October 18, 2023 | National & World News
Fr. Stephen Van Lal Than

A German theology student reads the psalms during a day of prayers and fasting for peace in the Dormition Abbey on Mount Zion in the Old City of Jerusalem, Oct. 17, 2023. That day a massive blast rocked CNEWA-supported al-Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza City packed with wounded and other Palestinians seeking shelter, killing hundreds of people, the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry said. (OSV News photo/Debbie Hill)

Amid Israel-Hamas war, interfaith solidarity more important than ever, say experts


(OSV News) — Two experts in Muslim-Christian relations told OSV News that preserving dialogue amid the Israel-Hamas war comes down to recognizing what is really at issue — and what is really at stake.

“We cannot afford to lose our solidarity … because of a war that is not based on religion,” said Mehnaz M. Afridi, religious studies professor and director of the Holocaust, Genocide and Interfaith Education Center at Manhattan College in Riverdale, New York. “We have to look at lessons learned. It took us so long to build bridges.”

“The Israel-Palestine issue at its core isn’t and shouldn’t be about religion,” said Jordan Denari Duffner, a Catholic author, educator and scholar of Muslim-Christian relations, interreligious dialogue and Islamophobia. “I think the key is to not let what is a political issue turn into an issue of religious bigotry.”

The complex dynamics among three of the world’s major faith traditions — Islam, Judaism and Christianity — have been at once highlighted and strained by the war, which was sparked by Hamas’ militants Oct. 7 ambush on approximately 22 locations in Israel. Hamas members gunned down civilians and took at least 199 hostages, according to Israel, including infants, the elderly and people with disabilities. The coordinated attack took place on a Sabbath that marked the final day of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot.

Israel declared war on Hamas Oct. 8, placing Gaza under siege and pounding the region with airstrikes. Hamas has continued to launch strikes against Israel. To date, some 1,400 in Israel, including at least 30 U.S. citizens, and at least 3,000 in Gaza have been killed. Israel placed Gaza under siege, and has warned some 1.1 million in Gaza to move south within the enclave ahead of an expected ground offensive by Israeli forces. So far, at least 600,000 in Gaza have heeded the evacuation order, creating a humanitarian crisis that has left the Middle East “on the verge of the abyss,” said United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres.

Afridi said she sees the war from a unique vantage point — that of a Muslim who is a Holocaust scholar at a Catholic institution. In a statement posted to her center’s website, she called the Hamas attack “a mass atrocity,” saying, “I condemn these actions as a Muslim; this is not what Islam is built on.”

Speaking to OSV News from Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Afridi described Hamas as “a terrorist group … (that) has never been good to its people.”

She said the attacks on Israelis were “a repetition of the biggest fear that they have gone through” — the Shoah (Holocaust), the systematic execution of 6 million Jews by the Nazi regime and its collaborators.

“I cannot bear to see what happened to my Israeli brothers and sisters and the way that they were treated,” said Afridi, adding she prayed for both Israelis and Palestinians endangered by the war, including the Lasallian Christian Brothers in the West Bank at Bethlehem University, which has a partnership with Manhattan College.

She has direct experience with facing backlash for her Muslim identity due to terrorism, having been spat on while at a restaurant after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S.

“I get questions all the time (such as), ‘Isn’t everyone (who is Muslim) a terrorist?'” Afridi said. “So we have to stop that. We have to quell that.”

She and Duffner, who is completing her doctorate at Georgetown University in Washington, expressed their horror at the Oct. 14 stabbing death of a Chicago-area Palestinian child by his Catholic landlord, who feared the child and his mother would rally their fellow Palestinians to attack him.

Afridi and Duffner stressed the need to view people of other ethnicities and faiths as multidimensional, rather than monolithic.

“Let’s not homogenize each other,” said Afridi. “(Muslims) are not Hamas. Palestinians are not Hamas. And Israelis are not warmongers.”

“There are many Israelis and many Jews who don’t agree with their government’s policy towards the Palestinians,” said Duffner. “And then there are, of course, many Palestinians — whether they be Christian or Muslim — who don’t approve or strongly condemn the kinds of tactics used by Hamas and others who are engaging in violence.”

More than ever, people of different faiths need to unite for the peace and security of all, both Afridi and Duffner said.

“The temptation right now is for people to sort of retreat into their sort of religious tribal communities and say, ‘They’re hurting us, and so we should hurt them,'” said Duffner.

Yet Pope Francis has modeled new possibilities for encounter between Muslims and Catholics, she said.

“When he became pope, he said that dialogue with Muslims was going to be one of the priorities of his papacy,” said Duffner. “And we’ve really seen that.”

With that effect “trickling down now,” she said, “there are … many positive relationships between Catholics and Muslims that are not making the headlines,” said Duffner, the author of “Finding Jesus among Muslims: How Loving Islam Makes Me a Better Catholic” and “Islamophobia: What Christians Should Know (and Do) about Anti-Muslim Discrimination.”

Afridi — who said she has had recent recurring dreams of God weeping over the violence — said “this is not a time to break our faith relations in the United States. This is a time where we must stand in solidarity.”

Gina Christian is a national reporter for OSV News.

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