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How is Interfaith Different in Europe?

By Paul Chaffee


TIO aspires to be international in scope even though most of its articles have come from North America. A number of fine overseas contributors help, but we still have a long way to go. As a next step, TIO ventures this month across the Atlantic to glimpse interfaith activity in Europe.

So much there will be familiar to interfaith activists everywhere – the yearning for peace, the core focus on relationships, being grounded in mutual respect, taking ‘actions’ which have an impact. At the same time, differences between America and Europe abound, making this month’s issue a fascinating exploration of how countries and continents each uniquely take on the universal task we share, forging a healthy, vital interfaith culture that engages us all.

Some of the differences are ‘in your face.’ The firewall in the United States between government and religion is nowhere to be found in Europe. The dogmatic religious authoritarianism that so many Europeans fled by sailing West a few hundred years ago is gone. It’s been replaced by government, civil society, and religion all working intensely on multiculturalism, often together. The task they share: to figure out how to embrace our differences creatively, peacefully, before folks get violent with each ‘other,’ whoever that may be.

Multireligious relations in Europe are pursued not so much to engender spiritual solidarity as to help solve the divisions, complexities, and mistrust different communities – racial, religious, sexual, and economic – suffer with each other. From the halls of power, among religious leaders and educators, economists and sociologists, and especially young people, one finds an interfaith seriousness of purpose, an understanding of what is at stake, which you rarely discern in America. The passion is everywhere, but they notch up the scope and intensity a peg or two in Europe.

The five French students at Coexister, for instance, are astonishing, completing a journey to 50 countries where they videotaped 250 interfaith leaders for up to an hour each, in 300 days. The youngsters in this story today have a much better grasp of the depth and breadth of the global interfaith movement than the rest of us – their project is a perfect storm of interfaith hunger, social concern, and the creativity to pull it off and get it paid for. You need a catalogue to list the positive outcomes from this kind of project. Thousands of French young people are hearing their stories this summer. A documentary is in the works.

You’ll find a similar seriousness, creativity, and courage in stories about young people in the UK, the Balkans, and in Poland.

The multi-institutional engagement and connectivity in European interfaith, so much more developed than in the U.S., is much less developed when it comes to grassroots activity. Nearly every town, city, and metropolis in Canada and the U.S. is interfaith-active, though the multitude of these groups, absent any institutional parent, remain largely unconnected with each other, though Canada does better than its neighbor to the south. Countries in Eastern Europe, sad to say, are largely bereft of any interfaith activity, institutional or grassroots, although everywhere one can discover pioneers who are picking up the challenge, especially young people.

A confession, here. TIO’s most startling discovery in surveying European interfaith upsets these too-easy generalizations: encountering the 3 Faiths Forum (3FF) and its profusion of programs is a bracing education in how to engender healthy interfaith relationships individually and institutionally, usually with people who are brand-new to interfaith dialogue. It’s a rare achievement. Dozens of curricula on interfaith dialogue are available, full of good advice, and most interfaith groups everywhere craft their own approaches. 3FF takes you to the next level, and their focused approach and methodology can instruct us on both sides of the Atlantic.

TIO was created to share the variety and plenitude of interfaith stories around the world. Taking the time to focus on Europe is illuminating and inspiring, whetting the appetite to continue our global exploration.