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‘A Common Word’ in the News

Los Angeles-area Catholics and Muslims no strangers to dialogue

recent forum at the Vatican designed to foster interfaith communication
is the kind of thing local followers have been doing for years.
Roman Catholic and Muslim leaders made headlines this month when they
met in a first-of-its-kind interfaith forum at the Vatican. Locally,
some faithful saw the forum not as something new but as an affirmation
of efforts they have been making for years.

The goal of the
forum was to discuss commonalities between the two religions, focusing
on theology, spirituality, human dignity and mutual respect.
Twenty-nine leading religious clerics and theologians were present,
including Pope Benedict XVI and Mustafa Ceric, grand mufti of Bosnia.

The result was a 15-point declaration
that addressed several issues, such as the rights of religious
minorities, gender equality and ethical financial systems for the poor.
The first point, also the longest, basically summarized the tenets of
each religion.

The forum, held Nov. 4-6, came two years after
Benedict was widely criticized by Muslims for quoting a 14th century
Byzantine emperor who said the prophet Muhammad had introduced “things
only evil and inhuman.” The pope later apologized, and the next year
138 Muslim clerics, theologians and academics sent an open letter to
Christian leaders focusing on the commonalities between the faiths.

was that letter that prompted this month’s forum, said the Rt. Rev.
Alexei Smith of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Smith,
the director of ecumenical and inter-religious affairs for the
archdiocese, said it was unclear how the meeting would affect local
churches and mosques.

“Certainly in Los Angeles we have been at the
forefront of inter-religious dialogue,” Smith said. “I think this is a
great affirmation of what we’ve been doing all along.”

The forum
could serve as an inspiration in areas where dialogue is not occurring
or where believers sometimes feel unwelcome, such as for Muslims in
Europe or Christians in Saudi Arabia, he said.

Smith’s sentiments on local interfaith efforts were echoed by Usman Madha, director of the King Fahad Mosque in Culver City.

the mosque was built in 1998, the permit process was drawn out because
of opposition by some neighbors. But nearby St. Augustine Catholic
Church held a special prayer session for the mosque to get the permits.
The weekend after 9/11, Madha was invited to St. Augustine to speak
about Islam at the Saturday Mass and all six Sunday Masses.

King Fahad Mosque is also part of a national “twinning” campaign
between mosques and synagogues to confront Islamophobia and
anti-Semitism. Today the mosque will help kick off the campaign at
Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills.

But Madha, too, recognized the importance of the meeting at the Vatican.

may come across as a show, but these are the leaders, and they have to
point the way,” Madha said. “Let’s dwell on our commonalities, not our
differences, and the Abrahamic faiths have a lot of similarities.”

benefit from the declaration is that Catholics will finally hear what
they have wanted Muslims to say for a long time: a denunciation of
terrorism and violence, Smith said. And because the declaration comes
in part from the Vatican, Catholics may finally recognize that message.

have denounced terrorism for years, “but seemingly very few people have
heard it,” Smith said. “I think Muslims especially in the Los Angeles
area have been saying it.”

Although religious leaders are,
predictably, lauding the meeting, how will it affect average
parishioners? Two local believers — one Catholic, one Muslim –
offered some opinions.

“You have to start at a grass-roots level
and change the way people feel in small increments,” said Vito
DeBellis, who attends Holy Family Church in South Pasadena. “You can go
top down, but you can also go bottom up, and I think you have to attack
it at both ends.”

DeBellis, a retired violence intervention
administrator with the Los Angeles Unified School District, has
recently become involved in inter-religious activities through the

DeBellis, 60, said people are more comfortable when
things are black and white, whereas interfaith efforts are about
creating a gray area where religions can come together. It’s not
religious tolerance, he said, but the acceptance that, in the end, the
religions believe in the same God and the same destiny.

“It’s the acceptance of gray as a legitimate color — it’s not dirty white, it’s the acceptance of gray,” he said.

Acceptance is a big theme for DeBellis. He wants Muslims to know that
not all Catholics are entrenched in dogma and rituals and that they are
open to learning about other religions. And he wants to know what
Muslims think of Catholics.

“Do they believe others are
infidels? You know you hear that word. Do they view other people as
sinful?” he wondered. “I’d hope to hear, ‘You know what, yeah, we
believe something different, but in the end it’s small potatoes. Bottom
line, we believe in a powerful all-loving, forgiving God.’ ”

A few miles away, in West Los Angeles, Mohammad Sabah said things that would have reassured DeBellis.

I would like to do is bring out the common ground that I see, like
Islam is not anything different — it’s just a continuation of what
came before,” he said. “I just want to bring it out that Islam is not
something new.”

Sabah, 30, a software engineer for a media
company, liked the idea of the Vatican forum and said not enough of
these initiatives take place. He has never taken part in any formal
interfaith event, saying he is more interested in the practical,
everyday discussions that spring up and can lead to better

He recalled the time a colleague, who had spent a
few years in Saudi Arabia, asked why women there can’t drive. Sabah
described the difference between culture and religion (the ban is
cultural), and then explained about women’s rights in Islam, something
often misconstrued in the West.

That kind of direct dialogue is
preferable to silence, he said, because prejudices can be directly
addressed and changed. It’s about exchanging ideas, not proselytizing.

“It’s not about changing or shaking” your faith, he said. “It’s about learning more.”

Abdulrahim is a Times staff writer.