The World Faith Blog

World Faith: The Interfaith Service Network

UNESCO seminar tackles pluralism, coexistence 13 June , 2011

BEIRUT: Should comparative religious education be introduced into academic curricula for high school students? Or should students only be taught “shared values,” and be spared the worrisome details of theology?

These and other questions were tackled Thursday during a seminar on pluralism and coexistence at UNESCO Thursday, organized by the Lebanese National Commission for UNESCO and the Adyan Foundation to celebrate the conclusion of its project “Education on diversity and coexistence.”

Six students presented a common charter to religious figures, representing 13 of the country’s sects and education officials, including caretaker Education Minister Hassan Mneimneh.

The charter discussed the education system’s failure to provide students with an education on religious pluralism and coexistence, and supported introducing the subject of comparative religions based on a unified book, training teachers on religious pluralism and coexistence, and providing extracurricular activities on religious tolerance and coexistence, such as lectures and field visits.

While some of the religious figures expressed their full support for the students’ demands, others hoped that a book on religious diversity would focus on shared human values instead of theology.

Moufid Khalil, the representative of Sheikh Abdel-Amir Qabalan, said that although students should get to know the country’s different religions, a unified religious education book should focus on the human values which these religions share.

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With Love from Beirut 4 July , 2008

Greetings from Beirut!

On this Fourth of July I will be celebrating with some friends here Beirut, most of which don’t know what the holiday is or what it represents, but are joining me for supposed “moral support.”

After graduating, I have decided to push World Faith full-time as a volunteer. While I am still sending our organizational plan to foundations and other contacts in search of funding that permits me to sustainably continue this pertinent work, I am also traveling to make it more “fundable.” Essentially, if there was something holding back a potential funder from supporting World Faith, I want to remove it.

So I am in Beirut now, working to help the local chapter here, 2gether, regroup after some of their key members left the country after the last bout of violence. The issue raises a more general trend, that the social entrepreneurs and promising leaders of the future leave, draining Lebanon of some of its greatest talent for the future.

Next week I will go to Amman, through Damascus, for a few days, finishing the week in Cairo. I’ll meet up with Mustafa Abdullah, the leader of Winston-Salem for World Faith chapter, to start cultivating our contacts there to see if a chapter can be started there as well. I look forward to returning to Cairo and seeing some good friends of mine, like Michael Esso, a fun-loving but dependable friend, and Angie Balata, a humbling and inspiring friend who is as quick-witted as she is sharp-tongued. Other friends await and I know it will be a good trip. I’m awaiting details, but it still looks I will continue on to Khartoum, Sudan to do the same.

While working here, at the moment from the United Lebanon Foundation’s office, I have been inspired at the value of human contact. For instance, when I flew into Beirut I had no reservation for a hotel, so I returned to the hotel we stayed at when we did the first trip of The Lebanon Project back in January. Not only did the manager, and most the staff, remember me, but he refused to charge more than half the listed price a night. Le Marly Hotel is a friend of World Faith.

Also, the frustrated state of the Lebanese population has never been more apparent. Upon passing a photo of Rafik Hariri, and digitized numbers next to him: 1 2 3 4. I asked my taxi driver what the numbers were… It has been 1,234 days since the (likely Syrian) assassination of Hariri. Yet in these few years, the Lebanese have survived more political stability than the US has since the US Civil War. Some have lost hope, resorting to accepting the status quo, or leaving Lebanon. Others retain hope, but wait for the blood-stained political leaders, virtually all guilty of crimes against humanity during the Lebanese Civil War, with non-regional and non-religious leaders who seek to unify Lebanon. However, I have found very few that are inspired enough to take action. One in particular sticks out to me.

If there were an interfaith project happening anywhere in greater Beirut, Nader Houella would be there, and there is a likely chance he had something to do with the planning. In a country of memories, Nader dreams. I don’t think I have talked to Nader on one occasion without him telling me of an idea he has had. Beyond this, he actually works to carry them out, a trait hard to come by in Lebanon. We are talking about putting together a unity concert for August, and I do believe it will happen. More to come as details progress.

 

The Lebanon Project: The Beginning and the Next Step 30 January , 2008

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A vision is something that is extremely personal, hard to express, and harder to manifest. I know this as I have spent most my time and effort on building my own vision of World Faith. The Lebanon Project was not my vision, but the vision of some inspired and quick-to-mobilize NYU students who wanted to lead a service-learning project to Lebanon with the backing of World Faith. Organizationally this is ideal as each World Faith project should not require micromanagement, and decentralization is a key term I use frequently when describing the evolution of World Faith. However, on The Lebanon Project’s first service-learning trip, I had the blessing of joining them as a participant.

