Interfaith Harmony Week Commemorated in Vienna

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By UPF – Austria
Thursday, February 09, 2012 |

Vienna, Austria – Two Buddhist nuns from the Fo Guang Shan temple, which had opened a year ago in Vienna, chanted the Heart Sutra to open UPF-Austria’s World Interfaith Harmony Week commemoration on February 9. They explained that this beautiful recitation was dedicated to peace in the world.

After welcoming remarks by the President of UPF-Austria, Mr. Peter Haider, and the showing of a recently released video about UPF activities during the past year, Dr. Ismail Nawaishe, a Vienna-based medical doctor from Jordan, explained briefly about the religious situation in his country. It was His Majesty King Abdullah II bin Al Hussein from Jordan who introduced the idea of a World Interfaith Harmony Week at the United Nations. It was then accepted and supported by the General Assembly shortly afterwards. Dr. Nawaishe emphasized that in Jordan Muslims and Christians traditionally lived together without conflict, visiting each other during religious holy days.

The main program of the evening was a panel discussion by representatives of the generation under 30. The first speaker was Ruwan Jeewantha Fernando, president of the Austria-Sri Lanka Society. He gave a short overview of the religious situation and the culture of his country, in which Buddhism is the prevalent religion. It spread to Sri Lanka in the early period of its existence. Therefore, 70 percent of the population are Buddhist. But there are also Muslims, Hindus, and Christians. He himself was raised as a Catholic and grew up with his Buddhist friends. They did not experience conflict. Later he studied theology and moved to Austria, where he joined the Holy Cross Monastery, which became famous for producing with Universal Music the album “Chants – Music for Paradise”; these Gregorian chants hit the charts of popular music. But he left the monastery and went back to his country to serve his people. He got married, and his wife is a Buddhist. They had a Christian and a Buddhist wedding celebration. “I never felt that I did anything against my beliefs, for Deus est caritas – God is love!” Mr. Jeewantha explained. He also stated that ”Once you feel God’s love, you cannot fight against other religions.” Mr. Jeewantha came with his wife and their baby girl to the event.

The second speaker was Ana Govedarica, a religion teacher from the Serbian-Orthodox Church. Her parents came from Bosnia-Herzegovina. She was born and raised in Vienna, but she feels that she has two identities: Bosnian-Herzegovinian and Austrian. She learned about the Serbian Orthodox religion from her father, who taught her the traditions of their original home country.
Anna reflected: “For the Serbians and Bosnians who live in Vienna, the Orthodox Church is more than a religion. When they arrive here the religious community serves as an information pool which helps them to settle in the new environment. Also, whenever they visit the Church they meet their compatriots; they cook their traditional food, and they experience a little bit of their home country in a not always familiar environment. That’s why religion is more important for most of the immigrants than it is for the Austrians, and every year more believers leave the Catholic Church. That’s probably one reason why the Catholic Church handed over several church buildings to various Orthodox Church communities during the last 20 years.”

The next speaker was Akio Friesacher, an 18-year-old high school graduate who had spent six months in South Africa as part of an exchange program of his school. He himself grew up in two cultures, having a Japanese mother and an Austrian dad. 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 and 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 begin 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 had a course on “Life Orientation,” in which teachers taught students how to live a good and meaningful life. Since many pupils came from a poor background, they were much more eager to study hard and be successful than pupils in Western countries usually are. Even with 40-50 pupils in one classroom there was mutual respect and the feeling of belonging together. In conclusion Akio stated that he could learn a lot about other religions and cultures during the six months in South Africa.

Minas Sweha from the Coptic Church of Vienna explained some important facts about the Coptic people: Egypt (the word Coptic means “Egypt”) was Christianized by the apostle Mark, thus being one of the first Christian countries in the world. The Coptic culture has preserved many elements of the ancient Egyptian culture, such as the Coptic calendar, which is practically the ancient pharaonic calendar, with the new year stating on September 11 – Also their Christian hymns go back to the Egyptian hymns which people used to sing for the pharaohs. The Coptic Church is known for having been the birthplace of monasticism. This tradition started with Saint Antonius the Great, who was called by Jesus while praying in a church. There are many monasteries in the Coptic culture. Also, the Coptic Church has been a church of martyrs, even until this day. Jesus’ teaching of loving one’s enemy has always been the central teaching for them. There are three Coptic churches in Vienna and one monastery. The young generation is well integrated in the church communities, because for them going to church means coming home to their own culture. When riots erupted in Egypt and many Coptic people were killed, the Coptic youth organized a protest march which the Roman Catholic Cardinal attended. They learned that it takes a lot of effort to organize such a public event.

Marlies Haider, a tourism management student, spent two years as part of a UPF program organizing interreligious and intercultural activities in Oceania. She was part of an international team of young people who did service work in the Solomon Islands, Fiji, Australia, and New Zealand. Marlies explained some of their activities, such as renovating or rebuilding kindergartens and schools or building a bridge in rural areas. Part of their strategy was to involve the local community, which meant cooperating with different Christian groups. Through their common service work they could experience beautiful harmony between the different Christian churches. They also offered lectures on character development in schools, a program which was gladly accepted by most of the schools. Marlies and her group were specially impressed by the religious attitude of the people of Oceania. Most of the people are Christians, and she said that on Sunday morning there would be no people on the street because everybody, including the young people, would be attending church.

After these presentations Ewald Schenkermayr, who had introduced the speakers, asked each of them to briefly summarize what World Interfaith Harmony Week means to them.
Ana Govedarica said that love is above all. She quoted the Serbian-Orthodox Patriarch who used to say: “First comes 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 life.”
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 from Sri Lanka answered a question from the audience about how he and his wife educate their daughter. They baptized her, his Buddhist wife doing most of the preparations for the ceremony, since she knew this meant a lot to her husband and felt it would benefit their little daughter.
As the evening progressed the people moved on to the buffet. The fact that more than 70 guests attended the meeting on this really cold winter day showed the importance of this new UN initiative of World Interfaith Harmony Week and encouraged the organizers to continue with interreligious programs. Furthermore, the fact that most of the speakers were young people impressed the audience..