Istanbul-Rome’ Study Tour 2009

A group of Australian Muslim and Catholic leaders participated in a joint prototype pilgrimage to Istanbul and Rome. This tour enabled religious leaders from both faith groups to study and understand each others’ religious values, customs and significant institutions by means of a close encounter. Spending two weeks together, meant that the 11 Muslims and 11 Christians would travel, eat and sleep together, sharing all the special moments as well as the challenging ones. It certainly was living dialogue to the fullest.


The important pilgrimage was organised under the umbrella of the historic MoU signed between the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne and the Australian Intercultural Society, Affinity’s sister organisation in Melbourne.

From Affinity, our President Mr Mehmet Saral and Vice-President Mrs Zuleyha Keskin participated on this tour. Also, the Executive Adviser to Affinity, Mr Orhan Cicek attended.

The participants were from various backgrounds which made the trip even more interesting.

The Christian participants were:

  1. Bishop Christopher Prowse : Auxiliary Bishop of Melbourne, Member of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.
  2. Fr John Dupuche : Chair of the Catholic Interfaith Committee and member of the Ecumenical and Interfaith Commission.
  3. Mr David Schütz : Executive Officer of the Ecumenical and Interfaith Commission of the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne.
  4. Dr Stewart Sharlow : Director, Asia-Pacific Centre for Inter-religious Dialogue at Australian Catholic University.
  5. Mrs Charlotte Haine-Sharlow : Member of the Catholic Interfaith Committee of the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne.
  6. Fr Denis Stanley : Parish Priest of St. Francis Xavier’s Catholic Parish, Frankston; Vice President Victorian Council of Churches.
  7. Dr Gwenda Rait : Member of the Ecumenical and Interfaith Commission and Catholic Interfaith Committee of the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne.
  8. Dr Max Stephens : Australian Catholic University / University of Melbourne. Member of the Ecumenical and Interfaith Commission of the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne.
  9. Dr Anita Ray : Research Fellow at the Asia-Pacific Centre for Inter-religious Dialogue, Australian Catholic University (Melbourne) and former lecturer in Sanskrit at the Asian
    Studies Department, La Trobe University.
  10. Dr Anne Hunt : Campus Dean of the Ballarat Campus of Australian Catholic University.
  11. Fr John Pearce : Priest of the Passionist order. He is currently Parish Priest at St Brigid’s Marrickville (Sydney), and is part of the local Ministers Fellowship and Multi-faith Round
  12. Prof Greg Barton : Professor of Politics and Director of the Centre for Islam in the Modern World at Monash University. (Greg Barton joined us for 6 days of the tour)

clip_image006The Muslim participants were:

  1. Mr Mehmet Saral : Affinity Intercultural Foundation, New South Wales, President and Cofounder.
  2. Mrs Zuleyha Keskin : Affinity Intercultural Foundation, New South Wales, Vice President.
  3. Mr Orhan Cicek : Australian Intercultural Society, Victoria, Executive Advisor and Cofounder.
  4. Mrs Turkan Cicek : Australian Intercultural Society Women’s Network, Victoria, Coordinator.
  5. Mr Fatih Asar : Queensland Intercultural Society, President.
  6. Prof Ismail Albayrak : Australian Catholic University, Melbourne, Fethullah Gülen Chair.
  7. Mr Ikebal Patel : Australian Federation of Islamic Councils, President.
  8. Mr Albert Fatileh : Member of the Victoria Police Multicultural Advisory Unit, Secretary of the Victoria Police Multi-Faith Council.
  9. Mr Mustafa Ally : Crescents Community News, Queensland Editor-in-Chief.
  10. Mr Osman Karolia : Arkana Islamic College, New South Wales, Principal.
  11. Miss Heba Ibrahim : Board member of the Islamic Council of Victoria (ICV), secretary to the executive committee (portfolios are: government, policy and advocacy as well as interfaith).

Itinerary of the tour

The tour was a nice combination of visiting important people, holy places and historical sites. This ensured that we group had an all rounded experience of the two cities; Istanbul and Rome.




Visiting Sultan Ahmet Square, Istanbul, which contains the Blue Mosque (aka Sultan Ahmet Mosque), Haghia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, Hagaia Erenia Church in Topkapi palace, Hippodrome, Obelisk of Theodosius, Serpentine Column, German Fountain of Wilhelm II and the Sixth-century Byzantine cistern. The history in just this square was so substantial that most of the ~8 Million tourists who visit Istanbul every year do not leave without visiting the Sultan Ahmet Square.

