By Samantha Lin
ROME — The Lay Centre welcomed speakers and guests for the first Interfaith Café of the academic year on 31 October. This Lay Centre tradition is being expanded this year, thanks in part to support from the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See and the John Paul II Center for Interreligious Dialogue.
About 40 people gathered for a discussion with two activists.
Victoria Martin, a Spanish journalist working as a press officer for the Group of the Social Democrats in the European Parliament since 2008, is also the founder and chair of the interfaith association Foro Abraham, and a fellow of the UN Alliance of Civilisations. Her interest in interreligious dialogue grew out of the time she spent in Bethlehem writing an interfaith perspective on the city, a book called Viaje a la ciudad de Belén. Cuna del amor, semilla de intifada (“A Trip to Bethlehem, Cradle of Love, Seed of Intifada”).
Her interest in interfaith and intercultural dialogue continued to grow until she, along with other participants she met at a seminar in interreligious dialogue, founded Foro Abraham, an intercultural and interfaith association that organizes educational and cultural activities across different faith communities in Spain. Martin focused on the grassroots aspects of interfaith dialogue; Foro Abraham has no agenda other than to make connections across communities that would not otherwise interact with each other, she said. She spoke of iftars (dinners to break the Muslim fast during the month of Ramadan) and visits that the Foro has organized that demonstrated the power of being able to put a face to the “other”.
Fearghas O’Béara, who has spent the past 20 years working for the EU in Brussels, spoke about interreligious dialogue from a political perspective. He currently coordinates the European Parliament’s official dialogue with churches, religious, and non-confessional organizations. This involves organizing regular dialogue seminars between faith actors and parliamentarians, aimed at bringing a faith perspective to EU policy making.
One of the concrete ways in which he helps to introduce a religious perspective to political questions is through the ongoing negotiations over Brexit. He worked with a group of British bishops who, because of their chaplaincy work in British prisons, are aware of the ramifications of Britain no longer participating in the European prison exchange, which allowed a non-British national, if arrested for a crime in the UK, to serve his or her prison sentence in their native country, so they could be closer to family. He helped connect the bishops with the politicians in the EU parliament in order ensure this issue is examined in the ongoing negotiations.
The Lay Centre community engaged in conversation with the speakers after their presentations, on topics ranging from their hopes for the EU and interreligious dialogue to the historical challenges and prejudice that interreligious dialogue faces.
After Mass, participants were invited to continue the conversation over dinner. It was an evening of fellowship and growth, particularly because The Lay Centre student community was joined by members of the Russell Berrie Fellowship in Interreligious Studies and by representatives from the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See. The many points of view added to the discussion of interreligious dialogue on the local and political levels.