"We Will Build Bridges"
Signed at a local Islamic center (above) by Bishop Joseph Galante of Camden and Zia Rahman, a leader of the area's Muslim community, the accord is the second of its kind in the US -- the first was reached in 2003 by the diocese of Rochester and Muslims in the upstate New York diocese.
Under Galante's predecessor, Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio (now in Brooklyn) the 500,000-member Camden church reached a similar agreement with the local Jewish community in 2001.
The agreement contains five articles with commitments to uphold freedom of speech, thought, religion and conscience; to challenge religious and ethnic intolerance; to foster a deeper relationship; to build bridges between the two faith communities; and to establish a joint committee and Catholic-Muslim Institute to promote education about their faiths.
In a statement released before the signing, Galante called the agreement a "significant step toward deepening respect and understanding" between the two faiths.
During the ceremony, Galante said both faiths worship and acknowledge God in a culture that is increasingly secular. Galante and Rahman both credited God for enabling the two groups to agree.
"Without God, without faith, we are lost," Rahman said....
The first such agreement was forged in 2003 between Catholics and Muslims in the Rochester Diocese in New York.
The agreement has led to greater dialogue between Christians and Muslims there, said Deacon John Brasley, the ecumenical and interreligious officer for the diocese.
Other dioceses around the country have expressed interest in the interfaith agreement, Brasley said during a phone interview Wednesday. He applauded the South Jersey accord, calling it a "tribute to their dedication and their faith."
"It's not an easy thing to do, I can tell you," Brasley said. "It takes a lot of patience and prayer and some negotiation. It really takes a lot of listening and understanding to reach this kind of agreement."
Afsheen Shamsi, spokeswoman for the New Jersey affiliate of the Council on American Islamic Relations, was delighted.Galante is one of three Stateside bishops who have held a post of "superior" rank in the Roman Curia; from 1987-92, the native Philadelphian served as the #3 official of the Vatican's "Congregation for Religious."
"I think that's great," Shamsi said. "It's wonderful that people of faith should get together and talk about what we share in common, the values we share in common and how much our religions have in common. It's a wonderful step toward peace and will hopefully bring many good things."
In 2007, New Jersey Muslims reported a 25 percent increase in civil rights complaints and a 9 percent increase in hate crimes, Shamsi said.
She said she hopes the agreement will help the public realize Muslims have much in common with Christians and Jews.
The relationship between the Camden Diocese and the Voorhees Muslim community began about eight years ago following a formal agreement between the diocese and the Jewish community, said Father Joseph Wallace, ecumenical and interreligious affairs director for the Camden Diocese.
A committee worked on the Catholic-Muslim agreement for months, Wallace said.
Wallace said the Voorhees Muslim community is warm and welcoming.
"They're people of deep faith and prayer," Wallace said. "They reach out in many ways to all the religions in their communities."
Rubina Ahmad of Voorhees, a coalition member, said she expects the agreement will allow the two faith communities to work together on issues like education and poverty.
"I think it's a big milestone," said Ahmad. "It's going to take us many steps forward."
A former head of the US bishops' media arm, the 69 year-old prelate's candid, friendly and easygoing style has made Galante the lead local voice on church matters. In a recent interview with his six-country diocese's largest mainstream daily, the bishop addressed issues ranging from pastoral planning for an aging Catholic population to a need for "attitude adjustment" on the part of churches alongside the challenge of finding and reaching out to immigrants and the young.
"I think we've done a very poor job over the past 40 years of catechizing people," Galante told the Courier-Post.
"Faith is about relationships," he added, "it's not about the rules, and we didn't teach that enough. We do now, but there's not enough people around to hear it."
"I want the lay people to take ownership of the church," the bishop said.
"Rather than just knowing persons, we must know their religion more deeply in order to understand the people," Fitzgerald told Vatican Radio.Building upon last October's open letter to Pope Benedict signed by 138 Muslim leaders, a dialogue between a representative group of the writers and top Vatican officials is expected to take place later this year in Rome.
The archbishop was interviewed Feb. 24, the evening before the annual Catholic-Muslim dialogue meeting of Vatican representatives with representatives of Cairo's al-Azhar University.
"We know that among Muslims and Christians there are common points, although certainly not a common faith in Christ," Archbishop Fitzgerald said. "We must respect the differences while trying to find spheres in which it would be possible to collaborate and help one another."
The dialogue with the Cairo-based university, a point of reference for many Muslims around the world [oft-called the "Muslim Vatican"], was marking its 10th annual session.
Archbishop Fitzgerald said the theme chosen for the meeting was "Faith in God and Love for One's Neighbor as a Foundation for Interreligious Dialogue."
"I hope that this can give a new impulse to relations between Christians and Muslims in the world," he said.
PHOTOS: Chris LaChall/(Cherry Hill) Courier-Post