Grand Bazaar, Istanbul

Grand Bazaar is a small town in itself, with miles of pasSağ eways, mosques, banks, police stations, restaurants—and ~4000 shops. It is a very historical site, built by the Ottomans and is the largest number of shops in a shopping centre found anywhere in the World. All the shops have traditional bazaar authenticity about them.


Meeting with Istanbul Deputy Lord Mayor 

Along with our tour partners in Turkey – PASIAD (Asia-Pacific Social & Economic Solidarity Foundation), our touring party visited the Istanbul Major City Deputy Lord Mayor, Mr Ahmet Selamat, gave us a brief description of Istanbul and its 39 Council regions across Istanbul.

Meeting at Private Colleges in Turkey

There are around 500 of these “Values based education” private colleges in Turkey. The colleges have state of the art facilities with the most advanced educational and recreational facilities for students. We visited two of these colleges in our 7 day stay in Turkey:
– Cemberlitas FEM College in Istanbul: We met His Eminence Mr Mehmet Ali Sengul , who inspired us with his great words of wisdom.
– Buyukkoyuncu Private College in Konya, where a Whirling Derwish presentation was conducted by students from the College.


Meeting at Writers and Journalists Foundation

We visited was “The Writers & Journalists Foundation”. Formed in 1994, this foundation’s main focus is to conduct dialogue initiatives in a country which is 98% Muslim amongst the minority groups in Turkey, such as Greek, Armenian, Assyrian Orthodox Churches, Alawi groups etc. The organisation was a frontier in creating positive social changes for minorities in Turkey. The organisation also focuses on Sunni/Shiite relations and building relations with the Kurdish community. The forming of this organisation has led to the creation of other similar interfaith and intercultural foundations in other parts of the World.

 Visit Pope Roncalli House and Catholic Centre and Vatican Ambassador for Istanbul

clip_image020Visit to the house in which Archbishop Angelo Roncalli – later John XXIII – lived while Papal Nuncio to Turkey prior to and during the Second World War. This house had direct significance for us on this pilgrimage. It is said that it was in this house – which is still used for the Papal Nuncio in Turkey (currently Archbishop Antonio Lucibello) – that Roncalli developed the idea of a new ecumenical council. Later, this idea came to a reality when Roncalli was elected Pope. It is directly because of that Council’s statement on the relation of the Church to other religions (Nostra Aetate 1965) that a pilgrimage such as ours has become a possibility more than sixty years later.

Visiting Assyrian Catholic Leader, Yusuf Sag  


The Chorepiscopus and his wife have lived in Istanbul for 46 years. He ushered us into a very formal meeting room (Vatican style) which had one wall full of floral tributes that had been sent to the Assyrians for Easter – mostly (and he made a big point of this) from Muslim organisations in the City.

His sense of humour was extremely entertaining and his welcome was very warm. His Eminence, Yusuf Sağ, talked to us about the importance of dialogue and of the importance of Easter. He spoke of Fethullah Gülen with great admiration for his work.

Visiting Fatih University

Fatih University is a privately run university which teaches subjects in Engineering, Sciences and the Arts. It has become one of the most popular universities, particularly to overseas students.


Visit to Rumi’s Tomb and Mawlana Museum and historical sites of Konya

One of the most popular poets among Western readers today is a poet from the 13th century, Rumi. Rumi still inspires many with his works. Rumi came from the tradition of mystical Islam. One of its better known features is the whirling dervishes whose swirling dance is aimed at creating a sense of transcendence.


Visiting the Tomb of Rumi as part of our joint pilgrimage is not only significant for Muslim’s, but also very important to many people in the West. The famous saying of Rumi continue to inspire people centuries later;

“Come, come again, whoever you are, come!
Heathen, fire worshipper or idolatrous, come!
Come even if you broke your penitence a hundred times,
Ours is the portal of hope, come as you are.”



Visiting Istanbul Deputy Mufti Mehmet Asik Visit to ‘Academia’ wherea group discussion took place with Academia’s schilars

The Turkish Religious Affairs Ministry Deputy Mufti, Mr Mehmet Asik, was also visited. The Religious Affairs Ministry of Turkey provides trained and College educated Imam’s to head up many of the Mosque’s in Turkey. It also provides University educated Imam’s to conduct theological research including producing many Islamic publications and to perform sermons at Mosque’s during the Friday and Eid Festival prayers.


