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Learning the Art of Cultural Diplomacy in Rome

By Ruth Broyde Sharone


TIO Correspondent Ruth Broyde Sharone reports from Rome on the recent Institute for Cultural Diplomacy symposium on religion, where she was invited to screen her film, God and Allah Need to Talk. Ed.

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The Institute for Cultural Diplomacy (ICD) brought together a fascinating and diverse mix of participants at its most recent conference – this time in Rome – a group including diplomats, heads of state, religious leaders, interfaith activists, politicians, journalists, and students.

Entitled an International Symposium on Cultural Diplomacy & Religion, the conference theme was “The Promotion of World Peace through Interfaith Dialogue and the Unity of Faiths.”

ICD, founded in 1999, describes cultural diplomacy as “a course of actions, which are based on and utilize the exchange of ideas, values, traditions and other aspects of culture or identity, whether to strengthen relationships, enhance socio-cultural cooperation or promote national interests; cultural diplomacy can be practiced by either the public sector, private sector, or civil society.”

Speakers and participants at the Symposium on Cultural Diplomacy and Religion in Rome – Photo: Facebook

Speakers and participants at the Symposium on Cultural Diplomacy and Religion in Rome – Photo: Facebook

Some 75 participants faithfully attended all four days of the symposium, and an additional 50 came and went during individual sessions. Most of the conference was housed in a bustling tourist area near Piazza Venezia at the Italian Society for International Organizations. However, on the second day the morning sessions were held at the Italian Senate, and on the third day, afternoon sessions were hosted by the St. Egidio Community, a Catholic organization known internationally forits outreach work, particularly among immigrants and minority groups.

The participants in the Rome conference included, to name a few, Sheikh Akhmed Tamim, the Mufti of Ukraine; Dr. Erato Kozakou-Marcoullis, former Foreign Minister of Cyrpus; Master Jun Hung Lu, a leading Chinese Buddhist spiritual leader; Philippine’s Catholic Bishop Pablo Virgilio David; Claudia Bandion-Ortner, Deputy Secretary General of KAICIID, a new interfaith organization founded by Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah; Hon. Franco Frattini, former Foreign Minister of Italy; Olivera Jovanovic, Secretary General of the Interreligious Council in Bosnia-Herzegovina; Prof. Dr. Kenan Gursoy, the Turkish Ambassador to the Holy See; Mihai-Razvan Ungureanu, former Prime Minister of Romania; Man Hee Lee, a Korean Christian leader, Fr. Patrick H. Daly, General Secretary of the Commission of the Bishop’s Conferences of the European Community; the Sultan of Sokoto, Nigeria, His Eminence Sultan Muhammad Saad Abubakar; and Lisa Billig-Palmieri,  the American Jewish Committee's Representative in Italy and Liaison to the Holy See.

One of the highlights at the Italian Senate was a keynote address by the former Prime Minister of Spain, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, also the founder and High Commissioner of the U.N. Alliance of Civilizations. The charismatic Zapatero commented that Rome, as a cradle of European civilization, was the perfect place to host such a conference. “There is no culture that is not the result of the influence of other cultures,” he emphasized. “The dialogue of religions is a condition of peace before it even presumes the idea of pluralism, and we must all recognize that no culture or religion is superior to another.”

He concluded with comments about the significance of the Arab Spring, and he issued a charge to the audience to give special support to Tunisia, “a tiny, courageous Arab country leading the way in the Middle East and offering a clear example of how to accommodate both religious groups and secular society through its new constitution.”

Noteworthy Italian politicians who spoke included Linda Lanzillotta, Vice President of the Senate, and Lia Quartapelle and Marta Grande, two young women senators whose elections signal a new generation of female political leadership in Italy.

Two interfaith activists, co-founders of the Unity of Faiths Organization based in London, Dr. Shamender Talwar, a psychologist, and Anna Prior, an art dealer, shared videos and described a major community festival they spearheaded recently in South Hall, one of the most culturally and religiously diverse sections of London. Their event – which drew 28,000 people – has received recognition from both Queen Elizabeth of England and President Obama. India is the next country that will participate in this growing grassroots multifaith initiative, they announced.

Most of the students on hand were part of a special Academy for Cultural Diplomacy launched six years ago by the organizers of ICD, offering e-learning, study abroad, and graduate degrees. Academy students participating in the Rome conference hailed from China, Rumania, Holland, Germany, Herzegovina, the United States, and Greece. 

Founder and leader of the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy, American-born Mark C. Donfried, considers himself a walking example of interfaith and cultural engagement. Coming from a Lutheran background in New England, he converted to Catholicism, married a Muslim woman, and now lives in Berlin. Also on hand to help facilitate the conference was a seasoned politician and one of the ICD’s main advisors, Halldor Asgrimsson, former Prime Minister of Iceland.

Headquartered in Berlin, ICD generally holds four symposia a year in different major cities, primarily in Europe. Their goal is “to promote global peace and stability by strengthening and supporting intercultural relations at all levels,” but equally important is training a generation of young people from around the world to be the new leaders in the art of cultural diplomacy.