The energy was palpable this month in Rome and, earlier this year, in Jerusalem, as religious leaders, practitioners, scholars and students — representing a rich tapestry of faiths and perspectives — gathered to reaffirm their commitment to interfaith bridge-building.
The gatherings were part of a year-long celebration marking the 10th anniversary of the John Paul II Center for Interreligious Dialogue, a partnership between The Russell Berrie Foundation and the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (the Angelicum) in Rome.
In September, to kick off the year, the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School hosted a symposium exploring the concept, history, strengths and limitations of grouping Judaism, Christianity and Islam under the umbrella of the “Abrahamic religions.” The celebration continued with a gathering in Jerusalem in January and culminated with the conference at the Angelicum, entitled “Education for Action: The Urgency of Interreligious Leadership for the Global Good.”
As we reflect on the work of the John Paul II Center and its flagship program, the Russell Berrie Fellowship in Interreligious Studies, I have been struck by its incredible reach and potential. To date, 95 fellows from 33 countries have graduated from the program. Among them: A Catholic priest from Nigeria who, as vice chairman of the Christian Association of Nigeria, has worked to build bridges at the grassroots level between Christian and Muslim leaders. A Reconstructionist rabbinical student who recently organized a unique tour of Jerusalem's Old City, designed to give Jewish participants insight into Christian and Muslim connections to the land. A nun from Kerala, India, who manages a school for 500 Muslim, Hindu and Christian students and will soon begin a term as Provincial superior.
Building on the successes of the fellowship year, in 2016 we launched the Russell Berrie Alumni Grant Program, encouraging fellows to create innovative, high-quality interfaith dialogue and action projects. One alumni grant recipient, Lidiia Batig, recently received the Austrian government’s Intercultural Achievement Award for innovation for her project: the School of Interreligious Journalism in Ukraine, devoted to equipping journalists with the skills and tools to cover interfaith issues and portray religion accurately in the media. Another recipient, Sister Purobi Paschalina Chiran, used her grant to organize an interreligious dialogue training course for female Catholic graduate students in her majority Muslim home country of Bangladesh.
In advance of the 10th anniversary, last year we commissioned the Institute of International Education to evaluate the John Paul II Center’s work. The evaluators found that the Russell Berrie Fellowship transformed not only the lives and perspectives of the fellows themselves, but a truly impressive and diverse range of communities that the fellows returned to throughout the world. We were delighted to see how they took on greater leadership roles, embarked on promising new initiatives and created dialogue and action programs based on their learnings.
The evaluation also found that the fellows continue to have an impact on the field of interreligious dialogue itself — publishing articles, organizing conferences and otherwise shaping this important field.
Almost half of all fellowship alumni participated in the Rome conference, where they networked with leaders and practitioners in interreligious dialogue from throughout the world and engaged in skill-building sessions in conflict resolution, communications and networking. One highlight of the conference was a Marketplace of Ideas fair, with twenty stands representing international and local organizations active in promoting peace and bridge-building.
Amid the myriad challenges of our fractured world, the work of the John Paul II Center, the Russell Berrie Fellowship and the remarkable fellows themselves are truly cause for celebration.
Chief Executive Officer