Visit to ‘Academia’ wherea group discussion took place with Academia’s scholars Visit to Samanyolu Television Station STV

Academia’s focus is to publish books on various Islamic and contemporary issues facing the World today. A lot of the thoughts of Gülen are also published here by many scholars.

Visit to Samanyolu Television Station (STV)

STV TV station is one of the most popular watched TV stations in Turkey. There are now 6 TV stations that have sprung from this initial one, with a BBC type news channel, a religious channel and a channel broadcast in English in the USA called Ebru TV.

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Visit to Zaman Newspaper, Turkey’s highest circulation Daily

clip_image038Zaman has the highest circulation daily in Turkey with ~1 Million subscribers/sales. The newspaper was initially setup by businessmen and journalists who wanted a daily which didn’t sensationalise news and which presented unbiased news with true facts.











Daily Visit to Historical places in Rome



Rome, like Istanbul, is an Open Air Museum, with so many historical buildings to see.  From The Forum, the Coliseum, Piazza, The Pantheon, Piazza Navona, The Trevi Fountain, The Spanish Steps to the Vatican City itself with St Peter’s Basilica, there is so much history through the streets of Imperial Rome.

Reception with His Excellency, the Hon. Tim Fisher, Australian Ambassador to The Holy See

The Hon Tim Fischer hosted the touring party in a reception at the Australian Embassy to the Vatican’s residence. As you would all know Mr Fischer was the former Nationals Leader and Deputy PM of Australia during the Howard government. There were many dignitaries at the reception including the Turkish Ambassador to the Holy See, Mr Muammer Dogan Akdur, Protestant and Catholic Clerical leaders and the Director of English and Italian Programming for the Vatican Radio, Mr Sean-Patrick Lovett.

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Meeting with staff of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue

We were received by Monsignor Khaled Akasheh, who was the Head Officer for Islam in the Pontifical Council. He gave us a rundown of the works undertaken by the Council and the relations it has with people of other faiths, particularly Islam.

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General Papal audience

The group attended the weekly Papal Mass at St Peters Square. The Pope and the audience were notified of our Muslim-Christian group’s presence and the fact that we were making an interfaith pilgrimage to the Vatican, which was a pioneering achievement.

clip_image054 clip_image056Institute for the Study of Religious and Cultures (Gregorian University) DIrector: Felix Korner SJ

We attended the Gregorian University and attended the Study of Religions & Culture Department under the leadership of Jesuit leader Felix Korner. This was the Institute where Bishop Prowse had studied in Rome many years back.

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Pontifical Institute of Arabic and Islamic Studies: Director, Fr. Miguel A. Ayuso

Fr Miguel Ayuso gave us a very good run down of the Institute for Arabic & Islamic studies. He informed us that the Institute currently has 55 students with 25 Professors. There are 37,000 books in Arabic and Islamic Studies. The Institute published a book in 1975 called “Islamachristiana”. Version 34 of this book was published this year. They also published a second book called “Ecumenism in Islam” and a 3rd book is out soon as well.

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Istituto Tevere

The Istituto Tevere is an intercultural centre established in Rome. His Eminence Abdullah Aymaz and Mustafa Cenap Aydin, Coordinator for the Tevere Institute, gave us a quick rundown of the Centre and answered many questions from the touring party. Afterwards, they brought us all to the finest restaurant in Rome for dinner.

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Visit to Francis of Assisi

Visited the Town of Assisi, which is 2 hours north of Rome. We visited the St Mary of the Angels, Basilica of St Francis and the Basilica of S. Chiara. We also walked through the medieval city with its original streets and houses.

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The Grand Mosque

We attended The Grand Mosque in Rome to allow for the Muslim participants to attend the regular Friday prayers. The Mosque would have had around 3,000 people attending the Friday prayer that day. It was a wonderful Mosque built and paid for by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

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  • There was no hint of proselytism here. There was the simple desire to respect each other’s religion and learn. It was a humble desire to “make the peace” on a local level in a time of global ignorance and ideological violence between the two great missionary religions of the world: Christianity and Islam. We were not disappointed. The pilgrimage failed to produce any hint of religious relativism and syncretism between us. On the contrary, it produced a rich harvest of peoples profoundly formed in their own religions and eagerly informed in the religion of the “other”.

