On 27th April 2021, South Africa celebrated Freedom Day. Two Cape Town gatherings (amongst many more) stood out for their interfaith significance.
These were the People’s assembly at the Groote Kerk in Adderly Street and the launch of the Catholic-Shia platform for theological dialog and practical ethics at the Ahlulbait Mosque in Ottery.
The constitution of South Africa promises us a variety of freedoms. While these have on the main been painfully slow to materialise, two were on proud display yesterday: The freedoms to assemble and to associate.
A Peoples Assembly
As part of the #DefendOurDemocracy campaign, the oldest protestant congregation in South Africa, Groote Kerk, hosted a wide array of organisation with some 15 speakers. In his opening address, Ds Riaan de Villers gave us some context, reflecting on the role of dissenting voices in the Dutch Reformed tradition, which has been the theological underpinning of the apartheid regime, but has now largely transformed into a force for change. He hopes to “rebrand” this venerable house of religion into a centre for dialog serving all.
Present were a variety of other religious leaders, including Sheikh Igshaan Taliep of the Muslim Judicial Council, Bishop Thembekile Gqwaka of the United Methodist Church, and Imam Shaheed Gamieldien representing Claremont Main Road Mosque.
The space was held and skilfully moderated by Rev Llewellyn Macmaster of the Uniting Reformed Church (formally the racially divided arm of the Dutch Reformed Church), and also the fiery Noncedo Madubedube, the general secretary of Equal Education (EE) .
Rev Marietjie Steyn, fellow minister of Groote Kerk, led a timeous reflection from Isaiah 58:
“If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday”
Connecting to Civil Society
But importantly most of the speakers were passionate, and at times justifiably angry, voices from many sectors of civil society, including medical services, policing, and farmers. Issues raised included gender based violence and discrimination, and law enforcement ineffectiveness, educational crises, and many others.
The overall frustration expressed the broad dissatisfaction with the current South African government and its tainting by structural corruption. This has led directly to a greatly reduced delivery of services and hunger, suffering and continuing squalid living conditions for millions of South Africans.
As a prime example, Dr Genine Josias expressed her on-going horror at the inability of governmental medical testing services to even scratch the surface of what was required in order to bring rapists to book. She reports that there has been no testing in these cases this entire year, with a backlog in the hundreds of thousands, due of course to the primacy of Covid screening, but also then to the ineptitude of medical administration that results in unspeakable suffering for the victims of sexual abuse that she tries to help on a daily basis.
Congratulations go to all at Groote Kerk who made this space possible, reflecting a deep transformation process. Long my this centre of dialog prosper in serving the city of Cape Town, South Africa, and the world.
A Bigger Picture
The afternoon event was in some ways broader and in others more focussed. The Ahlulbait Shia Mosque in Ottery hosted a mid-Ramadan event in conjunction with the Catholic Church of Cape Town (represented by Archbishop Stephen Brislin) to launch a platform for theological dialog and practical ethics. This is in response to the historic meeting in March 2021 between Pope Francis and Grand Ayatollah Sistani in Najaf, Iraq.
The global significance of that meeting gave further context to the local Cape Town interfaith movement. Several of the speakers explained how that two years ago, the Pope and Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the imam of al-Azhar mosque in Cairo and an important authority for Sunni Muslims, agreed to pursue interfaith dialog. The Sunni form the 85% majority of worldwide Muslims, while the Shia are the 15% minority. By meeting Sistani, the Pope indicated that he is not taking sides, but building links with the whole Muslim umma, or universal community.
Notable amongst the speakers was Imam Rashied Omar who helpfully typified interfaith dialog into 4 distinct types:
- The Dialog of Life, which is local, spontaneous and neighbourly, where people of different religious culture and beliefs live peaceably together.
- The Dialog of Action such as was seen in the anti-apartheid struggle, which is about social solidarity and justice.
- The Dialog of Theology, where beliefs were discussed and constructive, respectful and insightful discourse allowed them to strengthen one another.
- The Dialog of Experience, where the mystical and spiritual practice was explored together. This was pioneered by Trappist monk Thomas Merton.
Omar’s framework was a good way of giving context to the at times bewildering world of interfaith. His dialog of experience is also known as “interspirituality” and has been pioneered more recently by the likes of Wayne Teasdale, Thomas Keating, Cynthia Bourgeault, Ken Wilber, and Richard Rohr. (See my further reflections on this site)
While the dialog of life is apparent across the lower income areas of Cape Town, upward mobility tends to erode it.
The dialog of action was well exemplified at Groote Kerk, and I believe is once again on the rise, despite many bemoaning its demise post the apartheid struggle.
This initiative will concentrate on the dialog of theology, which I for one find exciting and necessary.
The dialog of experience must involve braver excursions into creative liturgical intersectional spaces, and will challenge the very structures that make our religious silos profoundly robust. This will take artful leadership to realise.
Other equally auspicious speakers included the Chairperson of the Cape Town Interfaith Initiative Rev Berry Behr, Rev Mark Long, the affable chair of the Western Cape Religious Leaders Forum, Fr Peter-John Pearson head of the Parliamentary Liaison Office of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference, Aslam Fataar, Professor of Sociology of Education, Stellenbosch University, and from Rome (via video), Father Chris Clohessy, who teaches Islamic studies in the Vatican.
Room to grow
The “narrower” focus of Ahlulbait’s initiative raised 2 points, firstly the need for this dialog to extend beyond the aegis of Catholicism and Shia Islam, to include a far wide range of religious sectors, both within and beyond monotheism.
And secondly, one glaring contrast with the gathering at the Groote Kerk was the near absence of the woman’s voice. Thankfully the Rev Berry Behr came to the rescue, adding her voice to this important witness. However, even being a speaker, the structural patriarchy required her to be sequestrated with the other women attendees, as is the common practice in most mosques.
Nonetheless, it needs to be pointed out that Islamic hospitality excelled, with a delicious Iftaar meal after the event. Congratulations to Muwalana Aftab Haider of Ahlulbait who is the main driver of this initiative, and a stalwart of Cape Town interfaith movement, having been present from the inception of the CTII in 1999. And also to his co-workers Khalid Sayed and Sayeed Habib, shukraan!
Inkululeko (freedom) – are we there yet?
One voice that resonates from Freedom Day (I forget the speaker) – in the dark days of apartheid could we have imagined that we would overcome? And we did.
Now, as we are beset by the insidious and society-wide effects of corruption can we imagine a more just way of life?
And also, in our religious thinking, with millennia old categories, can we begin to imagine a time when religions move beyond enmity, then beyond mere tolerance, into a genuine space of salaam, of shalom, of peaceful and creative co-existence, of realised Ubuntu? Can we imagine where we have the freedoms not just to assemble, or to associate, but a much fuller expression of humanity?
This, beyond chaos and corruptibility, is the goal of all true religion.
Whisper it now: Amandla, power to the people.
The event videos are available here: