FSPC Diaconal Conference on concepts of helping in Judaism and Islam

The Diaconal Conference of the Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches met with representatives of Judaism and Islam in Berne last Tuesday to discuss concepts of exercising social responsibility in monotheistic religions.
Evangelischer Pressedienst

Faith motivates people to help others – not only in Christianity. The commandment of mutual solidarity and help is found in all religions. By exercising social responsibility, believers all over the world are involved in creating a culture of human compassion. But there are differences.

“Concepts of helping in Judaism and Islam” was the title of the Diaconal Conference of the Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches held on November 13. Around 40 delegates and guests of the FSPC’s 26 member churches, as well as from various diaconal institutions and organizations, met in Berne to discuss social practices in the two big monotheistic religions beside Christianity.

“A concept of serving or service never developed in the Islamic context,” said Dr. Rifa’at Lenzin, Islamic scholar and co-director of the Zürcher Lehrhaus, an educational establishment devoted to promoting ongoing interreligious dialogue. Nor is there an ideal of poverty, she continued: charity is a religious duty with the goal of achieving social balance. A “tax-like social levy called zakāt,” is one of the five pillars of Islamic religious practice. By handing over 2.5% of their wealth, believers render the rest of their assets “pure, or halal in Islamic terms.” Lenzin described zakāt as “the right of the socially deprived to the wealth of those who are better off.”

The institution of zakāt used to be “an integral part of Islamic financial structures, which influenced the development of community, society and economy.” The colonial period changed all this, Lenzin explained: “The colonial rulers introduced their own tax systems, which supplanted the institution of zakāt.” To this day, zakāt has not been re-established as a pillar of charity even though some countries have brought it back into use.

The concept of “tzedakah as just balance in Judaism” was introduced by the chief rabbi of the Israelitische Cultusgemeinde Zurich, Marcel Yaïr Ebel. The Jewish tzedakah is “the distribution of alms,” Ebel explained. The act of giving is to be understood as a “continuation of God’s never-ending mercy.” The giver becomes “a mediator between God and our fellow human beings.” Rabbi Ebel: “Basically, our material riches only serve to achieve a just balance.”

Tzedakah is “not a virtue but a duty,” the rabbi emphasized. As a rule, 10% of one’s income should be used for tzedakah. Ebel explained that the best form of help is enabling the needy to help themselves, “to help a person to provide for himself, ideally by finding work for him.” Help should be provided anonymously. Ebel: “It is commendable to give before being asked.”

Several workshops gave participants the opportunity to reflect on the presentations with the aid of practical examples. Eran-Shoham Simchi introduced the Swiss Jewish welfare association Verband Schweizerischer Jüdischer Fürsorgen (VSJF). The imam of Mahmood Mosque in Zurich, Sadaqat Ahmed, talked about the mosque’s range of social services. Aside from isolated contacts, for example in questions of asylum, little is known about the services and practices of the other religions. There is, however, a demand for increased exchange and communication. The next steps will be to intensify regional contacts and to develop joint training and educational programs.

the internal affairs section of the Diaconal Conference, Deacon Eric Vuithier, member and secretary of the umbrella organization “Association diaconale romande” was elected to join the conference committee. The next Diaconal Conference will be held April 16, 2013, in Berne.

More information on the diaconal conference