Los Angeles-Area Catholics And Muslims No Strangers To Dialogue

A recent forum at the Vatican designed to foster interfaith communication is the kind of thing local followers have been doing for years.

World 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.

It 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.

Before 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.

“It 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.”

One 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.

Muslims 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 archdiocese.

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.

“What 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 understanding.

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.