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Students of Rome lead interfaith dialogue

L.A. Times-Washington Post News Service

ROME – When Zeinep Ozbek told her parents how she planned to pursue her education, they were shocked.Not only was the young Muslim woman about to leave her native land of Turkey, she was venturing into a traditional bastion of Christianity: Rome.Ozbek, 25, is one of a handful of Muslim students ensconced in the Vatican’s system of higher learning in and around the Italian capital. They attend pontifical universities, schools sanctioned by the Vatican, taking lessons from nuns and priests and sitting in classrooms decorated with crucifixes, in buildings adorned with larger-than-life statues and shields of papal power.As Pope Benedict XVI travels to Turkey on Tuesday, international attention is focused on his attempts to improve relations between Christians and Muslims. But here in Rome, at a more grass-roots level, a less-noticed experiment is taking place.Officially, the Muslim students attend the Jesuit-run Gregorian Pontifical University and other Vatican schools to learn about Christianity. In reality, they have become mediators navigating the suddenly very tricky world of interfaith dialogue and understanding.Some are meeting Christians for the first time, and they are often the first Muslims their Christian classmates have encountered. Several said they wanted to correct misconceptions about Islam.Interfaith dialogue was a favorite theme for the late Pope John Paul II, who was the first pontiff to enter a mosque. Benedict takes a more cautious approach, asking for “honest” interaction.His speech in September at the University of Regensburg, Germany, was seen by many Muslims as an insult to their faith and its founder, the prophet Muhammad. In it, Benedict quoted a medieval emperor, seeming to brand Islam “evil and inhuman.”Ever since, in the face of Muslim anger, the pope has struggled to explain that he was attempting to illustrate the incompatibility of faith and violence, and that he has profound respect for Islam. In Turkey, ahead of his four-day visit starting Tuesday, demonstrators have been demanding he not set foot in their country.The Regensburg comments also proved problematic for Muslim students here and generally raised questions about the pope’s commitment to dialogue with other faiths.”This is a time when a lot of people are asking themselves what direction will dialogue take now,” said Jesuit Father Daniel Madigan, head of the university’s Institute for the Study of Religions and Cultures.”All the trouble of the recent months has been pushing people to think carefully about where dialogue is headed,” Madigan said, “and to realize how much more urgent it is.”The program at the Gregorian is facing a period of uncertainty, because Madigan, widely recognized as a foremost expert on Islam and interfaith relations, is leaving Rome for a position at Jesuit-run Georgetown University in the United States.Ozbek, the Turkish woman working on a master’s degree, had never met a Christian before coming to Rome.Some friends and relatives were afraid that her immersion in a Catholic world would cause her to lose her identity. But that is a fear of those insecure in their faith, she said; for her, learning about the “richness” of Christianity only expanded her own devotion and helped her to see “the other” as a fellow human being.”Generally I’m the first Muslim person they have met, and they ask lots of questions,” she said.Ozbek wears a head scarf. Part of the irony of her experience here is that most Turkish universities, obeying a strictly enforced government policy of secularism, would not let her attend class with her head covered.Naser Dumarreh, 34, of Damascus, Syria, says the pious Catholic milieu Rome provides is more comfortable than a secular Western environment.”I’m living in a Christian society, not a Western society, and there’s not such a big difference from an Islamic society,” said Dumarreh, one of the first Middle Easterners to join the program.The students say they feel a fair amount of pressure.”They expect me to know everything about Islam, to be able to quote all the verses of the Quran by heart,” said Mustafa Cenap Aydin, 28, a Turk who has been studying in Rome for three years. But he says there is a mutual learning curve. Until arriving at the Gregorian, he did not know of the many positive references to Christianity contained in the Quran. “I’m not the same Mustafa who came here,” he said.Several ostudents say understanding Christianity has broadened their understanding of Islam.”To study in Rome on Christianity means to me to discover the historical, literary and theological background of the Quran,” said Esra Gozeler, who is working here on her Ph.D. and teaches theology at the University of Ankara in Turkey.Omar Sillah, a 30-year-old student from Gambia who is specializing in the three monotheistic religions (Islam, Christianity and Judaism), has seen the traditions of his Muslim faith reflected in Catholicism. He knew Christians before coming to Rome and in fact had studied at a missionary school in Gambia. But Rome was an eye-opener.After the pope’s Regensburg speech, Sillah said he was bombarded with e-mails and questions from fellow students. He told them that a religion of violence and evil “is not the Islam that I follow.” His goal, he said, is to show Christians in Rome “by our actions” a different kind of Islam.He doesn’t mind the endless queries. “That’s our goal – that’s dialogue,” Sillah said.


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