“We commit ourselves more than ever to travel together on the way opened up by our two great guides”, wrote Emmaus Maria Voce, the President of the Focolare Movement, to the followers of “our beloved Imam W.D. Mohammed who gave his life for peace and universal fraternity.”
For more than ten years, there was a deep spiritual friendship between Chiara Lubich and the Imam. Through his moral authority, he was recognised as the most important African-American Muslim leader. He died at home in Markham, Illinois, on September 9 at the age of 74.
“Thousands of people coming from all over the United States to his funeral” – said one American newspaper – “paid tribute to him as the greatest Muslim leader in the United States.” And it went on, “Muslim groups who have suffered in the past from internal divisions, found themselves united in the presence of a man who had given his life to bring unity.” One impression of the day was expressed by one of his followers: “ September 11, 2001 was a sad day for Muslims. Today however, is a day that fills us with pride.”
In 1975, on his deathbed, Elijah Mohammed, his father, entrusted to him the leadership of “Nation of Islam”, the African-American community founded by him to improve the moral and social lives of African-Americans. W.D. strove to bring his followers to an interpretation of Islam true to its roots, emphasising racial tolerance and universality. He became a bridge builder between African-American Muslims and Muslim immigrants from the Middle East and Asia, with Christians, and between whites and blacks. For his extraordinary work in interreligious dialogue, in 1994 he was nominated one of the international presidents of the “World Conference of Religions for Peace”.
The journey undertaken together by Imam Mohammed’s followers and Chiara Lubich began on May 18 1997 in the Malcolm Shabazz (also known as Malcolm X) Mosque in Harlem, New York. That was the first time a white Christian woman had spoken in the mosque. Three thousand people, Muslims and representatives of Focolare, were present. While Chiara spoke, telling her Christian experience, quoting the Gospel and phrases from the Koran that illustrated how much we have in common, she was frequently interrupted with applause and shouts of, “God is great.” Shortly afterwards, in a private meeting, W.D. Mohammed and Chiara made a pact in the name of the one God: to work unceasingly for peace and unity.
Faithfulness to this pact brought numerous fruits of unity between Focolare communities and his followers: the dialogue that developed became a sign of hope, and a light for many. Its importance increased after the events of September 11.
Imam Mohammed and his followers came several times to Rome, to take part in interreligious gatherings organised by the Focolare Movement. In 1999 he was invited to speak, in St Peter’s Square in front of Pope John Paul II, at the interreligious preparatory meeting for the Jubilee year, representing Muslims from all over the world. On that occasion the Pope encouraged and blessed the dialogue that had begun with the Focolare.
In 2000 he invited Chiara again, this time to speak to 7000 Muslims and Christians gathered at a two-day meeting in Washington, called, “Faith Communities Together”, because, he said, “America needs to hear your message, to see this unity that binds us together.”
Since then, in Washington, Los Angeles, Miami Chicago, New York, and other US cities, there have been regular “Encounters in the Spirit of Universal Brotherhood”, meetings for dialogue where a point of the spirituality of unity is explored from both the Christian and the Muslim points of view, with the sharing of practical life experiences.
The most recent meeting between Imam Mohammed and the leaders of the Focolare Movement in Chicago took place only a few days ago. He had planned to go with a group of followers to the forthcoming international meeting for Christian-Muslim dialogue at Castelgandolfo (Rome) from October 9 to October 12, but had been advised not to undertake such a long journey because of heart problems.
Imam Mohammed was a man immersed in God. When speaking to 4000 of his followers at their national convention in 2005, he affirmed strongly, “We must love everyone in the way we wish to be loved. We must love Christians so that they become better Christians, we must love Muslims so that they become better Muslims.”
When Chiara was asked about her relationship with Imam Mohammed, she replied, “I feel at ease with him because it seems to me that the Lord has put him next to us, as he has put us next to him, perhaps for a plan of love of his, which we will be able to understand in as much as we go ahead in our communion and by working together.”
And Imam Mohammed, in an interview, declared, “I think it is possible to free ourselves from the poison of prejudice if we are spiritually healed. This is what we can do, to recognise ourselves as people of different religions and part of a common humanity. I think that we are doing something great, making it possible for people who hated each other to free themselves from hatred, to find new life, new happiness, because the weight of prejudice has been lifted from their hearts.”