Representatives of the Catholic and Muslim faiths at the joint Hari Raya-Christmas celebration on Dec 27. From left: Vicar General Monsignor Eugene Vaz; Mr Maarof Salleh, president of the Islamic Religious Authority Of Singapore; Archbishop Nicholas Chia and Mufti of Singapore, Mufti Syed Isa bin Mohd Semait.

IT WAS a wet and rainy evening on Dec 27. But inside the Singgahsana Hall of the Malay Village in Geylang Serai, fellow ship and cheer abounded as Muslims and Catholics greeted one another warmly. The special dinner, which brought together some 300 members of the Muslims and Christian communities, is believed to be the first-ever joint celebration of Hari Raya Aidilfitri and Christmas in Singapore.

Also present were members of the Inter-Religious Organisation. The event, the fourth in a series of Christian-Muslim dialogue sessions which started in April last year, aimed to create a deeper sense of fellowship, understanding and collaboration between members of both faiths.

Archbishop Chia presenting a gift of a model ship to Mr Maarof Salleh (above) symbolising a journey of inter-religious dialogue and collaboration, and the Holy Bible to Mufti Syed Isa bin Mohd Semait (below). He received, in return, books on Islam and Muslims in Singapore.And this desire was amply demonstrated in the warm speeches given by Archbishop Nicholas Chia, head of the Catholic Church in Singapore and Mr Maarof Salleh, president of the Islamic Religious Authority Of Singapore (MUIS); the exchange of gifts between Archbishop Chia, Mr Maarof and the Mufti of Singapore, Mufti Syed Isa bin Mohd Semait; the prayers prayed and the musical performances put on by both communities.

Canossian Sister Theresa Seow, an organiser of the event, shared with the crowd that the dinner was not a response to the Sep 11 terrorist attacks, but the crisis “has deepened our resolve to work at a relationship already begun”.

“It is important to dialogue, pray and learn from each other during good times,” she stressed. “When relationships have been established, it is easier to clarify when doubt arises… No one is expected to compromise his faith. No religions are the same and for this reason we need to dialogue.” 

She said it is hoped the joint celebration will open more avenues for dialogue and collaboration, and create opportunities for Muslims and Christians “to rejoice when we recognise similarities in our beliefs and to learn to celebrate even our differences”. Agreeing with Sr Theresa, MUIS president Maarof Salleh said, “We cannot make all religions into one. This is a very fundamental teaching of Islam. God mentioned in the Holy Koran that He has created men of different kinds, different groups. So they have to get together to know each other and to build fellowship.” 

He emphasized that it is important for the two faith communities to get to know one another during times of peace and stability and stressed that MUIS would continue to support efforts in building common understanding among people from different religious backgrounds.

Archbishop Chia, in his speech, shared his joy in being able to participate in such a celebration. He noted that “sorrows shared are sorrows halved, while joys shared are joys doubled” and that “tonight is a double joy because we’re celebrating Hari Raya and Christmas”.

He stressed, “It’s important for us not only to celebrate but to know the meaning of our celebration,” and shared with the Muslims a short story of what Christmas means to Christians.

Referring to the pope’s invitation to leaders of various faiths to attend a prayer meeting for world peace in Assisi, Italy, on Jan 24, Archbishop Chia said, “We see the need for peace which comes from the heart, and which must be accompanied with love.”

An exchange of gifts between Archbishop Chia, Mr Maarof and Mufti Syed Isa bin Mohd Semait then took place, followed by a similar gift exchange between Christians and Muslims.

In a spirit of harmony, the St Joseph’s Choir from the Church Of Our Lady Queen Of Peace and the Qasidah group of seven men from the Ba’alwi Mosque put on performances which included religious and secular songs.

Gift exchanges taking place between Muslims and Christians during the event.Muslims and Catholics interviewed said they feel it is important to continue such a dialogue.

Mr Ansari A. S., 64, a Muslim, told CN that he would like to see more of such sessions organised. He said he felt the speeches given were “wonderful”, especially Archbishop Chia’s sharing of what Christmas means.

For Mr Peter Tan, 34, a Catholic, the best part of the evening was when he made a Muslim friend, and both of them “felt the need to celebrate commonalities rather than differences”. He said he found the gift exchange a powerful symbol of fellowship but stressed that “we need more action” in this area of unity.

He told CN this was his first time taking part in a Christian-Muslim gathering.