Bishop Christopher Prowse
Auxiliery Bishop, Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne

  • In Rome the Monastery was full of history and being able to spend some nights in it was in itself a highlight. The discussions with the Vatican’s Interfaith arm was very encouraging. The Australian Ambassador to the Vatican, Honourable Tim Fisher was a very good host who arranged for a number of good contacts to be made within a few short hours.  All in all, the study tour was really intense but also very rewarding. Both the Muslim and Catholic participants were sincere in their dialogue and willing to learn and to teach other at the same time and also to take care of each other.

Mr Iqbal Patel
President, Australian Federation of Islamic Councils

  • Turkish food and hospitality are marvelous. At our first hotel, The Golden Horn, there must have been fifty separate dishes at the breakfast buffet. It is next to impossible therefore to have a light breakfast when the food and cakes are so fresh and inviting.

Dr Max Stephens
Senior Research Fellow, Australian Catholic University

  • The opportunity to travel, eat and sleep with 11 Catholics over a fortnight demonstrated that followers of both religious traditions can not only learn from each other but actually enjoy their company. I was thrilled  to visit places holy to Christians and learn more about their faith and I was impressed at their enthusiasm to absorb knowledge on Islam. It was satisfying to be a part of a group that did not just talk about peace and tolerance but actually demonstrated it in all that we did.

Mr Osman Karolia
School Principal, Arkana College 

Anzac Day Mosque Tour 2007

Anzac Day Mosque Tour | Wednesday 25th April 2007

Home Encounters Network (HEN) Steering Committee decided to take the timely occasion of Anzac Day public holiday and facilitate a social gathering amongst its members with a Mosque Tour as the feature element. There were 10 Affinity members present, altogether there were 20-25 participants. After a one hour Mosque Tour, the tour group gathered at the Conference Room and mingled over light refreshments, including Anzac biscuits. It was quite a good discussion and for many of the participants, it was their first time at the Mosque, which most of them said they “thoroughly enjoyed”.

Neighbourhood Day (Ashura)

As part of the interfaith community Affinity has introduced several events of great significance to our social calendar. The International Abraham conference, Mosque/Church/Synagogue visits, seminars and Iftar dinners just to name a few. Each year, the interfaith community and government departments look forward to the aforementioned events with great enthusiasm.

We believe that the introduction of additional yearly events will further strengthen the already concrete relationships that have developed over the last few years. That’s why the Affinity Intercultural Foundation have  just last week included an additional event on to our yearly calendar that has been welcomed with open arms by the interfaith community.

Day of sharing & celebrating “the Neighbourhood Day” through NOAH’S PUDDING-Ashura

Observing a Middle Eastern tradition that celebrates the landing of Noah’s ark, members and supporters of Affinity from various faith communities proposed the preparation of a sweet dish called Noah’s Pudding to be served for guests and friends in the week January 27th to February 4th, 1007 (10th of Muharram in the Islamic Calendar).
Altogether 5 Neighbourhood Day events took place with a total of 255 Noah’s Pudding prepared for the attendees. The 5 events organised were as follows:
  1. Polynesian Day at the “Michael Wendon Leisure Centre” in Miller (near Liverpool) on Saturday, 27th of January. There were approximately 100 people at this function. It was a day when the Polynesian community of Sydney got together to have a BBQ and the community leaders were very pleased with our attendance.
  2. Thornleigh Uniting Church on Sunday, 28th of Jan. This day was during the Church Sunday Service and ~65 people attended.
  3. Parramatta Catholic-Muslim Youth Encounters on Sunday, 28th of January at the Parramatta Catholic Diocese Head office in Parramatta, where around 10 people attended.
  4. Auburn Uniting Church on Wednesday, 31st of January. This day was during the Church Wednesday Service and around 40 people attended.
  5. Jewish North Shore Temple Emanuel in Chatswood. Around 40 people attended.

What is Ashura?

A fast-day among the Muslims observed on the tenth day of the month Muharram, and derived from the Jewish Day of Atonement, celebrated on the tenth of Tishri (Lev. xvi. 29, xxiii. 27).

The name is an Aramaic form of the Hebrew word “‘Asor” (the tenth), still to be found in a liturgical poem for the Day of Atonement

History of pudding

It was thousands of years ago, a thousand years after Adam that a community was again on the threshold of a catastrophe.

For 950 years Noah called his people to the truth of belief in one God. One day God sent the Angel Gabriel to order Noah to build a ship. Inspired by God, he built it. God ordered him to take two of each creature, all of the believers, and his family, with the exception of his wife who had become a non-believer.

