Interfaith dialogue from an Asian perspective

by Sr Maria Odor Malau

I grew up in Indonesia, where the majority of the population are Muslims, so I am used to living amidst diverse cultures, religions, and ethnicities.

I was quite aware, even from our school programme, that being Indonesian meant being open and tolerant with other religions. Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (Unity in Diversity), is the official national motto of Indonesia. This motto refers to the unity and integrity of Indonesia, a nation composed of various cultures, regional languages, races, ethnicities, religions and beliefs. However, had I not been so rooted in my own religious belief and its values, I may not have been so open to other religions. I believe this applies not just to Indonesian people, but to the whole of humanity.

A deeper sense of my Christian faith, which is rooted in Judaism

Over the years I became more aware that these concepts of openness, unity and tolerance are dynamic: they evolve. I recall the time I studied at the Institute of Formation and Religious Studies in the Philippines, where I met two NDS sisters. In one of our classes, the sisters presented the Congregation and its “love of the Jewish people”. My first question, which I have never forgotten, was: “Why for the Jewish people?”

It may sound skeptical, but as it turns out it was a positive realization in me. This sense of curiosity not only remained, but grew into a deeper sense of my Christian faith, which is rooted in Judaism. It became the seed of my vocation to join Notre Dame de Sion.

I needed to become one of the witnesses to the other, to talk, share and pray together

As part of my formation program as an NDS sister, I had the opportunity to live for almost three years in Jerusalem, where I discovered and learned the roots of my Christian faith in the Jewishness of Jesus, in the land where he was born, lived and died.

One significant experience that always touched me while I was there was seeing the interfaith prayer group, called Praying for Jerusalem. Muslim, Jewish and Christian believers gathered in a public area, showing others that people of different religions can pray together, side by side. I admired the witness of faith of those who came to this prayer gathering in the same way I was inspired by the faith of the thousands of pilgrims who came to Jerusalem to pray.

But admiration is not enough. I needed to be present and become one of the witnesses to the other, to talk, share and pray together. I needed to get involved in the situation I was living in and, at the same time, show honour and respect to those who pray in different ways and know that varieties of worship bring the Divine Presence. The spiritual power we brought with us truly demonstrated our faith, no matter which faith we had each grown up with or embraced. I still feel the need to witness and promote Jerusalem as a place of pilgrimage and I will continue to share this joy, even in the midst of challenges.

I felt called to be a witness of God’s love

My experience working for the Commission on Interreligious Dialogue of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference in the Philippines (CBCP-ECID), has allowed me to carry the mission of our congregation with me alongside the activities of the office. This new ministry, where I am engaged with different groups working in the field of interreligious dialogue, has been a significant time of learning. I have grown in my understanding of the broader perspective of the Sion charism.

In the Philippines, particularly in Manila, where the majority of people are Catholic or of other Christian creed, interreligious dialogue can be overlooked in dioceses and parishes. But I see the need to have more initiatives in this field. Sometimes Muslims here experience discrimination from the Christian majority and some even move to different parts of the country due to hostility they have been exposed to. I have witnessed a taxi driver choosing not to take a passenger wearing a hijap because of prejudice. This experience confirmed my will to engage in interreligious dialogue. I felt called to be a witness of God’s love to the Church, to the Jewish people and to a world of justice, peace and love, where all peoples, regardless of race, religion or background, are respected and able to live in peace.

I believe that ministry in interreligious dialogue is important, not only in our Asian context, but also in other parts of the world where we are called to respond to the signs of the times.