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Interfaith dialogue, respect:
Orthodox church seminar focuses on tolerance
 
By Teresa Peneguy Paprock
 

For H.E. Metropolitan Paulos Mar Gregorios, part of being Christian was to extend unconditional love to those who aren’t.

 

At this year’s Paulos Mar Gregorios Memorial Seminar, held Nov. 23 (2002) at St. Gregorios Malankara Orthodox Church in Oak Park, Ill., people of a variety of faith traditions met to focus on those elements of faith that promote peace in a turbulent world.

 

“Experience shows that the deeper we go into our respective religions, the more clearly we find that basic love of God and love for all humanity which should unite us all,” said Thirumeni, who never wavered from his Orthodox faith but promoted respect for those of other faiths.  “The more rooted one is in one’s own tradition, the freer and more secure one becomes in facing our fellow human beings and finding out unit in God and in our shared aspirations.”

 

Before a gathering of about 50, four speakers discussed their traditions’ view on pluralism and unity:  Re. Fr. John-Brian Paprock (Orthodox Christian), Swami Varadananda (Hindu), Dr. Javeed Akhter (Muslim), and Rajinder Singh Mago (Sikh).  Dr. Joseph Thomas moderated the talks.

 

Fr. Paprock, the third American priest in the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, described his journey to the church of Paulos Mar Gregorios, whose writings had always inspired him. Fr. Paprock, pastor of a small mission in Madison, Wisconsin, has been involved in interfaith activities for many years.  “As I have studied his legacy, his writing and the anecdotes of his life, I have found myself in awe of his profound insight and resonated deeply to his words,” said Fr. Paprock. “It is in reflection on his words that I find myself responding, ‘Yes, this is Holy Orthodoxy. This is the articulation of the spiritual gift of our church to the modern secular world.’”

 

Dr. Javeed Akhter is Executive Director of ISPI, an Islamic Think Thank in Chicago. His presentation focused on Muhammad as a pluralistic leader, the subject of one of the chapters of his book, “The Seven Phases of Prophet Mohammad’s Life.”  Akhter explained that Mohammad had been called to the city of Madinah as an objective administrator to end disputes. In doing so, Mohammad developed the Covenant (Constitution) of Madinah, which outlined principles essential to the peaceful functioning of a pluralistic society – the first document of its kind. 

 

 “All religious, ethnic and tribal groups had equal protection, rights and dignity,” explained Dr. Akhter. “ Muhammad's inspiration for this pluralistic model was the Qur'an (Koran), which makes it incumbent upon Muslims to accept and respect all the previous messengers without distinction and respect their communities.”

 

Dr. Akhter continued, “The Qur’an is quite explicit in promoting pluralism and condemning its anti-thesis, ‘particularism’ (a theological belief that only an elect few who follow a particular faith are eligible for redemption).”

 

Many verses in the Qur’an support religious pluralism, despite the fact that some Muslims have misinterpreted scriptures. “The concept of religious pluralism emphasized in the Covenant (of Madinah) differs substantially from tolerance alone,” he explained. “Pluralism presupposes equality amongst various groups, rather than one elite group merely tolerating another inferior group out of charity. The Covenant allowed for coexistence of different religious communities that would live by their own beliefs, judge themselves by their own laws, and help each other against any outside threat.”

 

Swami Varadananda, of the Vendanta Society of Chicago, is an American who was raised Christian and later converted to Hinduism. Rajinder Singh Mago is of the Chicago Area Sikh Community. Both discussed their spiritual views, which are largely inclusive. The Sikh scriptures, in fact, include passages written by saints and holy men of all religions.  

 

For Orthodox Christians, it is clear that our faith is in Christ alone. We don’t believe that “all religions are the same,” and we’re not Unitarians. At the same time, we recognize that God is bigger than any of us can imagine, and that it is not for us to consider ourselves better than anyone based on our religious faith.

 

As Mar Gregorios said,  “”In dialogue, all are on the same plane, respectfully listening to and learning from each other. You may be convinced that your religion is the only true one. But do not make any claims of superiority over others on that ground. We are all equally contingent and dependent on God’s grace and mercy, whether we be Hindus, Christians or Muslims, whether some of us acknowledge that grace and mercy or not.” 

 

Teresa Peneguy Paprock

This article originally appeared in Orthodox Light and Life. Teresa Peneguy Paprock / words & stuff freelancing retains the copyright to this article and it may not be reproduced, in whole or in part, without express permission. For reprint rights, contact Teresa Peneguy Paprock at words@chorus.net or P.O. Box 5207, Madison, WI, 53705.

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