How Religious Leaders Are Talking To Their Congregations After Manchester Attack People all over the U.K. are trying to come to terms with last week's terrorist attack at a pop concert in Manchester, England. NPR's Michel Martin speaks with Imam Irfan Chishti and the Bishop of Manchester David Walker.

How Religious Leaders Are Talking To Their Congregations After Manchester Attack

How Religious Leaders Are Talking To Their Congregations After Manchester Attack

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People all over the U.K. are trying to come to terms with last week's terrorist attack at a pop concert in Manchester, England. NPR's Michel Martin speaks with Imam Irfan Chishti and the Bishop of Manchester David Walker.


I'm Michel Martin. We decided to begin the program today in Manchester, England, where people continue to grieve and try to make sense of a terror attack last week that left 22 people dead and dozens more wounded. This took place at an Ariana Grande concert last Monday night. The youngest victim was 8 years old.

The weekend is a time when members of faith communities of all kinds come together, so we thought we would reach out to two faith leaders who have been playing a prominent role in helping Manchester cope through this difficult time.

With us now is Imam Irfan Chishti of the Manchester Central Mosque. He's with us now via Skype. Imam, thank you so much for being with us.

IRFAN CHISHTI: Thank you for having us. Thank you very much.

MARTIN: Also with us the Right Reverend David Walker, Bishop of Manchester. He's on the line with us also. Thank you so much for joining us, Bishop David.

DAVID WALKER: Pleasure to be with you.

MARTIN: And I wanted to note that this is sadly not the only such attack that took place this past week. There was an attack, for example, on Coptic Christians in Egypt where 29 people were killed. Some 18 people were killed in Afghanistan in a suicide attack on Friday.

And I just have to ask - I'll start by asking each of you what do you see as your role at a time like this? Bishop David, do you want to go first?

WALKER: In - my role in Manchester is to seek to help the people of Manchester as a whole to reflect upon the events that have happened and to seek to respond as positively as possible, to acknowledge the grief, to acknowledge the pain, but then also to think about how we as a city demonstrate our solidarity with one another.

We have a little motto we use here quite a lot which is simply we stand together. And in the face of things that are attempted to divide us, part of my role is to say, no, we're going to stand together, and we're going to be a Manchester that we can be proud of even in our darkest days.

MARTIN: Imam, what about you? And I also want to note that this has all taken place on the eve of Ramadan, the holy month of Ramadan which is supposed to be a time of reflection and deep spiritual connection. And so what do you see as your role at a time like this?

CHISHTI: Well, similar to David, there - leaders of any faith - we, you know - we are instructed by our lord almighty to be that light in the time of darkness and be that support in the time of difficulty. You know, it's taken a very personal toll on me trying to understand and comprehend because of the nature of this individual and the actions, I'm sure we'll speak of later.

But really our role is one of guidance of one of support, one of trying to be strength amidst this time of difficulty. And I'm incredibly honored to have been part of Manchester that seems to have really risen with such strength that is quite, quite remarkable.

I'm sure we'll get to talk later on about a journey that me and David just actually physically just got back from this afternoon - really, absolutely overwhelming.

MARTIN: Well, tell us about it. What - tell us about it, Imam.

CHISHTI: So there's various different vigils that have been taking place in Manchester over the past two or three days. And I got a phone call from a very senior scholar Shaykh Pirzada who is head of an organization called British Muslim Forum, and they have a membership of about six or 700 mosques nationally.

And he rang, and he said, look, we want to come and we want to do something. We want to support you in Manchester. And, you know, our prayers are with you. And so today around 2:30, we gathered outside the cathedrals. It was a group of about 50 or so 60 scholars from across the nation all the way from Scotland down to London, Birmingham, Bradford, Leeds, young and old - so first and second generation scholars. And all of them just simply came to pay their condolences and their respect.

And Bishop David and I and Rabbi Daniel Walker - so three of the great kind of, you know - great religions of the world together. And because we were all in Manchester, we felt it was appropriate. In fact, the scholars told us you lead the procession, so there was a peace walk. And it just happened totally impromptu. We were just walking from the cathedral towards St. Ann's Square where this memoriam is now taking place.

I call it the sea of love. And as we were walking towards it, we just received this amazing totally impromptu natural applause, and it brought tears to my eyes. I was absolutely overwhelmed.

MARTIN: Bishop, again, I was asking the both of you what you have been saying to your congregants. So what have they been saying to you?

WALKER: I think people have been saying to me that it is important that Manchester stands up for itself and that we do pull together. I've gone around. People just in the streets wanted to come up and shake my hand and thank me for the things I've been saying publicly.

There's a very, very strong undercurrent here that says, you know, for 200 years, Manchester has been a city that has come together in times of adversity and has found the best way to tackle our problems is through unity. And we've seen that once again this week. It's not a departure in some sense. It's Manchester being true to itself.

MARTIN: Now, speaking of Manchester, not sure if many listeners in the United States know this, but Manchester has had an established Muslim community for quite some time. I mean, I'm told that the city is home to the largest Libyan population outside of Libya.

Imam, I just have to note that you have been asked repeatedly - in fact, you were asked just this morning by a BBC presenter about the fact that, you know, this is another attack by a British-born person of the faith and then the question becomes, you know, what do you say to people who ask if their own neighbors are at war against them? And, Imam, forgive me, I understand this has to be tiresome. But I know that the question is being asked. What do you say?

CHISHTI: Well, you don't need to apologize. It's a valid question almost that, look, this is somebody that was born and brought up here. He professed the same faith as I. He's feeling that he is doing this in the name of Islam. How do you as an imam, how do you as a Muslim faith leader respond to that?

And my response is quite simple every single time, you know, and that is that we cannot judge the actions of one individual misguided, misinformed, vulnerable. This was him in his own, you know, mindset acting, and I have to say not in accordance to, perhaps, even his own will because, you know, I was reading one last report of a phone call to his mother saying I'm deeply sorry. So, you know, I genuinely believe that even he himself knew what he was doing was incredibly wrong in accordance with the faith.

MARTIN: Bishop, what about you? I don't know this, but I might imagine that there are some who worship with you who would say that they feel that their way of life is under attack. What do you say to them?

WALKER: Well, I'm sure that the - what the terrorists want to do is to put our way of life under attack. I think the response that we're making to that across the Christian and wider community is saying, well, we will defend our way of life. And for 200 years, Manchester has been a vibrant city. It's been a city - its music tradition is very important. Its cultural traditions, its sporting traditions are world renowned.

And in the face of adversity Manchester comes together, and that's what we did in the past. And that's what we continue to do, and that's what I hear the Christian community and others wanting to do. The person who perpetrated this I'm sure wanted us to hate one another, and we're not going to give him - we're not going to give those like him that victory. We're going to show that our love is stronger than their hate.

MARTIN: Before we let each of you go - and thank you again for spending this time with us on this very important time for your cities, for your congregations for each of you - I'm wondering what has this been like for you as faith leaders as this - is this what you thought you'd be doing at this stage of your life? How has this affected you if I may? It's not too personal. Imam, would you mind?

CHISHTI: No, not at all. I mean, I was - before as well, I felt really proud. My teachers and my mentors, my parents have always said to us that leadership is - has its kind of pertinent moments. And each person, each leader will have their individual moments. And I think for me certainly this has been my moment and my making almost. It's just been absolutely incredible. I'm not very huge on social media or, you know, I'm quite a private person, a family person, generally.

But having come to the fore in this particular occasion, the warmth and the love that I felt from people all around just random people coming, you know, shaking hands, offering their thanks, that's been remarkable. And for me, it's just taught me that, you know, God has granted me this, I have to say, divine gift. And so therefore, I am simply doing God's work in as little or as much as I can. And I'm for that exceptionally humbled and grateful.

MARTIN: Bishop David?

WALKER: Yes. And from my perspective as a Christian, one who believes in the power of God's Holy Spirit, I found again and again this week - as I have in other times of adversity whether that's been public or in the most difficult times of my own life - that these are the moments when God draws very close.

It's not anything I could ever prepare for, not anything I would ever want to have had - to have done or to do again. But I do believe in these moments of crisis, God is with us and gives us the the words, the way to respond to even the most devastating of situations.

And, of course, the privilege that Irfan and I have is that at a time when everybody feels helpless, what can you do in the face of an atrocity like this? We do have something that we're called to do. We know what our role is, and we're able to exercise that role for the benefit of our community, for the benefit of those who've lost somebody.

MARTIN: That's the Right Reverend David Walker, Bishop of Manchester, also with us Imam Irfan Chishti of the Manchester Central Mosque. We reached Imam Irfan via Skype. Thank you both so much for speaking with us, and I do hope we'll speak again.

WALKER: Thank you.

CHISHTI: Thank you very much. Thank you.

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