A group of twenty Muslim men sat in the front row of Saint Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney, Australia. It was Easter Sunday, and when the bishop welcomed them, the entire church burst into applause.
The men were there on invitation from the church—part of an attempt to build bridges between the Christian community and the Muslim community.
But their presence in the church didn’t happen on a whim or out-of-the-blue. It was the result of four years of intentional relationship building, peacemaking, and collaboration… originally started by those Muslim families.
In 2001 in the wake of 9/11, Muslims in Sydney suffered a string of hate-crimes against them—people were spitting at them, pulling off women’s hijabs and and attacking them. In an attempt to cope with the violence and make change, a small group of Muslims reached out to the Catholic Dialogue and Interfaith Office of Sydney and asked if they could collaboratively foster understanding among their Christian and Catholic neighbors.
Together, the interfaith office, led by Sister Trish Madigan, O.P and leaders in the Muslim community created a plan. They decided that education was the best way to address the problem and defend their Muslim neighbors. A series of classes was put together, hosted in Catholic church, taught by Muslim leaders that would explain the basics of Islam and answer any questions that people have.
In addition to the classes, Muslim families in Sydney also started invited their Christian and Catholic neighbors into their homes for Iftar dinners during Ramadan… and that ended up being the most effective way to bring people together. According to Sister Trish, sharing those meals was deeply transformative for everyone involved.
In an effort to return the show of hospitality, the Catholic community invited their Muslim neighbors to mass on holidays… but the invitation was always met with hesitancy. Sister Trish believes it was due to fear among the Muslim community that attending a mass might give the impression that they were converting, though it could also have been that the families just didn’t feel comfortable or safe.
But despite the initial refusal, the church continued to invite their Muslim neighbors to mass year after year. Finally, in 2005 the first group of Muslims attended the Easter mass—not to convert, but simply to show support and solidarity for their Christian friends.
“It’s pretty extraordinary,” Sister Trish says, “because they don’t believe in the resurrection of Jesus. But they’re not expected to be Christian, and we’re not expected to be Muslim. It’s about being respectful of each other’s faiths.”
The following year, the same group attended again—but this time, they brought their wives. Every year since, for the last 13 years, groups of Muslims in Sydney have attended Catholic masses across the city… just to support their neighbors.
This is peacemaking.
It’s the persistent effort to stand with one another, understand each other, and respect the things that matter to the other.
It’s the willingness to reach out and ask for help and it’s responding enthusiastically to that request.
It’s the courage to open your home to strangers during the the holidays, and a willingness to celebrate something you don’t quite understand (or even agree with).
It’s continuing to extend the olive branch, even when it’s not accepted at first.
And it’s being willing to be misunderstood in your pursuit of peace.
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This story was originally published by Sojourners Magazine.