Muslim and Jewish leaders in Hong Kong bridge a difficult divide
Muhammad Arshad (left) and Asher Oser reach out to each other.
At the end of a week that has seen Islamic State terror plumb new depths of horror, Hong Kong’s Muslim and Jewish leaders have hailed a growing sense of interfaith cooperation in the city.
Leaders of both communities – Hong Kong is home to 300,000 Muslims and 7,000 Jews – say the atmosphere of friendship and collaboration at a time of unprecedented global tension is illustrated by the fact that rabbis are welcome to preach in mosques and imams in synagogues.
The unusual situation is borne out of the tragic events of New York on September 11 2001, the immediate aftermath of which saw meetings between leaders of both communities which became a permanent feature in subsequent years.
“Interfaith dialogue is important insofar as you understand each other closely, and that you take their glass of water. It means you are accepting them, and they are accepting you,” said Hong Kong’s chief imam, Muhammad Arshad. “Sometimes the barriers that have been made by man are removed.”
Asher Oser, the rabbi of Ohel Leah Synagogue in Mid-Levels, felt proud that he could send a “powerful” message to constituent communities by seeing the imam and rabbi get along.
“We’re comfortable with each other. We’re friendly with each other. [Our worshippers] know that and it’s very important,” said the rabbi, in a separate interview with the Sunday Morning Post in the city’s only free-standing place of worship for the Jewish community.
Arshad and Oser are the most senior religious leaders in their communities to attend the regular monthly interfaith dialogues – which also feature representatives from the Christian and Buddhist faiths.
The rabbi called the imam “a special and very open-minded person” to work with.
The imam said the joint religious meetings worked because they focused on “things that are common and join with each other. Not something that is dividing and creating hate among each other.”
His comments come as Jewish communities are perceiving a greater threat amid the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe. Similar fears affect the Muslim community.
The rabbi called for global cooperation to show religious understanding and unity, and, where possible, to eliminate differences.
“There needs to be more interfaith dialogue around the world generally. Religious leaders have a common language and we don’t necessarily have to agree with each other all the time, but there are many areas where we can and do cooperate,” he said.
Both leaders said this had been “forgotten amid all the noise” during the French terror attacks last month. A Muslim police officer – specially assigned to protect Charlie Hebdo staff – was among those killed. And a Muslim employee at a supermarket saved a number of Jewish shoppers during a subsequent hostage crisis.
“Extremists don’t help any of us. And when people are extreme in the name of Judaism or Islam it doesn’t help our cause.
“We are the ones trying to create a viable religious life and tradition in the 21st century,” said the rabbi.
At the height of clashes between the Israeli army and Hamas militants in Gaza in July last year, the imam and rabbi sat down over tea to discuss the unfolding developments.
It was a show of strength of the bonds linking the religious communities. Indeed, Hong Kong may be the only city in the world where the central mosque is situated on a road named after a Jewish figure – Matthew Nathan, a former governor of Hong Kong and member of the Ohel Leah Synagogue.
Rabbi Oser said: “That sets the tone of coexistence.”
The chief imam said the story of Muslims in Hong Kong demonstrated the “historical background to living side-by-side in a peaceful manner”.
This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as Muslim, Jewish leaders bridge a difficult divide
PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 February, 2015, 4:04am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 February, 2015, 4:04am
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