The Parliament of the World's
Religions will bring religious people from around the globe to Melbourne from 3
- 9 December.
Australian Jesuit Fr Herman Roborgh
lived in Pakistan for eight years, before completing a PhD in Islamic Studies
at Aligarh Muslim University in India. Now living in Sydney, he has recently
conducted retreats bringing together Christians and Muslims, as well as
retreats encouraging Christians to delve more deeply into the Koran.
Province Express editor Michael
McVeigh spoke with Fr Roborgh ahead of the Parliament.
Q: You'll be there in Melbourne as a
participant at the Parliament of World's Religions, and you've been involved in
various interfaith activities in Australia and in your time in Pakistan. When
people from different religions come together for interfaith dialogue, what are
some of the questions that are raised and issues that are discussed?
depends on what religions you are talking about, because religions are very
different. For example the question of God wouldn't be terribly interesting to
Buddhists. They wouldn't discuss that, but for us it would be the main
question. With Muslims, of course, immediately you could have these sorts of
discussions and you would get into areas that we both share.
think though, with all religions, the modern issues facing the planet will be
something that we can talk about. For example, the ecology, environment,
pollution, care for the planet, climate change. Then there'll be questions of
social justice, care for refugees and asylum seekers, migrants and people on
the margins - how do religions relate to these people, what can religions offer
these people. I think they will be things that will bring us together rather
immediately and easily.
as for theological issues, I think it really differs from religion to religion.
Q: You will be meeting with a number
of Islamic scholars at the Parliament. What are the sorts of things you'll be
of all, it's not immediately easy to get into deep discussions with people you
don't know very well. So I think there'll be some kind of ice-breaking, or some
way of getting into a relationship with people, winning their trust and getting
to know them. I suppose that's a big challenge in a short time.
of the time is taken up asking various questions and seeing how people respond
to the questions, which would indicate if we can go further. So much of what we
call dialogue is really just exchanging information, or even worse, it's just
telling the other person something about your faith but not really asking the
other person about theirs, not really learning from the other person.
I think the challenge is really to create an environment, or situation, where
we can really be listening and wanting to learn something from the other
person. Not to be reaffirmed in our own established opinions and assumptions,
but to have them re-evaluated.
Q: You're talking about getting to
that deeper level of conversation, where you're listening to others and seeing
how their ideas inform your own faith. You've recently been running retreats
involving Christians and Muslims coming together in reflection. How do you go
about creating a space for people of different religions to go into that deeper
level of dialogue?
retreats it's a different environment. Outside that special environment, you
need to make frequent visits and sit with people and have tea with them and
just relate with them on a human level. That's how you can find or recognise
opportunities where people can go deeper. You've got to visit people in their
houses, that's what I do. Go to their places, their centres, places where they
have talks and so forth.
a retreat situation, we sit and we do awareness exercises for some time -
becoming aware of ourselves, becoming aware of the environment, becoming aware
of the people sitting around us. Just sitting in silence for some time, trying
to be aware of one another. That has created an atmosphere where people can be
more listening, and perhaps more trusting.
Q: So what advice would you have for
people going into the Parliament of the World's Religions to get into that sort
go with an open mind, to go trying to learn something. To really listen, and
listen again, and then to ask questions about points that are not clear. Not to
go in with big questions that have been prepared beforehand, but to let the questions
emerge as one listens to another person. To become aware of little questions
that one has, and to have the courage to ask them, even if they may seem
think also one needs to have respect for other religions, for the way people express
themselves religiously, for the symbols and the language and the postures that
people use to express religious sentiments. I think we need great respect for
that. We don't necessarily need to be able to participate in everything, but to
just have respect and to recognize that people do things very differently to us
sometimes. And that they can have just as profound a religious experience as we
Q: Could you tell us some more about
the different retreats you have been running through the Centres of Ignatian
one kind where there are both Muslims and Christians participating. We usually
have an equal number of Muslims and Christians in one group. That creates a
certain dynamic, where you can hear directly from the way Muslims are
responding to our Bible, and Muslims can hear directly how Christians are
responding to Koranic verses, which we meditate on or pray about beforehand. So
there's a directness of response, and a freshness of response which we can hear
from persons of the other religions. Which is remarkable, surprising and very
other kind is the retreats where there are only Christians, or people of a
Christian background. There we still have the Koranic verses, and we look for
links between the Koranic verses and the Bible verses. It's amazing what people
come up with, and what people do find, and how Christians can enlarge their
understanding of the Bible and New Testament by reading the Koran. Because the
Koran can bring out certain aspects of a Bible theme in a new way for
Christians. I've experience that in these retreats. Christians see their own
scriptures in a new light, and have been encouraged and affirmed and have a
fresh approach to their own Scriptures.
Q: What are some of the insights that
people have received in reading the Koran?
would be the majesty and the ever-presence of God. The all-present God and the
all-sustaining God come across so strongly in the Koran. People discover that
this is also the way that Jesus tried to talk about God. He may have used
different language, different images... and therefore it remains a different
experience... but enriching, I think. If you read the experience of God that
comes through from the Koran, it enriches our understanding of God as we read the
insight would be the whole question of forgiveness and reconciliation, which is
very strong in the Bible. But also when we read the Koran we find a very
similar theme there, and put quite clearly. Another one would be the idea of being
servants of one another. Being servants of one another comes through very
strongly in our Scriptures, but it's remarkable how that is also strong in the
Koran. Not only being servants of God, but being servants of one another.
Q: How did you come up with the idea
of bringing people from Christian and Muslim communities together to pray?
suppose I was just trying to find out what Muslims would say about our Bible,
in a prayerful environment. You hear so much rejection of certain aspects of
the Bible, as if there would be constant arguments and constant differences
between the Bible and the Koran. I wanted to create an environment where we
could reaffirm one another based on our Scriptures. I wanted to see if Muslims
really could read our Bible and be affirmed in their faith, whether we as
Christians could be affirmed from the Muslim side, whether we could affirm one
another, rather than debate or argue with one another. I suppose that's the
genesis of it.
I think, another aspect would be the desire to go deeper. There's so much
interfaith activity going on which is on the level of information, and purely
instruction on a rather superficial level. I wanted to go deeper, looking for
ways to go beneath the surface, and opening up the real experience of our
faith. Rather than just some doctrinal points.
think there's so much more to be done in this area. We're only just beginning,
I hope that we could
begin to ask the more difficult questions in a retreat atmosphere. We need
to go into those areas which are more difficult - areas we have
avoided because we find some serious differences of belief. Can
we pray about these differences in a retreat environment and try to
explain them to one another in new ways? Can we just allow these
differences to be part of our communication? That's the challenge that lies
ahead of us.
far I've kept to sharing in areas where we have a lot of commonalities, and so
that's been reaffirming and enriching and so forth, but I think also we need to
look at certain verses in the Koran, verses which are difficult for Christians.
In the same way, can I get Muslims to listen to verses from the Bible which for
them would be quite difficult? I'm looking forward to doing that in the future.
For more about the Parliament of the
World's Religions go to www.parliamentofreligions.org.