Easter and briyani: How a church and mosque build bridges, not walls to stem youth self-radicalisation

Khalid Mosque and Heart of God Church have been working side by side through community activities. PHOTOS: HEART OF GOD CHURCH

SINGAPORE - A circle of tech-savvy Muslim and Christian youth in Geylang Serai were figuring out how to "digitalise harmony" on Jan 27.

Students Alex Low, 18, from Heart of God Church, and Iman Yazid, 19, from Khalid Mosque, were planning a new online playbook for interfaith events, with $50,000 in funding won in a recent hackathon.

News broke the same day that a self-radicalised Protestant 16-year-old boy was detained for plotting attacks on two mosques.

Stunned and dismayed, the duo penned a letter to The Straits Times, reflecting that it felt "so normal" for young people of different faiths to be together.

"This letter is a sign of our solidarity," they wrote in their message, published in ST's Forum page on Feb 8. "We have always believed Christian and Muslim youth can have strong friendships with one another."

Mr Iman and Mr Low, who met last year and discovered they both love freestyle football, recount to The Sunday Times how it has hit home that young Singaporeans are not immune to extremism, even as they resolutely focus on shared quests to do good.

Mr Low, a second-year Temasek Polytechnic student in law and management, says this thought had crossed his mind: What if the Protestant teen had been someone from his church, where the average age is 22?

"It would have been heartbreaking. We have always talked a lot about building bridges, not walls," he says.

Mr Iman, a second-year IT applications student at ITE College East, mentions that some Muslim friends expressed "frustration" about the news.

"Stay calm," he remembers telling them.

The measured responses of the two teens are shaped by months of partnership across religious lines and their personal friendship.

While Mr Low admires Mr Iman's coding skills and prize-winning freestyle-football acrobatics, softspoken Mr Iman respects Mr Low as a confident communicator who pitched their interfaith website project on stage with finesse.

"My first impression is that Alex is not normal," he quips. "He can talk a lot."

Iman Yazid (left) and Alex Low, who met last year and discovered they both love freestyle football, are working on a playbook that will help groups navigate the challenges of planning interfaith events. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

Meanwhile, they have been spending their free time developing a playbook, which they hope will be a gateway to encouraging more interfaith activities in Singapore, when the website goes live around the third quarter of this year.

The website will help religious groups and charities planning interfaith events navigate through the challenges with checklists and insights.

Like a handbook, the platform drills into details. For instance, groups staging a football friendly, like what the mosque and church have done, will know what permits are needed and which fields are open at night.

In the eyes of the youthful five-man team and its mentors, building tighter social cohesion will continue to be critical, so they plan to spin off a consultancy in the future.

Last month, news broke of another self-radicalisation case involving a 20-year-old man who had planned to use a knife to attack and kill Jews leaving a synagogue, and to take up arms abroad. He has been detained under the Internal Security Act.

Flashpoints and phone calls

Young peacemakers like Mr Iman and Mr Low are prized at their respective places of worship in Geylang Serai, which are separated by a 10-minute walk past Housing Board blocks.

At the contemporary Heart of God Church that brims with youthful verve and at the century-old Khalid Mosque now starting a youth wing, the leaders intentionally build bridges in a fraught time when extremism poses a threat for young people searching for identity.

In recent weeks, the church and mosque have also devised Easter plans and raised funds through briyani meals, side by side.

Their story is a portrait of how the national ideal of harmony plays out on the ground in many everyday events, so that both sides could reach for the phone and stay calm when the Protestant teen was detained.

The church and mosque have been close companions since 2016, when the independent Heart of God Church moved into Geylang Serai, a diverse enclave within the larger melting pot of Singapore.

Neighbours of the church are mosques, temples and clan associations.

Right from the start, Senior Pastor Tan Seow How, 51, spoke about the need to build trust with all neighbours, as a bulwark against flashpoints.

"If we can build a good relationship of trust, if we can pick up the phone, clear up any misunderstandings, hear both sides of the story, apologise if necessary - it will cool temperatures and stop any retaliation," he said during the launch of community programmes with Khalid Mosque and Geylang United Temple in April 2016.

"If in case a terrorist attack happens, we need to present a united front with our Muslim brothers."

Meanwhile, Khalid Mosque is an interfaith veteran with a charismatic chairman, Haji Alla'udin Mohamed, 68, who believes in inclusiveness and surprises first-time visitors from the Heart of God Church by discussing Jesus Christ and conversing in Mandarin and Chinese dialects.

"If one person from a mosque and a church click, there is a light," declares Haji Alla'udin, a businessman who heads the mosque management board.

Easter and briyani

And so the mosque and church have been busy with joint activities, such as blood donation drives, flag days, tuition and football friendlies.

During the pandemic, they prepared care gifts for Covid-19 front-line workers together.

