David Schütz, Executive Officer of the Ecumenical and Interfaith Commission, Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne
On Tuesday night (21 May) at the Cardinal Knox Centre, 40 students from around Melbourne gathered for a meal. What made this meal unusual is that half the guests were Catholic and the other half were Muslim.
The dinner was organised by the Ecumenical and Interfaith Commission of the Archdiocese in partnership with the Australian Intercultural Society (a Australian-Turkish Muslim association) and the Catholic Chaplaincies of ACU, RMIT, Monash and Melbourne Universities. Almost equal numbers Muslim and Catholic students attended, and, while there were probably more women than men, it was fairly balanced in that respect too. The students sat six to a table, with three Muslims and three Catholics on each table, so they were mixed up from the beginning. They conversed very freely with one another. There was no apprehension on either side.
I was sitting at a table where there were two students from Melbourne University. One was a young Catholic woman, the other was a young Muslim student who was wearing the traditional head veil known as the “hijab”. I introduced them to each other, saying “I think you both go to the same university”. I knew that Melbourne Uni was a big place and the chance that they had met before was slim. But it turned out that both were studying biochemistry and both had the same teachers and classes – and the conversation went on from there.
An “iftar” dinner is the meal at the end of the day during the month of Ramadan when Muslims break the fast from food and drink that they have been keeping since the sun came up in the morning. It is always a time of hospitality in the Islamic tradition, and in Australia it has become common in recent years for non-Muslims to use this as an opportunity to invite Muslim friends to share a meal together. The fast is broken at sunset with the call to prayer, the eating of a date and a sip of water, followed by the evening prayers in their tradition. On Tuesday night, while the Muslim guests went into a separate room to pray, the Catholic guests were led in prayer by Fr Robert Krishna OP (Monash University chaplain) in the dining room. When we all came back together, we were treated to a simple but delicious and filling meal of Turkish food.
Ahmet Keskin, the Director of the AIS, had suggested that our “entertainment” for the night be a series of questions on a “You can’t ask that!” style. So, with a roving mike, I went around to the various tables asking a question of each table, with a response from one Muslim and one Catholic guest. We had two rounds of questions: “fun” questions intended to break the ice (not that there was much ice to be broken at this stage) and serious questions. The fun questions – such as “what is your favourite fast food chain?” and “Who is your favourite singer?” showed that, if anything, the new generation of Australian-born Catholics and Muslims are culturally very close. (Although it did turn out that only KFC of all the fast food chains served Halal food!).
The next round of questions was more serious and was about the lived experience of faith. We asked questions such as “What is the best thing about being Catholic/Muslim?” and “Do you find it difficult to talk about your faith?” These elicited some very thoughtful responses, which again showed that the lived experience of being religious in today’s secular society was very similar for both the Catholics and Muslims. After that, Fr Robert Krishna OP and Dr Suleyman Sertkaya (a graduate of Australian Catholic University and a professor at Charles Sturt University) came out the front to answer any questions that the students wanted to ask about either Catholicism or Islam. These elicited another half a dozen very probing questions, including: “Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?” and “Please explain the Christian doctrine of the Trinity?”.
This Q&A session was video recorded and will be available on the Australian Intercultural Society’s Youtube stream in due time.
The dinner ended at about 7pm, but the students stayed on and talked with one another for at least another 45 minutes. They genuinely enjoy the experience of meeting one another. Clearly there are serious differences between our two religions. That is what makes such encounters so interesting. But it was also clear to all who attended the Uni Student Iftar Dinner that there is much which is holy and true in the religious experience of each other’s faith.