Tuesday, 31 August 2010

A surprising experience of interfaith relations

Patrick Comerford

I am constantly asked in Greece and in Turkey whether I am a priest. I am conscious in the Eastern Mediterranean that my beard allows this presumption on first impression, but sometimes, when they realise I live in Ireland, people are surprised that they guessed rightly at the beginning.

It happened again and again this year in Crete, in Samos and in Turkey, sometimes leading to conversations that could be both amusing and deep. But on one occasion in Turkey there was a surprising outcome to what usually begins and ends as a superficial conversation.

A young member of the staff at the hotel where I was staying asked me on the first evening whether I was a “Pappas.” He used the colloquial Greek word for a priest, Παππάς.

I presumed, once again, it was my beard. Once or twice he muttered that we must talk, but he was busy and no real conversation developed for most of the week.

On the last evening, as I was about to catch the bus to Izmir (Smyrna) airport, he joined the table I was at. He wanted to talk again.

He is from Ankara and is a student in Istanbul. And once again, he wanted to confirm that I was a Παππάς.

And then a fascinating family story unfolded.

When he first saw me, he said, I reminded him of his grandfather in Thessaloniki.

He was surprised when I told him too that my grandfather had been in Thessaloniki. But then he insisted that his grandparents lived in Thessaloniki. In fact, his father was born in Thessaloniki.

I was surprised. I know Muslims who live in Kos and Rhodes. But I did not know that any Muslims were still living in Thessaloniki.

No, he said, his father was born a Christian, was a Greek by birth. His father and mother met in Rhodes. Marriage was impossible, and they moved to Turkey – his father gave up everything for love of his mother, including his identity.

He took out family photographs of his parents and his grandparents. His English was good, but he regretted he had no Greek. He has been to Thessaloniki to see his grandparents, and would like to go again.

And then, just as I was about to leave – he had a present for me: a tapestry icon of Christ the Pantocrator, with five pendant crucifixes. He thought that as a Παππάς, as a priest, I would appreciate it not as a souvenir but for its religious significance.

It is now hanging over my desk.

I have been visiting Greece and Turkey constantly for decades. I remember when tensions were at their highest, and visited Imia in 1966 when Turkey and Greece were close to war in the Aegean.

But at present relations between Greece and Turkey are at their best for almost 90 years. It is palpable. People in Samos spoke about friends they have in Kusadasi, and visits to Ephesus and Sirince. One man spoke eloquently of how it is governments and not people who have problems with each other.

Earlier this month, even the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, defended the rights of Turkey’s Christian minority, saying: “Our country will gain more if it allows greater religious freedom.” His comments came after the Ecumenical Patriarch celebrated the liturgy on 15 August for 3,000 people in the Black Madonna Monastery at Sumel, near Trabzon (Trebizond).

Marriage, family divisions and unity, the use of religion in political agendas, and the place of Muslims in European society are important issues in interfaith dialogue.

The challenges and opportunities of interfaith relations in 21st century Ireland are the focus of a special conference in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute in Dublin this Wednesday and Thursday [1 and 2 September]. The conference is organised by the Interfaith Working Group of the Church of Ireland’s Commission on Christian Unity and Dialogue and includes national and international experts, as well as visits to the Dublin Islamic Centre in Clonskeagh and the Dublin Jewish Synagogue in Terenure.

The guests of honour at conference dinner on Wednesday evening are the two Archbishops of Dublin, Archbishop John Neill and Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, and the guest speaker is the Minister of State, Conor Lenihan TD.

The Bishop of Clogher, the Right Revd Dr Michael Jackson, who chairs the Interfaith Working Group, says: “The aim of this conference is to open up areas of understanding and of difference particularly at points and places where people of many faiths meet. These include educational and healthcare institutions; civic occasions; birth and initiation, marriage and the rearing of children; end of life and burial matters.”

“We expect that, as well as representatives of the twelve dioceses of the Church of Ireland, there will be ecumenical and interfaith participation; involvement on the part of chaplains to second and third level educational establishments
and hospitals and residential homes together with those working on RE curricula and other persons who are interested.”

The conference speakers include: Clare Amos, Co-ordinator of the Anglican Communion’s Network for Inter Faith Concerns; the Ven Michael Ipgrave, Archdeacon of Southwark and a leading expert in the Church of England on interfaith issues; Canon Joanna Udal, who is the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Secretary for Anglican Communion Affairs; the Revd Dr Brendan Leahy, Professor of Systematic Theology at Saint Patrick’s College, Maynooth; Bishop Michael Jackson as chair of the Interfaith Working Group; and Bishop Trevor Williams of Limerick and Killaloe, who steered the ‘Hard Gospel’ programme in the Church of Ireland.

The conference ends on Thursday afternoon with a panel discussion on interfaith events and dialogue with Bishop Jackson and myself as secretary of the Interfaith Working Group. The conference secretary is the Revd Darren McCallig, Dean of Residence at Trinity College Dublin.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin