Geneva seminar opens global windows on 'religion'

By Ecumenical News International
7 Aug 2007

The chapel near Geneva, in which young adults from five continents gathered for an early morning meditation, seemed an unusual place of worship. The light through the stained glass windows shone on to a set of religious symbols as disparate as a simple cross, Orthodox icons, and a drum from an African Christian community - writes Annegret Kapp from the WCC.

The songs sung, the Bible text read by an American, and the text's interpretation by another Christian from Hungary did not link the worship to any denominational tradition.

But this ecumenical way of worshipping was not the most unusual thing about the moments of spirituality in Bossey at the World Council of Churches' Ecumenical Institute in the Swiss countryside, from where Mount Blanc and the French Alps are visible from one side of Lake Geneva. The young people at worship were also more diverse than the spread of worldwide Christianity normally represented at the institute. Some participants wore scarves or kippots (yarmulkas) on their heads.

A month-long seminar in July 2007, entitled "Building an Interfaith Community", brought together 21 young Jews, Muslims and Christians from around the world. The annual seminar, hosted by the institute, the WCC's centre for ecumenical study and training, gave the participants the opportunity to get to know each other, including each other's spirituality, and to challenge and overcome stereotypes.

Not all the morning devotions took place in the centre's chapel. One conference room was equipped as an improvised mosque, another as a synagogue. While one faith group organised and led the moments of prayer each day, those from the other two groups were invited to assist and participate at the level with which they felt comfortable.

"Our goal is not to mix our religions and build a new global one but to understand each other’s identity better," said Morris Gagloev, a Russian Orthodox Christian.

For Steven Bell, who is awaiting ordination in 2008 as a Roman Catholic priest with the North American order of the Paulist Fathers, the experiencing of another spirituality helped to strengthen his own prayer life. He said he was impressed by the richness of song and chant in Judaism, and by the discipline of Muslim prayer.

Valeria Gatti, also Catholic, from Peru, had a similar view. "If you see your friend approaching God the way he or she does, that is so beautiful," she said.

Friendships forged allowed for frank discussions during lectures and workshops, even when touching on difficult issues like politics and gender.

The fact that the young adults lived together for a month, during which they shared moments at the beach down at the lake, prepared meals in the kitchen, and spent hours in the conference room, was essential to what some called "a unique experience".

In addition to personal and spiritual encounters, the students learned from each other in the seminar’s academic sessions, with group discussions often continuing until 9:00 p.m.

These gatherings drew on the presence of local religious experts from the three Abrahamic faiths, and included lecturers from the universities of Geneva and Lausanne; international specialists also took part.

The experts' diverse backgrounds shed light on divisions existing within each faith group, and introduced students to both Sunni and Shiite Islam, orthodox and reformed Judaism, and a variety of Christian denominations.

The participants themselves had a wealth of experience to share as well.

Following a presentation on "Affirming and living faith identity in a pluralistic world from a Christian perspective" by Rima Barsoum, who works on Christian-Muslim relations at the WCC, Saba Wallace, a participant from the two-percent Christian minority in Pakistan, asked, "How can dialogue happen when partners are not equal in any sense?"

Wallace, who works for non-governmental organisations in the areas of advocacy and interreligious dialogue, said she came to the seminar with many such questions, which she has no chance to raise in her usual context. With her multiple identities, being Pakistani, female and Christian, she feels frustrated and looked down upon both in the West and in her home country.

Gatti, on the other hand, came to see that her native Peru's dominant Christian context offers hardly any opportunity for inter-religious encounters. "This experience is like a pair of new glasses," she commented.

These participants' stories make it clear why Ioan Sauca, the director of the Ecumenical Institute, seeks to provide a "safe space" for young people from countries where interfaith relations are not always harmonious, to discuss their concerns.

Did participants succeed in building an interfaith community?

Eden Curtasan, a computer science student and collaborator of the Rumanian Muftiad, the traditional Muslim minority of Turkish-Tatars, was sceptical about speaking of community too fast in the way that politicians, he said, often do.

Still, Curtasan was positively surprised by the programme. "I actually came expecting some boring peace 'blah-blah' but finally I couldn’t even touch the books I brought because the programme was too interesting," he said.

The biggest surprise, said Bell, was that young people of all three religions face the same dilemma.

"They discover their spirituality but it is not played out in the religion's institutional building - the mosque, the church, the synagogue - because that is so steeped in traditional values which don't mesh with their personal experience," he said.

Annegret Kapp is the WCC's Web editor. This is an edited version of a story she wrote for the WCC. Link to original story: www.oikoumene.org/

[With grateful acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches]

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