In the lead-up to Easter, a team spent a fun afternoon at the Morning Star centre in Bedok, crafting Easter-themed activities for children in an after-school programme.

The mosque and church have been busy with joint activities, such as (clockwise from top left) blood donation drives, tuition, preparing care gifts for Covid-19 front-line workers, and crafting Easter-themed activities for children in an after-school programme. PHOTOS: HEART OF GOD CHURCH, KHALID MOSQUE

As the excited primary-school kids rolled playdough into Easter bunnies and eggs with imaginative designs, like a toilet plunger for a hat, Ms Nurul Fathiha Mohd, 23, a youth engagement officer at a mosque, asked a Heart of God Church teammate about the meaning of Easter.

"I didn't know much about Easter, except for Easter eggs. We had a mini-conversation and he told me Easter is a celebration and it is also about sacrifice and service," she says.

Her time there proved to be rich in interfaith encounters.

Memorably for her, one child showed her lyrics of a Catholic song about talking to God.

And a schoolgirl from Myanmar, whose family has an Indonesian domestic helper, asked her: "Why don't Muslims eat pork?"

It turned out that the child's favourite dish is pork chop, but, out of respect for the helper, her family no longer eats pork at home.

"It's amazing to have this opportunity for honest conversation," says Ms Nurul.

"Even at a young age, people experience diversity."

After the event, Ms Nurul and fellow volunteer Grace Lim, 19, who has just graduated from a nursing course at Nanyang Polytechnic, agree that the Christian teen detainee is an "isolated case".

Says Ms Lim: "All the more, I want to build good relationships with people of other faiths."

She fondly remembers a Malay friend from secondary school who mentioned her Instagram posts about church.

Ms Lim had asked her friend: "What do you think when I post about Christianity?"

Her friend was very comfortable with that and encouraged her: "Just post."

A fortnight ago, volunteers from the church lent a hand at the mosque's Charity Briyani, which was supported by Mendaki, the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore and sister mosques.

Ten thousand aromatic meals were packed and sold to raise funds for children's education.

In recent weeks, the church and mosque have raised funds through briyani meals, side by side. PHOTO: HEART OF GOD CHURCH

The church decided to send volunteers as young as 14, such as George Sim, who found the experience fun and unifying.

"As Christians, we don't just want to care about ourselves, but we really need to build relationships with other faiths," says the Secondary 3 student, who was earlier briefed on mosque etiquette and the significance of bridge-building.

Youth power

Pastor Garrett Lee, 37, who oversees interfaith community activities at the church, says: "Hearing that the detained youth is just 16 years old means that he could have started getting self-radicalised at 14 or 15.

"That's why we see the importance of engaging young people in interfaith activities early on.

"When people get to know one another, they would think, 'Why would I want to harm a friend who's now in my contact list?'"

The potential of youth to be a force for good is abundantly clear to Khalid Mosque leaders too.

Many Muslim volunteers at the day-long Charity Briyani were youth active at the mosque in the 1970s, who became the Gotong Royong Team filled with kampung spirit, points out Mr Ariffin Kawaja, 43, a vice-chairman of the mosque management board.

He observes: "A lot of our tertiary students today see the value of community work."

But the demands on them are different and more now - and they can also play games on their own, rather than socialising. "We have lost a bit of the kampung community now. The challenge is to motivate them to stay."

At the same interfaith event a fortnight ago, Mr Edwin Tong, the Minister for Culture, Community and Youth, reflected on youth and the interfaith drive.

"Young people are searching for answers. They want to find their identity. They are influenced by events around them," he tells The Sunday Times, noting that the self-radicalisation risk is always there.

However, he thinks the lived experience of working side by side at events such as Charity Briyani is "a very visible demonstration of what we can achieve in Singapore".

TikTok friends

Pastor Tan had the foresight to build bridges when he stepped into Geylang Serai. So does he think a united front has indeed been built?

"Over the years, our efforts to build bridges and not walls have borne fruit. The friendship and trust built with people of other races and religions are as priceless as they are pragmatic," he says.

"Our authentic relationships have also become a moderating presence during tense situations."

For instance, when the Christian teen's detention was made public, church board member Jacob Tan reached out to neighbouring mosque leaders on WhatsApp and received understanding responses. Other WhatsApp groups linking mosque and church members also lit up.

There is still much to do.

"I look forward to the day when youth of different faiths lead the charge towards interfaith harmony," says Pastor Tan. "This will future-proof Singapore's social cohesion."

On a personal note, he says: "As a microcosm of the next generation, my own daughter gives me much hope.

"Seeing her Instagram and TikTok posts with all her Malay friends, oblivious to race or religion, always brings warmth and assurance to my heart. Here is a pastor's kid happily hanging out with Muslim friends and vice versa."

And so, from TikTok to hackathons, young people are building new bridges.

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