiet where they can find their God in the middle of a busy international airport, with each one respecting the right of every other person to be there.

I was reminded of all of this as I celebrated Mass with four prisoners in my new appointment as Roman Catholic chaplain to the local prison. The room we use is non-denominational and is available to people of all faiths and none. Therefore in addition to an altar on which there is also the Christian symbol of a cross, in one corner there is a statue of Buddha, and, orientated to Mecca there is a qiblah. On the bookshelves there are Bibles alongside Korans and other religious books.

No one is offended by this mix of faith symbols, just as no one was in that prayer room in Schipol, and yet how often, throughout history, we have overstepped the mark that unavoidably designates the differences between our various faiths and Christian denominations, and have abandoned mutual respect and taken up arms in defence of our beliefs.

And just as the “war to end all wars” didn’t, we seem to have learned nothing from our past religious wars and conflicts so that bigotry and radicalism continue to take their toll.

Over the centuries we have not only discriminated and persecuted in the name of religion, but we have justified the taking of lives in the name of God and the sad reality, as we know only too well, is that this is still going on today despite the fact that our world is supposedly more enlightened and more civilised.

If I can celebrate Mass in a room that is by turns a chapel, a mosque, a synagogue and a temple, and if Christian, Muslim and Jew can pray side by side in that prayer room in Schipol, surely such mutual respect and understanding should be achievable elsewhere too?

Three of those prisoners at Mass were Catholics, the fourth was a friend of theirs who, as he said, had “come along to see”. I was delighted and he was most welcome, and isn’t that what we should all be doing – coming along to see? By definition bigotry is founded on ignorance in the sense of a lack of knowledge and understanding - we don’t know the beliefs or the teachings of other faiths or denominations and so we listen to, and perpetuate, the myths and the ignorance.

If we would only try to find things out, to ask questions, to seek the truth, to experience things for ourselves.

As with my Muslim colleagues who I mentioned at the beginning, we don’t need to convert or be converted; what we should be seeking is knowledge and understanding as a basis for mutual respect – respect for what we have in common and, at the same time, respect for our differences.

Father Neil McNicholas is a parish priest in Yarm.