Group helps Abrahamic religions understand each other

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Nearly 20 years after the 9/11 attacks, one group that formed in response is still working to help Catholics, Muslims and Jews better understand one another’s faiths, as well as their own.

The Chicago Coalition for InterReligious Learning was formed after a 2001 meeting aimed at mitigating the negative images the members of three faith traditions had of one another, especially, at that time, negative beliefs Christians and Jews held about Muslim believers, and it began by reviewing religious textbooks used by all three religions to educate children.

For several years, the coalition has functioned both as a dialogue group for its members and an educational resource for the greater Chicago community. For the past eight years, it has been offering classes that are open to the public through the Sienna Center at Dominican University.

This year’s mini-course, which includes three online sessions on life cycle rituals and rites of passage in the three faith traditions, will be offered on Wednesdays from April 21 to May 5.

Board members first discuss the educational topic of the class and how to best communicate it among themselves, said Esther Hicks, the coalition president. Hicks, now retired, was director of Catholic school identity and mission when the group first convened.

“We use a method called ‘appreciative inquiry,’” she said. “It’s an approach to asking questions that broaden the field of inquiry rather than limit it. We don’t get into things like who’s right and who’s wrong. We want to build on each other’s understanding.”

“The purpose is really understanding other religious faiths and through understanding, increasing tolerance and empathy and acceptance,” said Elliot Lefkovitz, a Jewish representative and education director emeritus of Am Yisrael Congregation, Northfield. “What I found is that, in doing so, I’ve also learned a lot more about my own faith.”

Huseyin Abiva of the IQRA International Education Foundation said that he enjoys the opportunity to teach about Islam.

“A lot of people don’t know a lot about Islam, and if they do, it’s just what they’ve gleaned from the media,” Abiva said. “In the U.S., Muslims are still a minority, in some places a very small minority. The more you interact with people, the more you know them, the more they become human.”

IQRA publishes textbooks for Islamic students, Abiva said, and that is how he got involved. Its Skokie headquarters serves as the coalition’s address and was where members held regular monthly meetings. They now meet regularly online.

Over the years, in addition to the mini-courses, the group has appeared at gatherings such as the Catholic Festival of Faith and presented in Catholic high schools and colleges and to Jewish and Muslim educators in various settings.

Lefkovitz and Abiva said the relationships they have formed with other members allow open discussion and dialogue.

“It’s an astounding group of people to work with,” Hicks said. “I know it’s changed my life in terms of understanding how our three faiths are one. Our unity is more important than our diversity, although we respect the diversity.”

Indeed, the coalition subscribes to principles of interreligious dialogue that say members must not intend to convert their dialogue partners or to make it seem as if there are no real differences in their religions, and that members of each religion must define themselves by their own beliefs, not in opposition to others’ beliefs.

“Initially, we had to learn how to talk to each other and respect each other’s traditions,” Hicks said.

Deacon Dennis Ramos, who serves at Queen of Angels Parish, 2330 W. Sunnyside Ave., said the first time he went, it was to meet a continuing education requirement for diaconate ministry.

“I first went there only to get points,” Ramos said. “What I found out was that the classes were so interesting, that it was something I can do every year. People are so hungry to know how we all fit together. I came out full of knowledge that I can use also as a deacon.”

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  • interreligious dialogue

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