I arrived in Beirut as tired as the rest of us after two days of travel (and many unsuccessful attempts at solving a rubic’s cube I bought for the journey); a group of 10 students, diverse in many ways. From Muslims to Christians, Jews and Agnostics, We as a group had to have at least 17 passports among us, as we were such an ethnically diverse group. We immediately all expressed a touch of shock to find the irony of Lebanon: The nation which represents so many headlines of political instability and religious friction is not only clean and modern, but cosmopolitan and relatively calm.

The service-learning projects were varied but revealing. After touring the destruction in the south of Lebanon, we brought art supplies to an UNRWA refugee school for Palestinian children. As we encouraged the each student to draw their idea of peace, we were quickly shown the varied ideologies of peace: a map of Palestine with a fence around, a flaming building with rockets flying at it, and a field with what appeared to be children running in it. I inquired about the latter. The child said to me that he understood peace to be when, “children can play together; Christian and Muslim children, and even Jewish Children.” Amazing. What Martin Luther King spoke at age 34, this refugee child unknowingly reflected at age eight.

From the varied service-learning projects and dialogue events we had, one theme was definitely revealed to me, which completed some unfinished thoughts from previous travels in the region. After this trip (in which I also went to Syria), I have now personally been in Palestine/Israel, and every country that borders it. I have the heard the same stories from many perspectives; more than one per country. This trip, especially with our time spent in the south, particularly in the Beqa’a Valley, had a tendency to come back to the wars and occupations with Israel, being in 1975, 1982, or 2006. I realized that as Americans, we have a tendency to only see the headlines and the numbers at best, if we are even informed of that much. After meeting our volunteer guide through the south Mohammad, I learnt that his home had been leveled in 2006, “collateral damage.” Now I can no longer think of the situation of 2006 in sheer numbers and headlines. I suffered from this disconnect before this trip, even though in 2006 I was only 100 miles away, working on the US State Department’s evacuation, but I still had missed this great lesson that was revealed to me: When you go and meet people on their terms in their homeland, and you hear their story, regardless of your political opinions, you must put a human face to the headlines and statistics. The humanization of all parties makes you see conflict in new light. THIS IS A MODERATING FORCE.

When the service-learning trip ended, and my fellow participants returned to New York, and I began my next journey (after a slight detour to Damascus, in which I was ridiculously ill). I met with several leaders of interfaith work in Beirut to learn about the history and past failures of interfaith work in Lebanon (including some projects that ended in death threats), and I met with young minds frustrated with the current state of affairs who have the ideas but not the forum to share them. After my week of learning as much as I could about the role of religion in politics and media, I rented out a local café’s meeting room and held an open meeting for anyone interested in interfaith projects in Lebanon, about three hours before I had to be at the airport for my return flight.

Ten religiously diverse young people, from age 19 to 26, met me there. After briefly sharing my own experience, I allowed the attendees to share their own views and frustrations. I noticed a theme, so I asked a friend of mine present, Ziad, why when we met and I asked how he identified himself, he answered, “a citizen,” and not “Christian,” or “Muslim.” He answered, and the others agreed, that, “Our political parties, the structure of our society, is all built on religious lines, which is hurting the unity of Lebanon, we need to secularize!”

I responded to him with a dilemma, “But then if our generation is fixated on secularization, what is left in the discourse of religion in politics and the media? The conversation is dominated by those who use the religious language for division and disunity.” So I proposed, “Rather than secularizing, what if we pluralize, in that we respond in the public discourse with religious language applied to unity and peace-building?” The conversation stretched over two hours, and it resulted in everyone in attendance agreeing to meet a week later to design their own interfaith service team, as a World Faith chapter in Lebanon. I was ecstatic. I flew back, worn out yet inspired, and solved the rubic’s cube in the Moscow Airport. A week later, they came together and met, bringing in some new friends, and agreed on a name (“2gether”), and slated their first event for March 1. As one of them recently wrote me, “The journey begins…”

What is both inspiring and frustrating is that with all the groundbreaking work I have seen World Faith be blessed with in contributing, inciting, inspiring and facilitating, we have done it with relatively little funds. Everyone is volunteers, and we are still waiting for our non-profit status to finalize. We are a few weeks away from opening applications for our Humari Dunya project in India slated for June (led by the amazing and inspiring Soofia Ahmed), which we need to fundraise for, and since I have returned to the US less than two weeks ago, I have received messages from people interested in start local World Faith chapters in four more locations. We are also working with a local organization and the City of New York to create a pilot program of developing a protocol for houses of worship to mobilize as proselytizing-free Ready Receiving Centers in emergency situations of different sorts, which I hope to export to other World Faith chapters in the world. Even in publicity, we have been hugely blessed, as in the past four months I have personally done three TV interviews (including Good Morning America), two radio interviews and one print. I am three months away from graduating and pray that I will be blessed with the opportunity to go full-time with World Faith, and the biggest uncertainty is the financial viability of such a plan. I am working on sustainability programs as well, but even those require starting capital. So I am going to continue with what we have, but in the coming months I will be also begin reaching some of the limits of what we can do. So I work in faith that the means will become available as the scope of our projects increase, even as the speed of growth continues to amaze me week by week.

Relavant links: http://www.worldfaith.org

http://www.worldfaith.org/tlp

http://www.myspace.com/worldfaith

 

The Lebanon Project Gains Media Attention In Lebanon 20 January , 2008

Filed under: News,Press — Administrator @ 11:09 pm
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While in Lebanon, participants of The Lebanon Project spoke to several media outlets in Beirut, including Al-Jadeed Television, and Al-Akhbar Magazine.  While Al-Akhbar misquoted some participants to sound Orientalist, the media attention was in support of interfaith work, which is a positive message for a divided community.  The entire article, which is written in Arabic, can be seen here. Below is a translation done by TLP’s Director Josh Martin:

American University Students Sculpt Steadfastness in Lebanon

Beqa’a Valley – Nibal al-Hayek: January 14th, 2008

Ten university students from the United States of America have spent a week in Lebanon during which they moved around between most Lebanese areas and undertook a program of activities and meetings with students from Lebanese universities, including erecting a sculpture from destroyed ruins left by the Israeli occupation in El-Khiam Prison.

The American students that visited Lebanon recently on invitation from the United Lebanon Foundation declined to deal directly with macroscopic political issues—American policy towards the Middle East, the Palestinian issue or Israeli aggression in Lebanon. The interests of the American university students emerged as different from the preconceived expectations of their Lebanese peers owing to the fact that they specialize in International Relations and Middle East Studies.

Josh Martin, 22, concentrates his interest on Lebanese society and hopes to return for a longer time in order to enhance his understanding of the political situation. From her side, Sharon Weintraub, 21, said she found the country to be an area of expansive natural beauty while she explained that Lebanese politics are extremely complicated and that she prefers listening to the opinions of different Lebanese sects in order to better understand the facts.

However, Frank Fredericks, 22, indicated that “we as Americans have been surprised that stereotypes about Arabs are not true—we used to think that we would see people riding camels, or something similar, and that Lebanon as a country lags behind the West—as we now find ourselves in a small country distinguished for its great civilization and culture.”

The American students’ visit had come by chance after communication had begun over the internet between one of the students from the ULF and one of the American students approximately one year ago. The relationship became entrenched by exchanging emails about the possibility of collaborating to organize the visit of ten students from the American state of New York to Lebanon to communicate and share ideas and opinions with students from the Foundation and others in different Lebanese settings.

The American delegation was accompanied by students of Arab and Lebanese backgrounds on their ten-day visit to the Beqa’a, the South, the North and areas of destruction in the southern suburbs of Beirut. The students also participated in many seminars and cultural dialogue sessions, particularly in the Beqa’a where tours and meetings were arranged for them in different villages and townships of the area, including a conversation with students of the Lebanese University in Zahle in the presence of filmmaker Jean Chama’oun.

In similar service projects, the students collaborated with the ULF in facilitating children’s art projects at a primary school for Palestinian refugees in the Beqa’a village of Ta’lbaya, in addition to the sculpture work at El-Khiam (using materials from the remains of buildings bombed by Israel in July/August 2006) that symbolized the importance of life and steadfastness in the face of adversity.

The Beqa’a District Head of the ULF, Dr. Fatin al-Mor, said that the American students’ visit “was a good opportunity for the American students and our own, allowing dialogue between them and the exchange of ideas and information around cultural and academic issues.” Al-Mor added that discussions only sometimes referred to overarching political issues.

Dr. Milad Sebaaly, General Director of the United Lebanon Foundation, said that his foundation aims to further human society, erase illiteracy, undertake cultural and artistic activities and engage in volunteer service work. He further stated that the exchange of student visits that the Foundation has begun to undertake (with its approximately 4,000 members in all of Lebanon) with the foreign students is a first step, and that subsequently a delegation of Lebanese students from the Foundation will travel outside the country to familiarize themselves with the cultures of Western countries and build bridges of friendship between the East and the West.

Dr. Sebaaly also mentioned that, although it may have been financed independently, the American students’ visit to Lebanon afforded them a much-improved understanding of Lebanon, its people and its politics from their previous conceptions.