Bahai News -- The Straits Times -

Have faith in dialogue

By Mafoot Simon

In short

A committee to deal with inter-faith issues is likely to be set up after work on the first-ever Code on Religious Harmony is completed. Will this mean the end of the road for the 54-year-old Inter-Religious Organisation (IRO)? Not if its new president can help it. Sister Theresa Seow, the first woman president, is all for restructuring the organisation, re-examining its relevance, and finding empowered people 'to answer the needs of the times'. She has plenty of plans lined-up. Top of the list is to fill the void decks of Housing Board flats with voices - by opening an inter-faith dialogue among residents.

IT was an unusually wet and stormy day on Dec 27, 2001, as if to reflect the state of the world: It had been three months since the terrorist attacks on the United States had brought the often stormy relations between Islam and Christianity into sharp focus.

Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden had resurfaced on video to taunt the US even as that country's forces were hunting for him - fruitlessly - in the mountains of Afghanistan.

Here in Singapore, inside a small hall in the heart of Geylang Serai - long known as the home of Malay culture - some 300 Muslims and Christians had gathered for a special dinner, the first-ever joint celebration of Hari Raya Aidil Fitri and Christmas.

The event was organised by the Islamic Fellowship Association (IFA) and St Anthony's Canossian Convent, and supported by the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis) and Catholic Church.

The show of solidarity was not a response to the attacks, says Catholic Canossian Sister Theresa Seow, a key figure in organising the event. The crisis merely 'deepened our resolve to work at a relationship already begun'.

It had its beginning in April 2000 when the two groups held a discussion on Jesus in the Bible as well as the Quran as 'his life has something to speak to us about', says the 46-year-old Sister.

The thought of more such opportunities for dialogue fires Sister Theresa's imagination.

And as the head of the Inter-Religious Organisation (IRO) since last December - the first woman president in the organisation's 54-year history - she intends to do a lot more.

She dreams of the day when the void decks of the HDB heartland are filled with voices - of adults of different faiths talking about life, and not just religion.

She calls it a culture of dialogue or dialogue as a way of life.

It is one way to promote inter-religious harmony and understanding at the grassroots level, says Sister Theresa, who is also a member of the Fengshan Inter-Racial Confidence Circle (IRCC).

Each HDB block, she says, is a small village in itself.

Invite residents down to listen to religious leaders talk about social issues of interest such as the family or youth.

To a sceptic, the idea may sound like a recipe for disaster: How do you prevent people from coming to blows over a topic as sensitive as religion, especially now?

She argues: 'People say that religion is sensitive but it is precisely because of 9/11 and the JI arrests that we have to learn to touch on religious issues in a sensitive way publicly.

'We can no longer say religion is just a private domain: It's me, my God and my community.

'It's something that should be brought out in the open. But not for debate. Debate has it place.

'But if we can bring up issues of common concern, there are common teachings in religions that can be shared.

'If we are talking about peace, harmony, justice, these are all values being promoted by different religions.

'These are issues that concern everyone, especially people of faith... I believe this can jell the community together,' says the small but energetic woman, who has been with the Canossian Daughters of Charity for 20 years.

She is reticent about her private life except to say that she is the eldest in a family of five with four younger brothers, and she spends most of her time on church work.

She considers her ministry in inter-religious and ecumenical areas as a calling, 'a vocation'.

It is easy to understand the premium she places on dialogue: Sister Theresa is the consultor of the Pontifical Council of Inter-Religious Dialogue, an appointment by the Pope himself.

She is also in the Asian Ecumenical Committee, an all-Christian body, which tries to promote greater understanding of other faiths.

Her ecumenical interests are likely to inform her term as council president, which rotates among member faiths.

'That's one key area I see myself involved more and more... to help our lay people to come to a better understanding of others; not just the similarities but be able to look at differences,' she says.

'How can we on our part reach out to people of other faiths?'

To do this, there must be the ability to dream, to envision, and be empowered, she says.

'I feel that sharing, envisioning is important. If we don't dream, if we don't talk about our dreams and if we don't envision them we'll never see anything new because we have set ways (of doing things),' she says.

Sister Theresa intends to break the mould in one way at least.

Instead of having seminars and speeches by nine religious leaders to mark IRO Day next month, she envisages an afternoon of fun for the whole family, with a Festival of Sacred Music and Performing Arts.

By 'bringing the sacred into the secular world', families, school students, art lovers and anyone who is interested, would be able to celebrate together.

She is now looking for a suitable place to hold the festival.

'I think we'll be able to capture a bigger crowd but we must capture that in our imagination first,' she says.

What has also captured her imagination is an IRO which encompasses all.

In addition to its core of nine religions - Hinduism, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism and the Baha'i Faith - the IRO will embrace organisations which are not considered religions but spiritual movements, such as the Sai Baba and the Brahma Kumaris.

In fact, it does not even intend to leave out the 'good percentage of people' who say they do not have a religion.

'IRO council members feel we have to be sensitive to the need of this particular group,' she says.

Another group which will get due attention is the young.

For the first time, the IRO will bring some youths of different faiths on overseas missions together.

She is also planning a June camp for students of different faiths offering a leadership training course which emphasises inter-religious harmony.>

Included would be visits to different places of worship.

But all these plans have a singular purpose for Sister Theresa: to make the IRO re-examine itself and its role, and how it can respond to the needs of society.

To her, the IRO must speak for the Singapore of today.

For example, she says, it is unfortunately not seen as an organisation speaking up, collectively, against terrorism, thus lending morale support to 'our Muslim brothers'.

Instead, to many people, the IRO is simply a group which gets together for a common prayer in times of needs.

'Our coming together is for a much bigger purpose,' she says listing some of the activities the IRO has been involved in, such as the proposed Code of Religious Harmony, human organ transplant, and the debate about stem-cell research.

The proposal for a committee to govern inter-faith issues makes Sister Theresa concerned that the IRO should not become irrelevant.

What can it do?

Says Sister Theresa: 'I feel very strongly that the IRO has to restructure itself.

'It is time for an introspection to answer the needs of the times.'

  • (Mafoot Simon is a Straits Times senior writer.)

    ©Copyright 2003, The Straits Times (Singapore)

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