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Retreat brings together three Abrahamic faiths

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TALI FEINBERG

Hargey describes the Open Mosque in Wynberg, Cape Town, as “South Africa’s first truly liberal and progressive mosque with a forward-looking, all-inclusive ethos”. He sees the retreat as an opportunity to interact, share ideas, and build bridges in a peaceful, open environment.

He says the mosque is “openly Qur’an-centric, gender-equal, non-sectarian, intercultural, and independent. It is setting new theological benchmarks for Muslims in South Africa, rejecting the corrupt, chauvinistic, and fear-inducing traditional Islamic clergy.

“Since a principal objective of the Open Mosque is to be all-inclusive, it was only natural for it to be in the forefront of interfaith dialogue and communal interaction. The original idea of the three Abrahamic faiths coming together was born out of this deep desire to bring people closer together so that we can work collaboratively for the benefit of the whole society, irrespective of race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, and class,” he says.

Looking back, he says there was much anxiety when the idea was first proposed four years ago. “How would Jews, Christians, and Muslims interact for three days and nights in an environment that they aren’t used to? What would the sleeping arrangements be? Would the food be kosher and halaal? Practical issues like these were quickly resolved, and at the end of the first interfaith retreat, everyone agreed that this concept should be repeated on an annual basis as the benefits were enormous and evident. Each year, a pertinent theme is chosen. This year it was about justice, next year it will be about the environment.”

Hargey says a gathering like this is vital in today’s world, especially in South Africa. “In a highly polarised world, it’s imperative that everything is done to bring people of different creeds, cultures, and colours together so that there can be mutual understanding and tolerance for all. The Open Mosque’s landmark interfaith retreat shows how this can be achieved in a small but significant way.

“Indeed, this retreat exemplifies the mosque’s mantra of ‘building bridges of friendship, and breaking the barricades of fear.’”

Hargey has been criticised for his idea. “As expected, we have the Orthodox Muslim clergy denouncing us for holding these groundbreaking conferences between members of the Abrahamic faiths. We have also had some reservation from ultra-conservative Christians and others who are not supportive of the idea. But these ‘stick-in-the-muds’ are on the losing side of history, as the only way forward is to bring people together in harmony and solidarity in celebrating our common humanity,” he says.

He believes the Jewish community will find these retreats meaningful. “Observant Jews will not only be able to interact and build friendships with Muslims and Christians, they will be able to gain objectivity about their faith, seeing it from the outside looking in. Remember, the retreat is not there to condemn and criticise other religions. It’s there to enhance each person’s spiritual and religious journey. Since most Jews are white and most Muslims are brown, this landmark inter-racial gathering is the best advertisement for genuine non-racism in South Africa.”

This past weekend, participants took part in lectures, seminars, workshops, tutorials, prayer ceremonies, and film presentations. There was also sport, meditation, recreation, and yoga. Bryan Opert chose to go on the retreat in spite of the fact that he had reservations about it initially. “The Dignity of Difference by Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks cogently argues that the three Abrahamic religions have much in common, making dialogue not only possible but imperative,” he says.

“I met Dr Hargey. It was a pleasure to speak to him. His investment in seeing real interaction take place between these three faiths is a passion and perhaps even an obsession.”. Distinguishing criticism of Israel from anti-Semitism is for me a pre-requisite to engagement. In discussions with Dr Hargey, it was clear that his ideas had evolved and become aligned with the following approach, in his own words, ‘I believe that the Jewish people have a legitimate right to a nation state in Israel alongside the legitimate rights of the Palestinians.’

 “What we found was a unique group of about 40 people who – and I realise how cliched this sounds – were bound together in love and hope It was a sharing of ideas by religious leaders of their faith’s views on a number of topics. Justice and gender, parenting, minority groups, and socio-economic issues were some of the topics examined.

“I believe that within Cape Town and maybe South Africa, this retreat is one of a kind, where authentic learning takes place with speakers who are deeply entrenched and knowledgeable in their sacred books and tradition. The ethos of respect and inclusiveness allowed for our strict observance of Shabbat and kashrut. Not only that, but there was a desire by the participants to share in Torah activities. Havdalah, specifically, was exquisite.”

Ultimately, Hargey’s message is simple, “We aren’t capable of resolving the issues of the holy land from this remote part of the world. What we can do is create true mutual respect, deeper understanding, and authentic harmony between Jewish and Muslim followers of the great patriarch Abraham in this highly fractured land.”

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