AUSTRALIA – How food is helping to break down faith barrier

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SHAFAQNA – Imam Faizel Chothia takes the microphone and announces the question and answer session is about to begin.

“Ask anything you want, Trump, ISIS, whatever,” he tells the milling crowd, many still clutching their dinner plates laden with food. He goes to walk away but then, seeming to remember something, turns back to the mic. “Oh, and don’t forget the juicy ones! Women! The hijab! Polygamy!”

Minutes later, Imam Chothia sits with his friend, Anglican priest the Rev. Peter Humphris, and two Australian Muslim women, one raised in the Islamic faith by her Indonesian mother, the other a former Catholic in her late-60s who is now the matriarch in her Afghani husband’s Muslim family.

They answer questions from the mixed Christian and Muslim crowd that range from the correct way to greet someone during Ramadan (“Happy Ramadan!” is fine, we’re told) to curlier questions on Islamic marriages and the nature of Sharia Law.

Two of the younger Muslim men quietly leave to pick up more food, returning to pass around boxes of freshly cooked Turkish bread.

Food, conversation and a bit of socialising is the aim of these Friday night soirees that are taking place at Beaconsfield’s St Paul’s Anglican Church every week throughout the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which ends on Saturday. Fremantle’s Muslim community — who hail from places as diverse as Bosnia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Italy and of course, Australia — have used the church hall for Friday prayers every week for five years, but as the Islamic Holy month approached this year, the two religious leaders decided they wanted to do something more to bring their two communities together.

So every Friday, at sunset, St Paul’s Muslim parishioners invite St Paul’s Christian parishioners to break their daily fast with them, setting out plates of food and socialising before taking seats in the amphitheatre behind the church for a question and answer session nutting out some of the knottier issues of faith, culture and politics.

The Muslims then retreat to the church hall for prayer, with the Christians welcome to observe.

“It’s organic, it’s natural, it doesn’t feel difficult, or awkward,” Rev. Humphris says of the coming together of the two faith groups.

“Once you realise how much we delight in each other, (you realise) we’re missing something by not having events like this.”

Imam Chothia dismisses any notion there is a great divide between the Christian and Muslim faith that needs to be overcome.

“If religious communities are just left to their own devices this is really the natural outcome. It’s not a novelty, it’s part of a long history that stretches out millennia … Christian and Muslim communities have lived side by side for hundreds of years, so what we’re doing here is replicating what was the reality in times gone by.”

He says the “cretins” committing acts of terrorism in the name of Islam had little to do with the wider Muslim community.

“It’s sad that we’re being blamed for something that we haven’t created,” he says.

With his long beard and Muslim robes, does he ever feel uncomfortable on the street? He laughs.

“I’m from South Africa, this is like kindergarten,” he says.

Certainly, there is plenty of mutual respect between Rev. Humphries and Imam Chothia. “He is my soulmate,” the Imam jokes.

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