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Religion and Society

Education and Migration on the Table of the US Catholic and Muslim Dialogue

Catholic and muslim dialogue in the US choosed recently to examine two topical subjects: the situation of interreligious education in the US and migration as experience shared by Jesus and Muhammad.


The first one was treated by Mid-Atlantic Muslim Catholic Dialogue, wich met last May in Washington to draft a joint statement, “Developing a Strategic Plan on Interreligious Education in the United States.”


The meeting was convened by the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) and Catholic representatives of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs. It explored the fundamental principles of interreligious education articulated in a document prepared by the Chicago Coalition for Interreligious Learning as part of a Muslim-Catholic educational exchange by the Council of Islamic Societies of Greater Chicago and the Archdiocese of Chicago in the 1990s.



Wilhelmus (Pim) Valkenberg, Ph.D., of Loyola University, Baltimore, compared the European and U.S. experiences with inter-religious education within the Catholic school system. He outlined three operative models. The first is the mono-religious model, in which one central religious tradition is the point of reference for describing other religions, and whose purpose is to widen awareness without weakening the students’ growing attachment to their own faith. The second is the multi-religious model, in which the teacher presents the religions on an equal footing, with the kind of objectivity typical of a university “religious studies” course. The third model is the inter-religious model, which takes religious plurality as an opportunity for mutual enrichment both in terms of content and in terms of socialization.


Imam Ahmed Nezar Kobeisy offered sociologically-based reflections on the current profile of Muslim schools in the U.S. He highlighted the sensitivities of parents about maintaining Muslim identity in these schools and noted that when educators find effective methods, such as exchange programs, their work is appreciated by Muslim families. Imam Kobeisy affirmed the consensus that teaching about other religions is best done by being conscious of the presence of persons of other faiths.


Bishop Denis Madden, Auxiliary Bishop of Baltimore and Catholic co-chair, noted the need for work in overcoming misunderstandings in the way we teach about other faiths and in reducing the impact of violence on our images of other religions.


In the coming months, the 2009 survey on interreligious education will be sent to additional Muslim and Catholic educators and leaders will analyze data already gathered. Four teams were organized to work on accurate historical chronology, to re-draft the statement of pedagogical recommendations, to annotate a list of resources, and to find ways to approach problematic materials currently in use.


The topic of the West Coast Dialogue of Catholics and Muslims, of last May in Rancho Palos Verdes, California was understanding the experience of "Migration in the Lives of Jesus and Muhammad" and applying it to the contemporary challenges faced by Muslims and Catholics.


The dialogue has been sponsored since March 2000, by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and the Islamic Shura Council of California, with the cooperation of the Islamic Society of Orange County (an affiliate of the Islamic Society of North America) and the Islamic Education Center of Orange County, which is in the Shia tradition of Islam.


Msgr. Mikulanis traced the narratives of migration in the Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus : “Migration takes place in the birth stories of Jesus, illustrating the climate of danger and risk in the world in which the Word became flesh. Later, the theme of pilgrimage is woven into the itinerary of Jesus’ life and public ministry,” he said. Discussion focused on the theological significance of these travels and comparison of them with the religious aspects of the immigrant experience of Catholics in the United States.


Imam Mostafa Qazwini noted the theme of vulnerability in a number of the stories of early Islam, such as the migration to Abyssinia when the community experienced persecution in Mecca: “The migration of Prophet Muhammad from Mecca to Medina, called the Hijra, (622 C.E.) is central to Islamic piety; Islam dates its calendar from this event, which signaled the beginning of the first truly Islamic society,” he said.


Father Alexei Smith, ecumenical officer for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, noted that “vulnerability remains part of the experience of our communities.”


“In U.S. history, both Catholics and Muslims have been accused of disloyalty because they belong to universal faiths centered outside the territory of America,” he said.


Respondents from both communities demonstrated how it is considered obligatory to contribute to the well being, security and prosperity of the nations in which they settle.


Todd Scribner, of the USCCB Migration and Refugee Services, spoke on the current situation of immigration reform in the United States: “The Bishops are advocating for a comprehensive approach that would enable undocumented immigrants to obtain legal status, to allow family reunification on the basis of a visa system, and to promote economic and civic development in countries of origin so as to diminish the need for migration,” he said. Muslim respondents noted that their communities in Southern California are serving large numbers of Somali and Iraqi refugees. Imam Taha Hassane of the Islamic Center of San Diego proposed “new forms of USCCB-Muslim collaboration that might be more effective in caring for the urgent needs of immigrants and refugees.”