The Sophia University and the islamic centre of England

Dialogue with Shiite Islam: 42 young Muslims and Christians at the school of peace

Good practices of interreligious dialogue and coexistence. From the 25th to the 30th of August an international Summer School titled “Interfaith engagement in theory and practice”, brought together 42 young Christians and Muslims in the Italian town of Tonadico (in the district of Trent). The course was the result of the joint initiative of the University Institute of Sophia (Focolari Movement), the Islamic Centre of England (with headquarters in London, an educational point of reference for the cultural dissemination of the Shiite realm in Western societies) and the Risalat Institute of Qom (Iran)

“It is in the darkest moments that that the shining ray of light is most visible. When we are surrounded by darkness, when problems seem to prevail, when corruption inundates the world, that is when the Spirit of God works most powerfully”, said Professor Mohammad Shomali, Director of the Islamic Centre of England, during the concluding days of the international Summer School titled “Interfaith engagement in theory and practice”, held in the town of Tonadico (in the district of Trent, Italy, at the foot of the Dolomites, which brought together 42 young Muslims and Christians from the 25th to the 30th of August). They are “the ray of light that illuminates darkness”, gathered in the Trentino mountains, while Europe is confronted with the threat of terrorism and attempts to build new walls on national borders.

Twenty young Catholics and 22 young Muslims, the latter from the United Kingdom, Canada, United States and Iran, all young men and women born and raised in these Countries by their Iranian, Iraqi, Lebanese, Kenyan, Croatian, Indian and Pakistani immigrated families. For five days they deepened the themes of interreligious dialogue and coexistence at a time characterized by extremisms and fear. Their teachers are Professors from the Sophia University Institute based in Loppiano, the Islamic Centre of England (a centre with headquarters in London, which stands at the educational point of reference for the cultural dissemination of the Shiite realm in Western societies), and the Risalat Institute of Qom (Iran).

The course alternated “frontal teaching” to dialogue seminars, with moments of joint reflection on the Holy Scriptures of the Bible and the Koran along with teambuilding workshops to develop the culture of the encounter, mutual understanding, openness to others, with the use of state-of-the-art educational tools. The program also envisaged trips to the mountains, and on the peak of the Dolomites the Muslim youths spontaneously sang Islamic prayers.

At the end of the course a young Muslim remarked: “We came here as friends. During these days our friendship grew into a veritable spirit of brotherhood. Brothers and sisters united by the love for God, a lifelong seal coupled by the joint yearning to proceed along this path”

But these experiences are not created overnight. In this case they are the result of a 20-year-long friendship – dating back to the 1990s – between the Focolari Movement and the Islamic Centre of England headed by Professor Shomali, who immediately shared the vocation of the charism of Chiara Lubich to bring unity within religious traditions so they may be leavens of peace in the world. With time this friendship let to mutual visits with training courses and participation in the daily life of the city of Loppiano and in the city of Qom, Iran. In this framework was born “Wings of Unity”, said theologian Piero Coda, dean of “Sophia”: “It is a research and educational program for the joint promotion of our religious traditions highlighting the Plan of God for mankind: a plan of peace, love and unity coupled by paths of formation for the young generations so they may discover the vocation to peace enshrined in all religions. To use a terminology that is dear to Pope Francis:

A workshop on the culture of the encounter.”

Professor Shomali pointed out: “This project is the result of a 20-year-long friendship that helped develop strong feelings of trust and mutual understanding between us. Only in the light of this deep trust and understanding can people meet and reflect together without raising boundaries separating Muslims and Christians, where everyone is seen as an instrument of God, asking God to inspire us.” It isn’t a purely academic project, closed in on itself. In fact the Summer School of Tonadico was born as a pilot-experience “to verify the impact of ideas emerging in this research group on people, starting with the youths.”

“Why the youths?” Coda went on. “Because, as Pope Francis says, today it is necessary to form leaders capable of establishing a culture of the encounter. And youths are the main builders of bridges of unity in the world.” The Summer school “does not offer only theoretical notions on mutual understanding, albeit important, it also provides the opportunity to live in a true environment of dialogue, where each participant partakes in the gifts of the other and experiences without syncretism, without confusion, that the love of God that pours onto others is present in the heart of all religious traditions.”

“A seed was planted to grow the roots of the tree of peace.” The dean of Sophia uses this image taken from a drawing made by the youths, answering a question on the impact that similar initiatives may have in an environment such as the European and global ones, marked by radicalism and fear.

“I firmly believe – he said – that there is no other way than that of sowing seeds of peace in the heart of mankind, having the courage to ensure their growth and development throughout society.”

Manchester, London, Barcelona, Turku. The dark clouds of radical Islamism hover over Europe. “Sometimes – Shomali remarked –problems appear so complex and huge that they seem to have no solution. It’s an obscure situation. The world is afflicted by wars, and even in Countries without armed conflicts various forms of walls are raised, dividing hearts and minds. Before the scope of the problems and the smallness of those who are committed for the establishment of peace, people tend to lose hope. But it is precisely in these circumstances that we can nurture an even greater hope that is grounded in the powerful work of God in the world. We need no money, power or weapons; what we need are hearts open to others, capable of seeing the light of God that acts in the folds of history, bearing joint witness to this new spirit of brotherhood that is silently germinating throughout the world.”