Pope Francis has been forthright in his directives for Christians to encounter people they don’t agree with. During his address to the U.S. bishops during the 2015 papal visit, he encouraged them to “dialogue fearlessly.”
“[T]he brother or sister we wish to reach and redeem, with the power and the closeness of love, counts more than their positions, distant as they may be from what we hold as true and certain,” he said.
In a political and social climate where tweets go viral in seconds and opinions fly thick and ferociously, this advice to see the human person is ever-relevant.
And in a world continually made smaller by technology, the question arises: How can divided nations bring about peace through dialogue, especially interreligious dialogue? That is a multi-faceted, complicated question, and one that centers like Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., explore.
Created within the Office of the President in 2006, the Berkley Center is dedicated to the interdisciplinary study of religion, ethics and public life.
“After 9/11 a lot of these kinds of centers that wanted to study religion, wanted to study Islam, were formed because people came to understand that religion was poorly understood in academia, in the government, in the general public,” explained Melody Fox Ahmed, associate director for programs at the Berkley Center.
The role of religion, Fox Ahmed said, touches almost every aspect of people’s lives, even in the case of a natural disaster. She cited the example of an Indonesian earthquake that caused tsunamis and flooding. On a certain island prone to Christian-Muslim conflict, the situation could have escalated during the aftermath.
However, “a lot of the religious leaders and congregations were really active in the recovery from the natural disasters, and that helped ease the tension,” she said.
The M.A. program in Conflict Resolution, another offering of Georgetown, is a natural fit with the Berkley Center, focusing on dialogue with other religious traditions, and also the secular world, in order to advance the common good.
Components such as community outreach, dialogue and service are key “in educating a diverse student body for success in a world that’s pluralistic, many cultures, many faiths,” Fox Ahmed told Our Sunday Visitor. “In order to navigate that you have to have this grounding and this understanding of how to interact with people who are different from you.”
Olivia Bee, 25, a first-year student in the Conflict Resolution program, hopes to take her education and make a difference in the Middle East.
After a lot of Googling for master’s programs in conflict resolution, she came upon Georgetown University. She was attracted to the school’s Catholic identity and resources to Catholic NGOs, but even more so to the program’s focus on interfaith dialogue, an aspect not a lot of other colleges offer.
A cradle Catholic who went to church with her parents, Bee was “far from practicing” her faith as a teenager. But then, around the beginning of her sophomore year at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., she befriended people very heavily involved with the school’s Newman Center. It was then that she came back to her faith.
“They really know how to get poor college students — bribe them with Chipotle,” she said with a laugh.
During her spiritual reversion, the Middle Eastern studies major studied abroad in Amman, the capital city of Jordan, which allowed her to visit Israel and Palestine twice.
“The ability to spend time in the Holy Land just as you’re coming back into your faith is monumental on more levels than I could ever explain,” she said.
While there, Bee became connected with the local communities in the Holy Land and even found pieces of home. As a young girl, she grew up close to the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist based in Connecticut. A few of the Sisters live in the Holy Land and took her under their wing, showing her around Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
“My parents joke with me that when I’m over there, I feel more at ease than I do in the United States,” she said. “They can tell that my heart is very full when I’m over there.”
Her senior year saw another trip to Jerusalem and Bethlehem to work on her capstone project on the Siege of the Church of the Nativity, a project that catapulted her interest in conflict resolution through interfaith dialogue.
In the spring of 2002, militants took over the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, seeking refuge. The vast majority were Muslim, with a handful of Christians. “The brothers and the priests there, especially the Franciscans, actually took them in and welcomed them with open arms in order to preserve their lives,” explained Bee.
Bee’s research focused on how Christians and Muslims grew closer together after the incident, as the Franciscans acted as mediators between the militants, the IDF, the Palestinian Authority, the Israeli government and the Vatican in order to solve the conflict.
“In a situation like that, normally, animosity would occur between two groups, but, mostly because the Franciscans led by example, the two communities grew closer together afterwards,” she said.
All together, Bee has made four trips to the Middle East. “You only go [there] four times in two years if God is trying to tell you something,” she mused. “I took it as a pretty big sign as well that I’d definitely be called to something with the Holy Land.”
She would eventually like to work for the Church in an area that intersects interfaith dialogue and public policy.
An important field
One of Bee’s closest mentors, Ayse Kadayifci-Orellana, moved to the United States 20 years ago from Turkey. She is a professor and curriculum coordinator in the conflict resolution program at Georgetown. On the road to getting her doctorate from American University, she noticed her classes had little emphasis on religion.
“I was always very interested in how to find better ways of addressing conflict,” she said. “I was very interested in understanding how religions are being used and manipulated to escalate conflict.”
Being Muslim herself, Kadayifci-Orellana became interested in how to form interfaith relationships between Christians, Muslims and Jews. “Many of the principles that were embedded in the faith ... were influenced by perceptions of people in my faith’s traditions by their emotions, such as anger, fear,” she said. “How could we rescue some of those principles and put them to more constructive use?”
She says the skills that students like Bee acquire will open many doors. That broad range of careers includes: foreign service, U.S. aid in programming, NGOs, developing dialogue programs, consulting, the media, technology, medical fields, law offices, and analytics.
Kadayifci-Orellana says the program isn’t about making money or prestige, but about making a difference despite the tension. She tells her students, “The topics we deal with are very difficult sometimes; therefore you need to have an inner center. ... In some way you have to nourish your soul and your spirit to be able to continue this work.”
Jesuit Father Drew Christiansen, a senior research fellow at the Berkley Center, is also a professor who has close ties to interfaith dialogue. For eight years he was head of the U.S. bishops’ international justice and peace office, where he covered the Middle East. Last summer, he served on the Holy See delegation that participated in the negotiations on the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.
He says the wide background that Georgetown students have in foreign affairs will serve them well. “It’s a very important thing, and I’m glad that we’re able to train people to work in that field,” he said. “It’s a very Catholic and Jesuit thing to do.”
Peace is also in the best interest of preserving that Catholic heritage, according to Bee.
“It’s really important for us to understand the plight of Christians [in the Middle East] and the importance for interfaith dialogue,” she said. “If they keep leaving, then the only communities that we will have around our holiest sites are the religious communities. Whereas Jewish and Muslim holy sites have living, breathing lay communities around them. If we lose [the laity], it makes me really sad to know that some of the oldest Christian communities in the Holy Land won’t be there anymore.”
Mariann Hughes writes from Florida.
Read all College Special Section 2018 articles here.