Supplies were loaded and the believers and animals boarded the ship. The water began to rise. As all of the none-believers were drowning along with their vices, a long and hard journey was awaiting Noah and the believers – a long, tumultuous journey. Days and days passed by, food became scarce, and they were facing starvation. No food by itself was sufficient to make a decent meal, so Noah gathered all of the food and mixed it together, producing a delicious meal.

As a result, the believers survived the famine. The very next day, the flood receded. Today we call the meal Noah prepared “Noah’s Pudding” or “Ashura.”

Ever since that day, Muslims prepare Noah’s Pudding every year in the month of Muharram, according to the Islamic calendar. In remembrance of what Noah and his people went through, this pudding is made by mixing dry beans and wheat together, and is then shared with neighbours and friends.

Ashura prepared at home is shared with neighbours. Generally people who prepare Ashura send a bowl to each of the neighbours in their building. As tradition goes the residents of forty houses to your east, west, north and south are considered neighbours. One has the responsibility of maintaining good relations with their neighbours regardless of what their religion or beliefs may be.

Noah’s Pudding with Polynesian Community

On Saturday 26 January, Affinity executive members Mehmet Saral and Saban Izgun attended a Polynesian Day BBQ as a part of Neighbourhood Day in order to distribute Ashura (Noah’s Pudding). There were approximately100 people, most who were Saban Izgun’s Guardian colleagues from Silverwater and Long Bay Detention Centre along with their families.

There were a couple of Muslim families at the BBQ who knew what Ashura was and quickly snapped up servings of Ashura for all members of their family.

The Polynesians, who did not know what the dish was, were more precautious in trying the Ashura. However, some Polynesians who did try it loved it, whilst others decided to take it home. The day was great success in promoting neighbourhood day

Violence will not prevail in Auburn

Ash Wednesday was particularly significant for Auburn Uniting Church in 2006. Its charred hall is a sombre reminder of December 14 last year, when the building was burnt down in the early hours of the morning.]

The fire occurred during the aftermath of the Cronulla Riots, making front page news as many associated the incident with the religious and racial tension at the time.

A special Ash Wednesday service was held on March 1 at Auburn Uniting Church to reflect on the past few months and celebrate the first day of the Lenten season.

To show solidarity, members of the local Muslim community attended, including a group of girls from the Gallipoli Mosque youth discussion group who donated $500 that they had raised to help rebuild the church hall.

“When Auburn Uniting Church hall burnt down we were all so saddened,” said Nazli Akyil, one of the fundraisers. “Islam teaches ‘be good to your neighbour’. We thought we must put this into action.”

In return, members from the Auburn parish presented the girls with traditional Tongan mats.

Also in attendance was Mehmet Saral, Secretary/Director of the Affinity Intercultural Foundation.

Affinity’s main aim is to build bridges between faith traditions through inter-faith dialogue and education. The organisation, begun by young Australian Muslims in 2001, holds seminars to inform the general public about the Muslim community, its religion and culture.

Mr Saral said that it was a fitting time to come as the service fell within the Islamic month of Muharram, a time for visiting neighbours and building community.

During Muharram, Ashura Pudding (also known as Noah’s Pudding) is distributed as part of the process of visitation.

Those attending the service were offered Ashura Pudding on their way out of the church.

It was not the first time that the community had come together in the name of peace.

On December 16, representatives from the Uniting Church in Australia (including the Moderator of the New South Wales Synod, Jim Mein, and the national President, Dean Drayton) stood alongside Muslim leaders and parish members at the site of the fire to pray together and condemn violence. After the fire, the congregation had been in shock, but the December 16 meeting did much to restore community morale.

“A lot of people were very quiet and didn’t talk too much,” said Auburn parish secretary Taiosisi Sikuea. “The message was very clear that day that violence was not going to prevail; we have to retaliate with peace. And then we have to stick together and work this out together.”

That sentiment was echoed by Affinity.

“We want to show the Australian public that Muslims are not destroyers; we are builders of peace,” said Mr Saral.

“We want to show that we embrace our local members `from the Uniting Church who have gone through a tough Nazil Akyil presents the Rev. Mele Fakahua-Ratcliffe with a period. We want to help them, just as they would help us if something bad happened to us. This is how the religious community should be working.” A committee has been formed to begin work on rebuilding the hall, but it will be at least 18 months before the building process begins.

“This is like a blessing in disguise for us in some ways,” said Ms Taiosisi. “It’ll be a lot of hard work to get the hall going, but it’s probably a chance for us to get a new hall. We try to look at it positively that way”.
Lyndal Irons