Austria: World Interfaith Harmony Week

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On Thursday, Febr. 9th, 2012 UPF-Austria held a Round Table discussion on the occasion of the „World Interfaith Harmony Week”.

After the welcoming remarks from the President of UPF-Austria, Mr.Peter Haider, Dr. Ismail Nawaishe, a Vienna-based Medical Doctor from Jordan explained shortly about the religious situation in his counrty. It was His Majesty, King Abdulla II. bin-Al Hussein from Jordan, who introduced the idea of a „World Interfaith harmony Week“ for the first time. It was then accepted and supported by the United Nations.

Dr. Nawaishe emphasized that in Jordan Muslims and Christians used to live together without conflict, visiting each other on religious holy days.

Two Buddhist nuns, Ven. Mrao Yi and her collegue, from the Fo-Guang-Shan temple which had opened recently in Vienna, led a meditation for the audience. The beautiful recitations which they sung in 2-part harmony, were for peace in the world, as they explained.

The first speaker was Mr. Ruwan Jeewantha Fernando, President of “The Sri Lanka-Austria Friendship Association”, who became a catholic monk in his youth. Back in Sri Lanka, he had married – his wife is a Buddhist. They had a Christian and a Buddhist wedding celebration. “I never felt I did anything against my beliefs, for: deus est caritas – God is love!” Mr. Jeewantha said, and ”Once you feel God’s love, you can’t fight against other religions!”

The second speaker was Ms. Ana Govedarica a religious instructor of the Serbian-orthodx Church. She is a 2nd Generation Bosnian, that means she was born and raised in Vienna, but she feels she still has two identities: Bosnian and Austrian.

For the Serbians and Bosnians who lived in Vienna the Orthodox Church was more than a religion, but a place like home, connecting them with their nation and fellow compatriots here in Austria.

The next speaker was Mr. Akio Friesacher, an 18 year old high school graduate, who had spent 6 month in South Africa as part of an exchange program of his school. He himself grew up in two cultures by having a Japanese mother and an Austrian father.

In South Africa he experienced a great variety of cultures and religions which he enjoyed very much. “The first month I lived with a Muslim family, the rest of the time with a Christian family. At school Muslim children sat beside Christians, but there were no conflicts.” Religion played an important role at school: Every morning would start with a prayer in one of the religious traditions of the children present. Also, moral education was emphasized a lot, even by the mathematics teacher. They even had a subject on “Life Orientation”, where teachers taught how to live a good and meaningful life.

Mr. Minas Sweha, from the Coptic Church of Vienna, explained some important facts about the Coptic people.

The Coptic Church is known for its monks. There are four Coptic churches in Vienna and one monastery. The young generation is well integrated in the church communities, because for them as well going to church means coming home to their own culture. When there were the riots in Egypt and many Coptic people were killed, the Coptic youth organized a protest march with Cardinal Schönborn attending. They learned that it meant a lot of work to organize such a public event.

Ms. Marlies Haider, a Tourism Management Student, has spent two years in Oceania, organizing interreligious and intercultural programs as a UPF youth program. She was part of an international team of young people who did service work on the Solomon Islands, the Fiji Islands, Australia and New Zealand. She recently has been anointed the Youth UPF representative in Austria.

Marlies explained some of their activities, such as renovating or rebuilding kindergardens and schools, building bridges in rural areas and introduced lectures on character development at schools. Part of their strategy was to involve the local community, which meant to cooperate with different Christian groups. Through their common service work they could create beautiful harmony between the different Christian churches. The youth delegation was especially impressed by the level of church attendance on those islands.

After these presentations Ewald Schenkermayr, who had introduced the speakers, asked each of them to shortly summarise what the „World Interfaith Week“ meant to them.

Ana Govedarica: “Most important is that love is above all. I’d like to quote the Serbian-Orthodox Patriarch, who used to say: “Most important is the human being, the religion comes second!”.”

Akio Friesacher: “Religious harmony should not be restricted to this one week. It should be brought into our daily lives.”

Minas Sweha: “In Egypt there is no religious harmony at the moment. For us this is a dream which hopefully comes true in the future.”

Marlies Haider: every religion has a core teaching, which coincides largely with other religions. We should concentrate on these core teachings.

Mr. Jeewantha: answered one question from the audience: how do they educate their daughter? They baptised her, his Buddhist wife doing most of the preparations for the ceremony, as she knew this meant a lot for her husband and would do good for their little daughter.

As the evening was concluded with a buffet and inspirational talks among all the participants of the event. The fact that more than 70 guests attended showed the importance of the topic “World Interfaith harmony Week” and encouraged us to continue with interreligious programs. Also the fact that most of the speakers were young people helped to gain the attention of the audience.

… an audience mixed of young and older generations, different faiths and ethnicities