Muis' Harmony Centre drawing interest from abroad

Muis' Harmony Centre drawing interest from abroad
L to R: Mr Zainul Abidin Ibrahim, 56, Master Chung Kwang Tong, 29, Father Kamelus Kamus, Ustaz Mohamed Ali Atan, 53, Ms Joanne Ong, 19, Venerable Seck Kwang Phing, 60, Sister Theresa Seow, Ms Noraini Abu Bakar, 45, Mr Gerald Kong Teck Wee, Ms Karin Tan, 29, Mr R. Dhinakaran, Mr Kuek Yi Hsing, 61, Mr Surjit Singh, 68, Mr Henry Baey, 55, Venerable Shi You Wei, 37.

SINGAPORE - The Harmony Centre was started to encourage inter-faith dialogue here and explain Islam to interested members of the public.

But the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore's (Muis) interfaith arm is now reaching out beyond the Republic.

The centre has fielded unexpected interest from international visitors - including tourists, academics and dignitaries - keen to learn more about strengthening ties between different religious groups.

The two-storey centre at An-Nahdhah Mosque in Bishan has seen a 43 per cent increase in foreign visitors since it opened its doors in 2006.

It has welcomed almost 40,000 visitors - both local and foreign - over the period.

Of the 4,085 visitors in 2012, 28 per cent of them were foreigners. The proportion rose to almost 40 per cent of the total 4,404 visitors last year.

"We didn't expect such strong interest, especially from the international community.We started as a small centre for Singaporeans, to encourage both Muslims and non-Muslims to get to know more about each other," said Mr Zainul Abidin Ibrahim, 56, Muis' director of strategic engagement.

The centre houses artefacts and information about Islam, and also organises inter-faith programmes. Some of the dignitaries who have visited the centre include Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou in 2007, and Canada's Governor- General David Johnston in 2011.

Harmony Centre head Ustaz Mohamed Ali Atan, 53, said many foreign guests have told him that they are striving to "help ease problems and tensions between different religions in their own countries".

Representatives from countries such as Sri Lanka, Norway and Austria have even voiced interest in opening similar centres. The centre has also been invited to present its inter-faith work at overseas seminars.

Even as it gains more recognition overseas, the centre plans to stay focused on its local programmes. About three in four local visitors are non-Muslims.

The centre's Building Bridges programme - a series of dialogues between different religious groups - will return for a second run this year.

And the warm relationship between the different religious groups here is the heart of religious harmony, said Ustaz Ali.

Yesterday morning, leaders and representatives from about 10 different religious groups and non-government organisations met informally at the Harmony Centre to usher in the new year together.

Master Chung Kwang Tong, 29, from the Singapore Taoist Federation, said they are close friends, meeting for coffee often.

He said the federation has referred interested visitors to the Harmony Centre, while the centre has, in turn, referred people looking to learn more about Taoism to the federation.

Father Kamelus Kamus, a Catholic priest with the Archdiocese of Singapore who has worked in Indonesia and the Philippines, said: "The Singapore experience, as showed by the close ties between religious leaders, can be an inspiration for other countries in terms of building inter-faith harmony."

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