Interfaith panel at St. Margaret’s Church discuss shared heritage


A priest, a rabbi and a Muslim scholar drew a crowd of more than thirty parishioners to the lace-curtained rectory meeting room at St. Margaret of Cortona to hear a discussion entitled “God of Our Fathers—A Look at Our Roots.”

It happened to be World Interfaith Harmony Week, an observance for the first week in February proposed by Jordan’s King Abdullah II at the U.N. General Assembly in 2010.

Emcee Bob Stauf, St. Margaret’s adult education committee chair, said he was excited by the large turnout. He asked those assembled what drew them there.

Some of the nuns, choir members, parish clergy, university professors and other educators expressed an active interest in interfaith issues, while others were simply curious about how the dialog would unfold.

Interfaith commonality was the main motif, with panelists embracing their shared ancestry as descendants of the patriarch Abraham.

The Christian ancestor, Father Charles Szivos, is a weekend associate at St. Margaret’s and teacher of homiletics at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers. Now a director of spiritual formation at the seminary, he enjoys “the opportunity to walk on the journey with future priests,” exploring “how the Holy Spirit is leading them.”

“We devote nearly two years to the study of the Hebrew scriptures,” he said.  “Where are our origins?  Where did our Christian faith come from? During our years in the seminary, there’s a class in ecumenism, looking at not so much what divides us but what it is that unites us.”

Future priests, as part of their training, learn to “appreciate other religions while going deeper in our own,” he explained.

The Muslim ancestor, Dr. Naseer Alomari, is principal of the Andalusia School, a pre-kindergarten through twelfth-grade Muslim private school in Yonkers. He left his native of Jordan in 1990, settled in New York, earned a doctorate in language and literacy, and became a college professor in 2001.

He explained that in the Muslim world, there is no religious hierarchy, no equivalent of a pope. “Some people say that this is one of the problems in Islam today—that the authority is not there.”

He deplored the stereotyping of Muslims based on the actions of the “very insignificant minority” captured in American news broadcasts.

“My neighbors are Christians,” he said. “They care about me, I care about them. I teach my children respect. I want them to embrace a value system that helps them to become honest, hard-working human beings.”

Alomari said he’s read the Bible very carefully. “What I take from all religions is goodness, and there’s a whole lot of goodness in the world,” he said. “Is there a religion that says ‘don’t respect your father’? Give me one of the three major religions that says ‘disrespect your friends.’  Impossible. We have so much in common. We have that foundation between all religions.”

The Jewish ancestor, Rabbi Stephen Franklin, was a Navy chaplain before his 24-year tenure at Riverdale Temple. He was president of the Interfaith Clergy Council of Riverdale and now teaches at the Academy for Jewish Religion, a rabbinical and cantorial school housed on the College of Mount Saint Vincent campus.

“I’ve been listening very carefully, and I don’t have that much new to add because we do share so very much,” Franklin said.

“We represent three different faiths where God is absolutely unique as the highest of the high,” and while the bond between Judaism and Christianity is widely known, “many people don’t realize that Judaism’s relationship with Islam is one of great respect.”

“We both share the same fathers, starting with Abraham,” he said. “We tell the same stories—from a slightly different perspective but with the same characters. The ancestors of Jesus were the same as those of the Jews of his day. I’m shocked sometimes when I meet Christians who don’t know that Jesus was Jewish.”

On the subject of “fathers,” the rabbi mentioned the trend of gender sensitivity in approaching the liturgy.

“Today we’re a little uncomfortable with ‘fathers,’” he said. “We want to include the mothers.” He pointed out that the language in prayer books is under continual revision “for the sake of inclusiveness” and that “we no longer in the liberal synagogue refer to God as ‘Him.’”

Rabbi Franklin also shared with the St. Margaret parishioners his position on intra-faith differences in “how one reads the scriptures.”

He stressed his own similarity to “liberal” Muslim and Christian colleagues and dissimilarity to “fundamentalist” Jewish colleagues.

“I felt a connection with you when you said you recognized the passages in the Qur’an that are troublesome,” he said to Alomari. “You moved beyond it and teach humanistic values that sometimes clash with what you read in scripture. I find the same thing in the Torah—in the entire Hebrew cannon—that I cannot accept.

“But I am a liberal in religion,” he continued. “We do not look upon scripture as directly the word of God. This is the difference between a liberal in religion and a fundamentalist in religion…. Liberals feel that sometimes scripture makes mistakes, and sometimes the rift between liberals in religion and fundamentalists in religion is far more serious than the differences between the religions themselves.”

“There are many things that bring us together,” the rabbi concluded. “I can only believe with all my heart and soul that the God of our fathers and mothers is very pleased.”


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