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Interreligious dialogue opens students
to awareness about different faiths

By Shannon St. Hilaire

With religion central to daily life for many Gonzaga University students, Sarah Alami, program assistant in International Student Programs at Gonzaga University, and Geshe Thubten Phelyge, a Tibetan monk who is Gonzaga’s visiting global scholar, organized a recent interreligious dialogue on “The Role of Religion in World Peace.”

Sarah, who also worked with the Center for Global Engagement, the Religious Studies Department and University Ministry to put the panel together, said the goal of the panel was for Gonzaga students to learn about different faiths and different ways of thinking.

GU Interreligious Panel
Panel for "The Role of Religion in World Peace" at GU

All but one of the panelists were from Gonzaga University.  Their goal was to expand students’ thinking.

The panelists were Geshe Thubten Phelyge (Gesh-la) on Buddhism, Fr. Craig Hightower of University Ministry on Catholicism, Fr. Patrick Baraza from Kenya on primal religions, Rabbi Elizabeth Goldstein on Judaism, and James Beebe on Free Thinkers and Unitarian Universalists, all from Gonzaga, and Raja Tanas from Whitworth University on Islam.

Sarah, who is from France and studied French and international business at Gonzaga, is studying to teach English as a foreign language.

She usually works with international students but expanded her role to work with Gesh-la to organize the event.

“A diversity dialogue needs to happen, whether it is among U.S. or international students, whether it’s about religion or food,” she said, noting that she sees the panel as part of her effort to internationalize the campus.

Speakers explored different kinds of compassion using the specific tools and lenses of their religions.

World peace is “common ground,” Sarah said, noting that the faiths represented want peace.

“It was a dialogue, not an argument or debate, but listening to one another,” she explained.

Each panelist gave a five-minute overview of his or her religion and its perspective on peace.

Geshe-la spoke of the different definitions of the word “religion,” noting that Buddhism defines religion as a “spiritual study, which means not only prayer and rituals, but also a responsibility to promote peace and harmony.”

James, a Unitarian Universalist, spoke of the difficulties of using labels to define people and their beliefs.  He noted that there is no shared definition of Free Thinkers or Universal Unitarianism.

“We can’t agree among ourselves who we are.  There is no hierarchy or set system of beliefs,” he said, noting that most Unitarian Universalists believe in multiple truths from multiple religions, and that peace is achieved through individuals.

Fr. Craig defined Catholicism as a faith achieved “through intellect and later spirituality.”

He noted that in Catholicism, “education is freedom” and that Catholics are to accept each other for their gifts and talents.

He also spoke of Catholicism’s tradition of tribunal law, in which there is a “possibility of multiple interpretations and all are correct.”

Raja said the word “Islam,” is derived from the word “salaam,” meaning “peace.”  He noted that the similarities between Christianity and Islam have been lost since the events of Sept. 11, although the ultimate reality, which Islam calls Allah, is the same for both religions as well as for Judaism.

Fr. Patrick spoke of the principles of the primal religions of Africa, including the view of the world “as a unity of experience with no separation between holy and unholy,” rituals, which “communicate values,” and myths, “which are always true even if they never happened, because of the underlying moral.”

Elizabeth spoke of the two main principles of Judaism: “the acknowledgement of diversity and the need for kindness and justice, because no one religion has the ultimate truth.”

She cited the story of the Tower of Babel, in which the world had “one language and one speech.”  This repetition, she said, meant that everyone had the same opinions.  The Jewish tradition interprets the story as God’s destruction of “totalitarianism, the inability to disagree,” in support of pluralism.

In responding to questions, panelists discussed the definition of peace, the separation of church and state, and the use of religion to justify war.

 According to James and Geshe-la, Unitarian Universalists and Buddhists do not believe in “just war,” while Raja said that Islam allows its followers to “fight those who fight against you.”

Fr. Craig said that war is usually about economics and politics, and religion is just used as the justification.

In support of separation of church and state, Raja cited the estimate that by the year 2050, 50 percent of America’s population will be minorities, so theocracy is not an option.

Fr. Craig clarified that the separation of church and state means “freedom for religion, not freedom from religion.”

Geshe-la introduced the concept that most religions are 99 percent the same, and the other 1 percent, which consists of rituals and traditions, are the main differences.

Many of the panelists spoke of the importance of accountability and forgiveness as necessary components for peace.

Sarah hopes that the panel will be the pilot for a series of inter-religious events on campus.

“We hope to give people academic and practical tools,” she said.

The goal was to bring awareness to the community through the views of academic representatives of the religions people know most about, she said.

For future events, she hopes to reach out to the Spokane community to expand the dialogue on campus.

For information, call 313-554 or email