Board of Deputies hosts Interfaith Harmony Week

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Justice Albie Sachs and Ebrahim Rasool spoke at the United Nations Interfaith Harmony Week Breakfast hosted by The Cape Council of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies on 2 February.

Sachs spoke about the relationship between the sacred and the secular and the role of each in determining our constitutional rights. While he recognised the need to protect religious freedom he also stressed that the state cannot be the interpreter of sacred texts.

Rasool spoke about moving from a comparative model of Interfaith towards a co-operative model “Times of danger require not only dialogue, projects and marches — we now need to understand the voracity of faith itself…” he said. “Unless the religious middle ground can take the to the extremists we are going to be an endangered ever decreasing phenomenon.”

The third speaker was Rev Braam Hanekom who reminded the audience that vague ideology mixed with emotion has a tendency towards extremism and that we need to go back to the sacred texts to remember the authenticity of our faith.

In 2010, King Abdullah 11 of Jordan proposed a World Interfaith Harmony Week at the Plenary Session of the 65th UN General Assembly.

King Abdullah said that “It is [also] essential to resist forces of division that spread misunderstanding and mistrust especially among peoples of different religions. The fact is humanity everywhere is bound together, not only by mutual interests, but by shared commandments to love God and neighbour; to love the good and neighbour. What we are proposing is a special week, during which the world’s people could express the teachings of their own faith about tolerance, respect for the other and peace.”

On 2 February, The Cape SA Jewish Board of Deputies hosted a breakfast in celebration of World Interfaith Harmony Week on the theme Prejudice, pigs’ heads and why interfaith harmony matters.

Speaking at the event were activist, author, advocate and former judge on the Constitutional Court Albie Sachs, former Premier of the Western Cape, SA Ambassador to America and founder of the World for All Foundation, Ebrahim Rasool and former moderator of the Dutch Reformed Church in the Western and Southern Cape, now Director of the Centre for Public Witness, Dominee Braam Hanekom.

The talks were opened by Board Chairman, Eric Marx, who gave a searing indictment on the global state of racism and emphasised the current relevance and importance of interfaith work “Today Christians are being persecuted in many parts of the world. Today most of the victims of Islamist violence are Muslims. Today antisemitism has reached levels not seen since the 1930s. Religious freedom, a right enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is under threat,” he said. Marx went on to mention the two recent episodes when the historical mosques in Simonstown and Kalk Bay were desecrated with a pig’s head and blood and the placing of a pig’s head in the halaal meat section in a Woolworths store in 2014 by BDS protesters. “There is NO way to justify such repulsive acts,” said Marx.

Rasool spoke about an emerging, formalised, mainstream extremism that needs to be named, “Unless we call it out we will not understand the phenomenon, “he said. Using deliberately provocative language Rasool urged, “The middle ground of religious communities” to “dramatise itself and find militancy with which to speak”. In order to do so he asked that we look beyond competitive and Ebrahim Rasool and Father Peter John Pearson Marlene Silbert , Catherine Gwynne-Evans and Nadya Salie Photos: Shawn Benjamin even comparative Interfaith models to a collaborative model that explores “the voracity of faith itself”. In slicing to the heart of extremism he traced its genealogy back to what “their grandparents called prejudice and discrimination” and “their parents [called] fear and ignorance”. Their siblings [call it] racism, homophobia, antisemitism, xenophobia, islamaphobia, sexism and misogyny are all one family, said Rasool. We do not get to pick and choose ‘our favourite pathology’. “Unless we deal with the entire family, we are not dealing with any,” he cautioned. This, said Rasool, requires that we start by examining our own personal prejudices.

Rev. Braam Hanekom reminded the audience that vague ideology mixed with emotion has a tendency towards extremism and that we need to go back to the sacred texts to remember the authenticity of our faith.

Sachs spoke about the relationship between the sacred and the secular and the role of each in determining our constitutional rights: You do not have to be religious to respect the way in which religion pervades every aspect of our culture, language and thought, he suggested. But while he recognised the need to protect religious freedom he stressed that the state cannot be the interpreter of our scriptures. UN World Interfaith Harmony events are now commemorated in countries, cities, communities and congregations throughout the world in places as diverse as Pakistan, Guyana, the Philippines and Indonesia.

The Cape Board of Deputies initiated the event in South Africa. Following its success, both the Cape Town Interfaith Initiative and The Cape Town Ahmadiyya Muslim Janaat have hosted their own such functions. The hope is that the goodwill ignited by such gatherings reaches every home and house of worship.

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