Bishop challenges Catholics to combat 'ugly tide of anti-Islamic bigotry'

IMAGE: CNS photo/Denis Grasska, The Southern Cross

By Denis Grasska

DIEGO (CNS) — San Diego Bishop Robert W. McElroy is challenging U.S. Catholics
to take an active role in combating “the scourge of anti-Islamic

are witnessing in the United States a new nativism, which the American Catholic
community must reject and label for the religious bigotry which it is,” he
said in a keynote address delivered Feb. 17 in the University of San Diego’s Joan
B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice.

evening event took place against the backdrop of the first national
Catholic-Muslim dialogue, which was held Feb. 17-18 at the Catholic university.

May, after more than 20 years of regional dialogues with representatives of the
U.S. Muslim community, the Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs
of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops established a national
Catholic-Muslim dialogue.

by the call of “Nostra Aetate,” the Second Vatican Council’s
declaration on the relationship between the Catholic Church and non-Catholic
faiths, the dialogue seeks to foster understanding and collaboration between
Catholics and Muslims. Chicago Archbishop Blase J. Cupich has been named its
first Catholic co-chairman.

In addition to Bishop McElroy’s
speech, the evening also featured a keynote speech by Sayyid M. Syeed, national
director of the Islamic Society of North America’s Office for Interfaith and
Community Alliances, who reflected on the state of Catholic-Muslim relations
from the Muslim perspective.

A discussion with both men was
conducted on stage by Ami Carpenter, an associate professor at the Joan B. Kroc
School of Peace Studies, with members of the audience invited to ask questions.

his remarks, Bishop McElroy exhorted Catholics “to recognize and confront
the ugly tide of anti-Islamic bigotry” in the United States, to actively
seek relationships with Muslims on a personal level, to accompany the Muslim
community as it wrestles with religious liberty issues, and to join with them “to
witness to and fight for” a Middle East where Christian, Muslim and Jewish
communities can coexist peacefully.

McElroy said U.S. Catholics should view with repugnance the “repeated
falsehoods” that Islam is inherently violent, that Muslims seek to
supplant the U.S. Constitution with sharia law, and that Muslim immigration
threatens “the cultural identity of the American people.” Such claims,
he said, are strikingly reminiscent of the anti-Catholic bigotry that was once
prevalent in the United States.

the bishop’s denunciation of prejudice does not signify a denial of the reality
of terrorism.

want to underscore that it is not bigotry to fear or to combat the violence and
terror which some Muslims in the world have unleashed in the name of faith,”
he explained, while acknowledging that some Christians also have attempted to
use their faith to justify acts of violence.

McElroy also challenged U.S. Catholics to overcome the “patterns of social
segregation” that lead them to associate almost exclusively with people
from similar backgrounds. Because of this trend, he said, many Americans do not
have a significant friendship with a single member of the Muslim faith.

bigotry thrives in an environment of social isolation,” he said. “Encounter,
which leads to friendship and, thus, deeper understanding, is the most
important antidote to prejudice and bigotry.”

such encounters, he said, Catholics may take inspiration from the rich
spirituality of the Muslim people, which includes the centrality of daily
prayer, a commitment to asceticism and an understanding of “the immensity
and the richness” of divine mercy.

McElroy reflected on the development of Catholic doctrine on the subject of
religious freedom and noted that it was once suggested that, “in a (John
F.) Kennedy presidency, it would be the pope who would ultimately govern the
United States.” He said Catholics must speak out against “distortions
of Muslim theology and teaching on society and the state, because these
distortions are just as devastating in the present day as the distortions of
Catholic teaching … which were disseminated in American society in the 19th

encouraged Catholics “to walk with the Muslim community” as it
reflects upon issues of religious liberty and the relationship between church
and state.

concluding his presentation, Bishop McElroy issued one last challenge:
Catholics and Muslims should work together toward a peaceful future and an end
to religious conflict. Praising Islam’s respect for “the peoples of the
Book” — its term for adherents of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, each
of which trace their lineage back to the patriarch Abraham — the bishop
acknowledged the fear and grief that has been caused by religious violence

called it “a terrible wound to the Christian community” that
Christians in the Middle East are facing “extinction” in a region
that has been there home for more than a millennium, while it is “a great
tragedy for the Muslim community” to see Muslim refugees denied safe haven
in Europe.

final challenge to the Catholic community in the United States,” Bishop
McElroy said, “is in reality a challenge to both the Catholic and Muslim
communities to walk in solidarity, witnessing, strategizing and advancing
public policy within the U.S. and within the Muslim world to forge a secure
future for all of the ‘peoples of the Book’ in the Middle East and throughout
the world.”

his own keynote presentation, Syeed noted that the first millennium was marked
by positive relations between Christianity and Islam, but that changed in the
millennium that followed, which included the Crusades.

long stretch of endless confrontation between the two faiths divided the world
into a ‘house of Islam’ and a ‘house of Christianity,'” he said. “Such
a division … helped to establish mutually destructive attitudes and
stereotypes that shaped our respective cultures and formed our individual
consciences for centuries.”

“a new era of understanding and recognition” dawned during the latter
half of the 20th century, he said. “Nostra Aetate” was instrumental
in bringing an end to “the millennium of confrontation between Islam and
Christianity.” This improved relationship, he said, also has coincided
with the emergence of a “vibrant Muslim community” in the West.

said Syeed, the Islamic State terrorist group has reintroduced “the terminology
of (the) Crusades era.” It identifies Christians as “crusaders”
rather “people of the Book.” The “antidote” to the Islamic State
philosophy, he said, comes through robust Catholic-Muslim dialogue as well as
the lived experience of Muslims in the West.

specifically cited his own organization, the Islamic Society of North America,
whose members have lived peacefully among American Christians for more than 50
years. Living in a pluralistic society has encouraged American Muslims to re-examine
the original sources of Islam and to reconsider some conventions that were
adopted centuries later.

instance, while women are prohibited from driving cars in Saudi Arabia, Syeed
explained, many American Muslims have taken a different view on the subject, citing
Muhammad’s own exhortation that parents train their sons and daughters to be
good camel-drivers and applying that directive to modern-day modes of

Aetate’ and the Islamic practices of American Muslims have thoroughly
identified natural allies between the Abrahamic faiths and other religious
communities,” he said. “This is the shape of a new millennium of
alliance-building for common values of mutual respect and recognition.

faiths are striving to promote those divine values enshrined in our sacred
texts and scriptures,” he continued, “so that those who exploit them
for reinforcing hate, extremism, violence and instability are identified as the
enemies of all faiths.”

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is assistant editor of The Southern Cross, newspaper of the Diocese of San

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