Presbyterian mission co-workers: Interfaith dialog center a safe space for all faith followers

Co-existence without agreement a driving principle of the Al Amana Centre in Oman

by Scott O’Neill | Presbyterian News Service

Earlier this year, Presbyterian World Mission’s the Rev. Cathy Chang, Luciano Kovacs and the Rev. Dr. Elmarie Parker, left to right, visited the Al Amana Centre in Oman. (Contributed photo)

LOUISVILLE — The Al Amana Centre (AAC) in Oman was founded in 1987, but its roots date back to the country’s first Christian mission in the late 19th century. Its initial iteration was evangelistic ministry, but quickly grew into medical care to serve the common good and live out a Christian witness among non-Christian people and education. It was the only modern hospital in the middle eastern country at the time and remained the only modern medical provider in Oman for nearly 80 years.

Today Al Amana, which means “sacred trust” in Arabic, functions as a meeting and training center focused on promoting and practicing interfaith dialogue and co-existence between different faiths. Mohammed Ali Al Shuaili, assistant to the executive director and one of AAC’s program managers, uses scriptural reasoning practices which combine individuals from different faith traditions into small groups — usually 8-10 but no more than 20 — to share, explore and understand each other’s texts. It is designed to enhance personal religious boundaries beyond the familiar and develop respect for differing perspectives without insisting on agreement.

Earlier this year, three members of the Presbyterian World Mission staff — Luciano Kovacs, area coordinator, Middle East and Europe; the Rev. Dr. Elmarie Parker, regional liaison to Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and the Gulf States; and the Rev. Cathy Chang, acting regional liaison for Southeast Asia and the Pacific — visited AAC for conversation with Al Shuaili and other AAC team members.

“I’ve known of Al Amana’s work for many years, but what a privilege to see the center in person, to learn about the Omani context, and to meet the partners who carry-out the peace-building work of the center,” said Parker. “I especially appreciated learning about their ‘scriptural reasoning’ experiences, which bring together people from different faith traditions to read and interact with passages from their respective holy scriptures. The focus is not on conversion, but rather on exploration and understanding. The mutual respect and insights that come from this process are transformative for participants.”

“We seek to give participants an experience where they co-exist and can feel safe,” said Al Shuaili. “We provide them the safe space to discuss and recognize it’s OK to like someone who is different from you, doesn’t share the same values or beliefs that you share. It’s OK to like and live with them.”

Oman itself is a Muslim-majority country, but with a heavy population of expats there are many Christians, Hindus and followers of other religions also living there. Al Amana’s target audience is international groups — they generally do not accept individuals into their programs, but host groups from the U.S., Europe, Africa, and other countries. Their typical group is interested in learning what it is like living in a Muslim-majority world as a Christian, or looking deeper into what Islam looks like from inside a predominantly Muslim country. They also create safe space for religious groups from areas experiencing religious tension to learn and to connect in a neutral space.

According to Al Shuaili, AAC provides a rich cultural experience for first-time visitors to a Muslim country. Part of that experience inevitably involves breaking down myths or stereotypes around Islam and its followers.

Some common stereotypes that Al Amana addresses for American groups is that Muslims oppress women, that women do not have rights in Islam, and males are superior to women. This includes women not being allowed to uncover their heads or go to work.

“When they come to Oman, they realize none of those perceptions are true. Women here have liberty and rights. There is no systemic discrimination of women,” says Al Shuaili.

Another stereotype Ali is eager to dispel surrounds security in the Middle East and the ability to travel safely. In Oman, at least, Al Shuaili has not seen evidence of police violence at any point.

“The general feeling of people living in Oman is that they are safe. We are happy to clarify that, especially for people from the U.S. Furthermore, participants will not be targeted in the streets by people asking them to convert to Islam. When we host groups, we do not show them how the media shows them. We let them see how it is,” he said.

The typical Al Amana program lasts 7-14 days. There is curriculum inside the center, but not all of it is training or lectures. There are activities outside the center, where they meet and interact with local Omanis. Visits to local worship places — Christian churches, Hindu temples, and Muslim mosques — are common.

“The programs are a mix of theoretical study and practical training. We don’t like to just lecture,” said Al Shuaili.

Luciano Kovacs, the Rev. Dr. Elmarie Parker and the Rev. Cathy Chang visit with their host at the Al Amana Centre in Oman, Mohammed Ali Al Shuaili. (Contributed photo)

In addition to scriptural reasoning, AAC uses a technique called intercultural immersion for those wishing to experience Arab culture while engaging in interreligious exploration. The immersion program can cater to each group’s needs, but Al Shuaili shared a frequent practice that often becomes the highlight of the trip.

“One popular event is taking participants to the local Oman Tourism College and have them take a cooking class. Under the guidance of an Omani chef, participants cook together, work together, and engage in the team-building spirit, cooking authentic Omani food. This is often the highlight of their trip,” said Ali Shuaili.

At AAC, participants are encouraged to sit on the ground to eat lunch in a big circle. As a Muslim, Ali Shuaili says, “this is just how we eat lunch, but for many participants it’s a new experience.” He shared an example of a group from Nigeria of mixed Christian pastors and Muslim imams who are used to eating separately. At Al Amana they combined as one group and ate lunch together for the first time. Upon return, one of the imams wrote to Ali Shuaili that he and a local Christian pastor modeled their Friday evening gatherings to eat together for the very first time.

“The Al Amana Centre is a venue that Presbyterians should visit and engage with, given its unique location in Oman, where the center has built a trusting relationship with its society,” said Kovacs. “What I cherished about it is that it offers a safe space for Muslims and Christians to sit down and explore commonalities and diversity in a constructive environment, especially for those who live in countries where religious tensions are high.”

According to its website, the Al Amana Centre also offers trauma healing, study abroad programs, and interfaith arts programs. It is one of the few Christian-led organizations working toward sustainable peace in a predominantly Muslim part of the world, which makes Al Shuaili a minority working at the AAC. The irony is not lost on him.

“This is my home, but I do not see the Christians I work with or engage with as objects to be converted. It’s not my mission in life to convert them to Islam,” he said. “So, I do not think about others as objects to be converted. they are subjects to be loved.”

Creative_Commons-BYNCNDYou may freely reuse and distribute this article in its entirety for non-commercial purposes in any medium. Please include author attribution, photography credits, and a link to the original article. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDeratives 4.0 International License.

  • Subscribe to the PC(USA) News

  • Interested in receiving either of the PC(USA) newsletters in your inbox?