Church visit offers lessons on inter-religious solidarity

Ms Yap Soik Yee, a volunteer docent with St Andrew's Cathedral, pointing out the national monument's rich heritage to members of the Woodlands Malay Activity Executive Committee as well as mosque and temple leaders during their visit yesterday.
Ms Yap Soik Yee, a volunteer docent with St Andrew's Cathedral, pointing out the national monument's rich heritage to members of the Woodlands Malay Activity Executive Committee as well as mosque and temple leaders during their visit yesterday.ST PHOTO: TIMOTHY DAVID

A group of 35, largely Muslim grassroots and community leaders yesterday visited St Andrew's Cathedral where many were surprised by a little-known fact: The land on which the church stands was donated by an Arab to the British colonial government.

His name was Syed Sharif Omar Ali Aljunied, a wealthy trader and landowner who was a friend of Sir Stamford Raffles.

It also underlines the interconnectedness of the different faiths in Singapore, noted many of the visitors, who were from Woodlands.

The group included members of the Woodlands Malay Activity Executive Committee, as well as mosque and temple leaders.

The visit was part of the Jejak Warisan (Heritage Trail) series to rediscover Singapore's cultural heritage.

But following last Friday's attack at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, the visit had an added significance. The attacks are "an important reminder of how precious and fragile racial and religious harmony and understanding is", said the Woodlands community club in a statement.

Led by Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Home Affairs and Health Amrin Amin, who is an MP for Sembawang GRC, the group observed a minute's silence before the tour of Singapore's second-oldest church building, after the Armenian Church.

Said Mr Amrin: "This church stood for many things and is a reminder for us to always stand together, and to look beyond language, race or religion."

The Anglican church, originally built in 1836, played a key role in World War II, when it served as an emergency hospital for wounded soldiers. Today, the national monument, which was rebuilt in 1861, has 14 worship services on Sundays and a total congregation of about 5,000.

For Mr Mohamad Shaleem Khamalluden, 40, a student welfare officer at Northlight School, it was his first time in a church. "I found its history, especially about Mr Syed Sharif Omar, and architecture very interesting. Such visits pave the way for us to open our doors to people of other religions.''

Another group member, Ms Jennifer Goh, 49, a Buddhist who works for BW Monastery, said: "Religion is about relationships, and it is people who build relationships."

Reflecting on the Christchurch terror assault, Mr Mohamad Shaleem said it saddened him and added that "such actions must be condemned".

Mr Amrin said the attacks provide an opportunity for us to "renew our faith". He added: "In the end, we are all connected by this common thread of humanity."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 22, 2019, with the headline 'Church visit offers lessons on inter-religious solidarity'. Print Edition | Subscribe