Catholic-Muslim Dialogue Carries on in Wake of Killings

JERSEY CITY, N.J. — Hossam Armanious of Jersey City, N.J., participated in Internet chat rooms discussing Christianity and Islam. The Coptic Orthodox man originally from Egypt was devout, said Father Antonious Tanious, a spokesman for the Coptic Orthodox Church, but an average American.

He was also apparently effective in eliciting a strong response to a comment in one such chat room, according to the New York Post: “You’d better stop this, or we are going to track you down like a chicken and kill you.”

Some time later, Armanious, his wife and their two daughters were dead — found with their hands tied and throats slit on the morning of Jan. 14.

Jersey City police and investigators have said they aren’t ruling out any possible motives. “This could be inter-religious, financial, a robbery, a vendetta,” according to Hudson County Assistant Prosecutor Pat Raviola.

Tensions between Muslims and Christians in Jersey City did rise some after the killings, Raviola said, “but that seems to have subsided.”

The Armanious tragedy is indicative of tensions immigrant groups often bring from their homelands, according to Walid Phares, a professor of Mideast studies and ethnic and religious conflict at Florida Atlantic University.

This is particularly true with Copts. Within Egypt, Phares said, they are considered “native infidels” by jihadist Muslim groups and suffer persecution at the jihadists’ hands. A lot of history is involved, including the fact that Copts are true Egyptians – their lineage goes back to the time of the Pharaohs – and they were invaded from the East by Arabs during the Muslim conquest of the eighth century.

He also said that, unlike Lebanese Christians who have an enclave within their country with their own cultural establishments, Copts are dispersed throughout Egypt and are subject to the laws — or whims — of governing officials in their own particular areas.

The Orthodox hierarchy is doing what they can to defuse the situation, Father Tanious said. “We’re not accusing anybody, not jumping to conclusions” and encouraging the flock to exercise Christian patience and forgiveness.  And they’re putting pressure on politicians and police to get the murders solved.

As each immigrant group brings its own prejudices with them, the trick is managing the conflicts so they don’t resurface here. Father Phil Latronico, director of ecumenical relations for the Archdiocese of Newark, said there has been inter-religious dialogue going on there since long before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. When Islamic radicals detonated a bomb in the World Trade Center in 1993, he said, the Muslims of his area “had to work together” to condemn them. That defused tensions which could have arisen from the event.

“We haven’t seen real tensions since 9/11 at all” because of the dialogue, Father Latronico said. “You have hotheads, but those are individuals.”

That’s also the case on the national level, according to John Borelli, special assistant to the president for inter-religious affairs at Georgetown University. “When 9/11 happened, we were not scrambling to start talking with Muslims,” he said.

‘Leave Those Things Behind’

Borelli established Catholic-Muslim dialogue on the national level in his former position at the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Inter-religious Dialogue at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. That dialogue has been taking place on a regular basis in three regions: Eastern Mid-Atlantic, Midwest and West.

In fact, Georgetown held a conference on Catholic-Muslim dialogue for 15 bishops Feb. 28 - March 2.

Dr. Sayyid Syeed is the executive director of the Islamic Society of North America in Plainfield, Ind. He hosts the Midwest Catholic-Muslim dialogue at his facility. He called these dialogues “very productive, very educative and quite a cementing kind of exercise.”

When it comes to dealing with new immigrants, Syeed said, “It is our responsibility to make it really a strong message to people from those countries that here, when they come, they have to leave those things behind and they have to go through a degree of transformation in order to become true Americans.”

Syeed cited an Islamic Society-sponsored conference held in October in Minneapolis that brought together Muslims of different ethnic backgrounds — Somalis, Indians, Pakistanis and Arabs — living in the Upper Midwest. This included sessions where people of other faiths came to work toward a common middle ground.

“It’s a long, long struggle,” Syeed said, “and I cannot report to you that we have succeeded in some measure, but I can tell you that things are happening. It is a struggle within the organization; it’s a struggle outside the organization.”

Syeed said there may have been some members of the Islamic Society who had ties to organizations that were questioned by the government. But, he added, “If we find out that someone is an extremist, we will not tolerate him for a day here.”

Borelli defended their choice of people, saying these dialogues were set up with people known to the local dioceses. After years of doing this, “you begin to understand who has reputable leadership.” And he’s heard these rumors for years. If the people involved had done what they’re accused of doing, “they wouldn’t be free people; they’d be under arrest,” he said.

Phares is not so certain. The professor, who has a book coming out in the fall called Future Jihad, believes groups like the Islamic Society of North America are trying to appear moderate, but that the government and certain parts of the media have figured it out.

Religious leaders, he said, fall into three categories. Bishops in the East who live under Muslim rule know these groups well. Bishops in the West who came from the East know them well, also, and can tell a jihadist from a moderate easily. But Western bishops who don’t know the difference, he said, engage in “political theology.”

Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz writes from Altura, Minnesota.