‘Get to Know Your Muslim Neighbors’

Face-to-face Meetings Provide First Step

Many Minnesotans—perhaps you, if you’re reading this post—want to better understand their Muslim neighbors.

Of course, most of us have busy schedules, and it’s difficult to approach strangers, even if they do live in your neighborhood. It might seem easiest to read about Muslims. Dozens of books offering to “explain” Muslims have appeared in the last few years; you might order one off Amazon.com or pick one up at your local bookstore. You could turn on the television and find Muslims depicted and described on CNN and Fox News; you can find Muslims talked about in newspapers and magazines. Muslims are discussed in academic forums, think tanks, and seemingly endless blogs.

Safiya and Kemal BaliogluYou might inform—or misinform—yourself in any of these ways. But perhaps the best way to get to know a Muslim is to…get to know a Muslim.

That’s the aim of the speaker series, hosted by St. Frances Cabrini Church, titled “Get to Know Your Muslim Neighbor.” The first discussion is scheduled for Sunday, March 9 at 7 p.m.

Get to Know Kemal and Safiya Balioglu

Kemal and Safiya (pictured above) are long-time Minnesotans, leaders in the Muslim community, and veteran community presenters. Their talks about Islam generally begin with an explanation of terminology, demographics, basic beliefs, and common practices. This is followed by a Q&A session.

But the format isn’t rigid, Safiya said. “Questions can be asked throughout the presentation.”

This husband-and-wife speaking team are two of the Muslim neighbors you can get to know at the Cabrini series.

Safiya Balioglu was born in Germany and converted to Islam in 1986. Her husband Kemal was born in Turkey, and moved to Germany at a young age. They married in 1988, and came to Minnesota a decade later.

Safiya says that one of the reasons these presentations are so successful is that people appreciate learning about Muslims from Muslims.

“Many people thank us a lot after the presentation and express their surprise as to how close the Islamic and Christian beliefs are,” she said. “Before, they didn’t know that Muslims believe in Jesus and Mary’s virgin birth, for example.”

Dialogue Not Just About Breaking Down Stereotypes

Cabrini’s Coordinator of Liturgy, Chris Kosowski, said she began jotting down names of people interested in interfaith dialogue about seven months ago.

“We live in such a diverse community, and our church, located in southeast Minneapolis, is right near one of the [Twin Cities’] largest Muslim neighborhoods,” Kosowski said. “So I was not surprised to hear people express this interest in neighborly dialogue, person-to-person sharing of stories.”

Cabrini parishioner Rosemary Ruffenach said she feels that the dialogue is “urgently needed.” She hopes that the series can clear up misunderstandings, lessen fears, and diminish negative rhetoric.

But these meetings are not just about breaking down stereotypes. Kosowski sees larger spiritual benefits coming from better understanding between Christians, Muslims, and those of other faiths.

“Knowing people of other faiths, and understanding their faiths and how they are woven into their lives, can result in a richer understanding of one’s own tradition, greater respect for others, and, I think, a better view that, ‘It’s all so much bigger than we could ever imagine!'”

Parishioner Mary Treacy also emphasized that you don’t need to be a Cabrini member to attend. “We’re eager to share our welcoming space with others.”

Other programs in the series, co-sponsored by Prospect Park Methodist Church, are scheduled for Sunday, March 30 and Sunday, April 27, 2008. All three are set to be held at St. Frances Cabrini Church, 1500 Franklin Avenue S.E., in Minneapolis.

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–Marcia Lynx Qualey is a mother, a writer, and is affiliated with the University of Minnesota in various ways.

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