Dialogue between Orthodox Christians and Muslims (2)

Contribution of Serbian Orthodox Patriarch German to the Dialogue with Muslims (1958 - 1990), Author: Deacon Aleksandar Prascevic, ThD., PhD.

In reviewing this opus, which is rich in both content and meaning, I do not intend to emphasize the course of history, but rather to testify with my personality and position, which I perform also during a burdensome period, the importance of the legacy left to us by leaders of religious communities in the former common state of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, especially the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Islamic Community - who were people with an acute awareness of the importance of dialogue and tolerance, cooperation and respect at the level of religious communities and their dignitaries.

One of the first to initiate dialogue was the Serbian Patriarch German who worked unequivocally to ensure rapprochement, understanding and respect between Orthodox Christians and the Islamic community.

Like a true shepherd, showing responsibility for the fact that he was the leader of the largest religious organization in the then-common state, Patriarch German was the first to demonstrate practical activity in inter-religious respect, dialogue and respect in the former common state. This can also be seen in the very title of this book where our esteemed deacon Dr Aleksandar Prascevic shows that with the enthronement of Patriarch German in 1958, an intense inter-religious dialogue between Christians and Muslims began. This dialogue was conducted at the level of the highest religious leaders - Serbian Patriarch German and Reis-ul-ulema Rahmetli Sulejman Effendi Kemura.

The publication of this book comes at a crucial time when, on the one hand, the need for dialogue for coexistence between Muslims and Christians, and especially Muslims and Orthodox, seems to never been more pronounced, and on the other hand, after the death of Patriarch German to this day there has not been dialogue or an encounter between the leaders of the two monotheistic religions. Therefore, the importance of this work is great because it reminds us of the obligation of inter-religious cooperation and gives us a new impetus to follow in the footsteps of our religious dignitaries and restore dialogue between Christians and Muslims at the level of the Patriarch and Reis-ul-ulema as soon as possible.

Reading the introduction of the book, we find a sentence by the respected author Prascevic about the state of religion and atmosphere that prevailed in the SFRY believers: „In practice, there was an atmosphere in which people were instructed to worship the leader of the political regime instead of God”. In such an ungodly system, Patriarch German had the strength and courage to correspond with, meet frequently, receive in visit and reciprocate with his visits the religious head of the Muslims - Reis-ul-ulema.

This striving for encounters and conversations, as well as the exchange of greetings and letters with Reis-ul-ulema by Patriarch German, seemed so natural and original. It was not only a result of the fact that his childhood and growing up occurred in Josanička Banja, which was relatively close to the Muslims' living space, which enabled him to meet them during this period. It is also about his deep awareness of the need to preserve peace and stability and mutual respect, which should be practically shown to the people, so that the people themselves, like their religious leaders, can talk, respect and live in harmony.

The Patriarch's awareness of the importance of coexistence and consideration comes to fruition on his visits to areas where Orthodox and Muslims live together.

In 1979, Patriarch German visited the Diocese of Zvornik and Tuzla, and on that occasion, he met with Reis-ul-ulema Rahmetli Husein Effendi Mujić, who spoke at the luncheon and as the author informs us, said: “Relations between the Islamic Community and the Serbian Orthodox Church are good and ever better, to which end the Serbian priests of this region have contributed much”.

It is very important that the respected author Prascevic gives us these quotations from Reis-ul-ulema's speech, especially because it proves the commitment of Muslim leaders to dialogue and coexistence. Reis-ul-ulema, as religious leaders, are well versed in the messages of Islam and the importance of spreading selama - peace among people. The Qur'anic Ayat verse calls for dialogue and tolerance: “Say: ‘People of the Book! Come to a word common between us and you: that we shall serve none but Allah and shall associate none with Him in His divinity and that some of us will not take others as lords beside Allah”. (Qur'an, Ali Imran, 64)

Muslim dignitaries, in their effort to cultivate and promote dialogue among the faiths, rely on the practice of Prophet Muhammad, may the peace of God be with him, who in 623 AD signed a document called the “Ashtiname of Muhammad”, according to which the monks of St. Catherine's Monastery were spared taxes and military service, and Muslims in the region were required to defend the monastery and honour the monks and clergy.

The Qur’an says: And you will find the nearest of them in affection to the believers those who say, “We are Christians”. That is because among them are priests and monks and because they are not arrogant. (Ali Imran, 28).

The tolerance, respect and expressed desire for dialogue between the religious leaders of the Islamic Community is the result of their deep awareness and expressive humanity when they accepted the outstretched arm of peace and discourse of the Serbian Patriarch German.

How much the Patriarch acknowledged and respected Muslims, especially their religious leaders, is shown by his presence at the Janazah - funeral of Reis-ul-ulema Rahmetli Sulejman Effendi Kemura on 22 January 1975 in Sarajevo. The Patriarch also visited the Old Church in Sarajevo on that occasion.

Author Prascevic, in telling us about this visit, includes the wonderful speech by the Hierarch of this church Archpriest Dusan Veselinovic, who said: “Although Your Holiness's visit was unexpected and is prompted by the passing of the head of the Islamic Community, venerable Reis-ul-ulema Kemura, our joy for the visit of Your Holiness, is not only not diminished, but it is that much greater, since the gospel love which we preach will manifest on this occasion as the reality of our conviction...”.

The presence of Patriarch German at the Janazah of Reis-ul-ulema influenced positively the participants of the then religious life - Orthodox and Catholic Christians and Muslims.

The particular significance of this book is reflected in the review of the written correspondence between Patriarch German and the leaders of the Islamic Community.

It is a shining example of the mutual appreciation and respect of two religious’ dignitaries. This correspondence was not only courteous and on occasion of holidays, but also on the occasion of private visits, such as the arrival of Reis-ul-ulema Rahmetli Kemura in Vrnjačka Banja on 24 January 1961.

The author gives us a clear insight into the strength of mutual respect of the two leaders and tells us that today we should follow the tendencies undertaken by Patriarch German from one and Reis-ul-ulema Rahmetli Sulejman Effendi Kemura on the other hand.

Patriarch German sought to foster and improve the friendship with the leader of the Islamic community and to raise it to a level of personal, human appreciation and respect. This can be clearly seen from the correspondence with the leaders of the Islamic community, which the author Prascevic cited on the pages of this book, paying it particular attention in both volume and quality.

Because of the importance of these messages, I would certainly give myself the freedom and warmly recommend to the respected author, if not now then certainly in the next edition, to enrich the book with photographs from meetings of the religious leaders, which will evoke for the readers of this praiseworthy work even more warmly the strength of their mutual appreciation and respect.

I read this manuscript with particular attention and great enjoyment and I warmly recommend it to all. Quite equally, this work is important for both the clergy of the Serbian Orthodox Church and imams, but also for believers - Christians and Muslims alike.

This manuscript has practically enlivened the work of venerable dignitaries, especially Patriarch German, and will undoubtedly leave a positive impact on readers who, I am convinced, will transmit what they have read, for the sake of peace and coexistence, and faith in the One God.

The author Dr Aleksandar Prascevic puts us to the task with this work.

President of the Islamic Community of Mashihat in Serbia
Mufti Professor Dr Mevlud Effendi Dudic