Muslims at Pontifical Universities Aim to Bridge a Gap

Students Hope to Contribute to Interreligious Dialogue

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ROME, APRIL 9, 2003 (Zenit.org).- At a time of heightened tensions in the Mideast, it is significant that pontifical universities in Rome now count Muslims among their students.



Three young Muslim women, for example, are studying Christianity at the Gregorian University this year in order to participate in the conversation between religions.

This would be in line with what the Second Vatican Council's "Nostra Aetate," the declaration on the relation of the Church to non-Christian religions.

In fact, since Vatican II, the Church has invited students from other religions to the pontifical universities in order to learn about and promote interreligious dialogue.

On the relationship between Christians and Muslims, in particular, "Nostra Aetate" says: "The sacred Council now ... urges that a sincere effort be made to achieve mutual understanding; for the benefit of all men, let them together preserve and promote peace, liberty, social justice and moral values."

After being awarded scholarships from the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, the three Muslim women -- Betul Avci, Zeynep Cebeci and Lejla Demiri -- moved to Rome to live among Christians and gain personal experience.

"I wanted to see how God acts in the lives of Christians, so I came to live with Christians and see them practicing their faith," said Demiri, a 27-year-old from Gostivar, Macedonia.

Avci, a 27-year-old from Istanbul, Turkey, wants to know Christianity well in order to relate to Christians.

"As a Muslim, I don't accept the Trinity or that Jesus is God, but I must see the Christian tradition from the inside to understand its beliefs," Avci said. "The world is full of people who don't understand each other. My goal is to be informed so I can participate in spiritual dialogue."

"We must be in dialogue to see God in someone's face," she added. "It is something felt, not just learned."

Avci is working on her doctorate at the Gregorian and is writing on the idea of time according to St. Augustine as compared to Muslim religious writers.

Zeynep Cebeci noted the difficulty of dialogue, saying, "When interfaith groups get together, it's best sometimes to talk about the differences more than the common points. We need to acknowledge who we are and learn about each other."

Cebeci is a 26-year-old native of Istanbul and is in her second year of the licentiate program at the Gregorian's Institute for Study of Religions and Culture.

Demiri is working on a doctorate from Marmara University in Istanbul and is writing a dissertation on how Muslim theologians see the Christian doctrine of the divinity of Jesus.

Her homeland of Macedonia is the source of her interest in Christianity.

"The Balkans are a multireligious society and a region of conflict, but no religion accepts violence or criminal acts," she said. "We must know each other better by living together and learning about each other."

In relating Islam to Christianity, Demiri explained: "We both believe in one God, our creator, who is merciful and compassionate. That is the most important thing that binds us together. Of course, we have differences, but that's what makes us who we are.

"In my experience, Muslims and Christians are interested in learning about each other, but both groups don't know much about the other."

Cebeci offers a different opinion. "I don't think most Muslims are interested in learning about Christianity," she said. "To them, Islam is the only true religion. They think, 'Why would anyone want to study a nullified religion?' They miss the whole point."

After her studies, Cebeci hopes to find a position at a non-governmental organization for interreligious dialogue or start a similar foundation on her own.

Demiri and Avci would like to teach and promote interreligious understanding in the future.

"An Arabic proverb says, 'Man is enemy of those that he does not have knowledge about,'" Demiri said. "Ignorance only leads to intolerance and conflict."