Interfaith gatherings show humanity of all people

Written by Yazeed Kamaldien

Ramadaan is a sacred month of fasting for Muslims and some might frown upon an invitation to have iftaar – the meal to end a day of fasting – in a Catholic church.

Yet that is exactly what Turquoise Harmony Institute, a Turkish interfaith non-governmental organisation, did in Johannesburg a few years ago when it wanted to encourage conversations between people from different religions.

At this multi-faith iftaar, a Catholic priest talked about the historical role of fasting in Christianity. Around tables, conversations over a shared meal revealed similarities between lifestyles and beliefs, despite differing religious backgrounds.

Turquoise started its work in South Africa a decade ago and has a branch in Durban and Cape Town. In the latter city, it held a similar interfaith dinner last earlier this month.

Its Western Cape branch director, Muhittin Camlibel, said they want to encourage religious people to “understand each other”.

Muhittin Camlibel of the Turquoise Harmony Institute. Picture by Yazeed Kamaldien

Muhittin Camlibel of the Turquoise Harmony Institute. Picture by Yazeed Kamaldien

“We believe in interfaith dialogue. All religions talk about peace, so we focus on that because there must be a lot of good people who follow religion,” he said.

Turquoise is not the only Cape Town-based organisation working in the interfaith arena. A few others have over many years aimed to bring together people of different religions, in a city that is home to various faiths.

These efforts include the Cape Town Interfaith Initiative (CTII), launched in 2000.

It runs the Open Hearts Open Minds forum, a series of quarterly public dialogues that platforms different religious leaders talking on a topical subject affecting locals.

CTII also organises Heritage Day bus tours on September 24, introducing locals to different religious spaces, such as mosques, synagogues and churches.

On December 16, it will host a Reconciliation Day interfaith walking tour in central Cape Town and Bo-Kaap.

The Western Cape Religious Leaders Forum (WCRLF) has meanwhile spoken out against gang violence on the Cape Flats. Last year it launched a campaign against corruption, which it said was the “biggest threat” to national development.

The Hindu community this year celebrated iconic peace activist Mahatma Gandhi’s life in Cape Town with an interfaith service at St George’s Cathedral.

Recently launched Jewish Voices for a Just Peace (JVJP), with offices in Cape Town and Johannesburg, unveiled a plaque in Cape Town in memory of Palestinians and Israelis killed this year.

For Camlibel, interfaith work “started since human beings have been alive”.

“We had prophets who came with different religions. There was contact between people who believed in different religions then already,” he said.

Contemporary awareness about interfaith dialogue was growing, as “people are very connected now”. It was also needed to ensure that religious-based conflicts do not persist, said Camlibel.

“With the Internet and cell phones, people are living in a small village. Usually, in a village you don’t find too much conflict. And if there is conflict, elders in the village come together and solve the problem,” said Camlibel.

“We don’t think we can do that only with governments or the United Nations coming together to solve problems. We believe civil society must get involved.”

He added: “If Allah (God) wanted to kill bad people, He could do that. But He does not do that. So there is no duty on us to fight with people or kill people. If there are people fighting, we must work for peace.”

Turquoise also regularly hosts interfaith seminars to combat “people who want to create chaos” by using religion.

“Religion is not the source of conflict. It is because of misuse, misinterpretation and human ambition that religion creates conflict,” said Camlibel

He added: “What we are doing is not something short-term. It will continue until the end of life, because peace and tolerance must be in the world long-term.

“We must continue this work. If we stop, conflicts will start. If we don’t come together and talk, issues can become very complicated.”

Gwynne Robins, a committee member of the CTII, said Cape Town has a “long interfaith history as the Muslim and Christian coloured community has been living alongside each other for centuries”.

The city’s interfaith efforts also endured apartheid, she said, as during that time religious leaders were locked up side-by-side for protesting against the former government’s violent policies.

Robins said CTII holds regular interfaith prayer gatherings and every February celebrates the United Nations endorsed Interfaith Harmony Week.

Robins said their work has shown Capetonians “there are different religions in this city”.

“During apartheid, people were being segregated. We were in little boxes that never met each other,” said Robins.

“When there is a major event in our city we find different religious leaders to open up that event with prayers, so that people realise all faiths are given equal respect.

“Interfaith work makes us realise we have more in common than what separates us. You can’t hate each other when you have sat down and gotten to know each other.”

Imam Rashied Omar, chairperson of the WCRLF, at the forum’s annual general meeting this month reflected their activities have focused mainly on social issues.

Most of its work has transcended beyond religious spaces and tackled social issues.

This includes hosting a meeting between the City of Cape Town and the Social Justice Coalition on janitorial services in 14 informal settlements in February this year.

It seems from various interfaith groups that securing peace between communities is a pivotal role. To this end, these groups at times present an alternative voice during conflict, such as the JVJP’s efforts.

Leonard Shapiro, one of the JVJP’s leaders, said they launched their initiative “at the height of the most recent Israeli onslaught on Gaza”.

“As people of Jewish background and heritage, we were compelled to speak out and express our opposition to Israel’s actions,” said Shapiro.

This was despite “traditionally, dissent, and what is seen as talking against Israel, has been ostracised within the Jewish community”.

Shapiro added: “There are many different views on Israel-Palestine in the Jewish community in South Africa. There is not a homogeneous voice.”

Shapiro said JVJP partnered with Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Cape Town-based Muslim Judicial Council to create dialogue between Jews, Christians and Muslims on Israel-Palestine.

“We will form alliances with all those who agree with our position, which is a human rights position. Traditionally, religious bodies have been involved in the human rights movement,” he said.

“We are also in dialogue with Muslim organisations concerned about the growth of Islamophobia. We are looking at developing a campaign for bridging different communities, linking the Muslim community in South Africa with the Jewish community, who has a fear of anti-Semitism.”

He said they “reject anything done in the name of religion which results in human rights violations and the killing and injuring of civilians”.

“The more respectful talking and engagement between different communities that takes place, the better,” said Shapiro.

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About Yazeed Kamaldien

Self-employed journalist and photographer from South Africa.

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