Years ago, I attended a conference of the International Catholic Stewardship Council, to which several parishes in Alaska belong. One of the speakers was a bishop who served on a committee overseeing Catholic Relief Services, which is the overseas relief arm of the U.S. Catholic bishops.
I can’t remember the bishop’s name or the year of the conference, but I will never forget an incident he described. Visiting North Africa, he witnessed the results of vicious violence and warfare. Perhaps it was the ongoing strife in Sudan at that time, where rape was often used as a weapon of war. This bishop visited a hospital that was staffed by a non-governmental organization, not a Catholic one, and many of the patients were women and girls who had been brutally assaulted.
In one bed lay a very young teen who was pregnant as a result of rape by a combatant. The nurse attending the distraught girl assured her kindly that they could “take care” of her pregnancy — in other words, terminate it.
The bishop overheard the girl’s fervent reply, “No, no,” she said repeatedly, “I am not a Christian. I am not a Christian.”
In other words, the young Muslim woman was entreating the nurse to realize that she would not want an abortion. Obviously in her mind, abortion was prevalent in the decadent West, and the West is Christian. Ergo, Christians abort and she was adamant that she was not a Christian.
That comes as sad news to American Catholics and other Christians who abhor abortion, but it points to how easily it is for all of us, even those who consider themselves educated, to develop stereotypes and generalizations about “the other,” the people we really don’t know.
Just as this young girl painted the West with one brush stroke, how many of us carry biases we don’t even realize we have?
The other day I attended an open house at a local Islamic Center in my Midwestern city. The center is a modest building, with a crescent moon ornament adorning its roof, in a middle-to-lower-middle class part of town.
During the past year, the center has been vandalized three times. The perpetrators have done damage but have never been able to break in; the murky, masked photos on surveillance tape have led to no arrests.
The president of the mosque said that after 9/11 members sensed a subtle change in attitudes towards them. The latest vandalism occurred right after the atrocities in Paris.
What I sensed was fear, the reverse side of fear that grips most Americans. We are, understandably, on alert for terror. The people who worship at the Islamic center are on alert as well; after the horrific shootings in San Bernardino, a mosque there was firebombed. For a congregation that has many family events during the week, it feels scary. There are scores of potential sites for terror in my town; if you’re a Muslim here, there’s one in particular.
I learned many small things about Islam at the open house. It happened to be the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and I had been making little intercessory prayers for my daughter, named Maria, on her feast day. I learned that Muslims have no intercessors. They pray directly to God, who, by the way, is called “Allah” by all Arabs, including Arabic Christians. And less than 20 percent of the world’s Muslims are Arab.
Pope Francis urges us to “dialogue.” In this year of mercy, dialogue seems very important, perhaps the first step on the road to understanding.
The writer is formerly from Anchorage. She now lives in Omaha, Neb.