Panel Highlights Turkey and Italy’s Dialogue Initiatives

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JWF’s Intercultural Dialogue Platform (IDP) organized a panel titled “Sharing Coexistence Experiences: The Example of Italy and Turkey.” The event took place at Santa Cecilia Monastery in Rome.

Through these efforts, we are seeking to curb the clashes in society. We have been enjoying the fruits of our labor and working tangibly for peace.

Dr. Luigi De Salvia, Italy’s Secretary General of Religions for Peace

Panel participants included Jewish, Christian, and Muslim opinion leaders from Turkey as well as committee members from Italy’s branch of the international Religions for Peace organization.

Dr. Luigi De Salvia, Italy’s secretary general of Religions for Peace, greeted the Turkish delegation by saying, “Welcome to Rome! We are delighted to see you here.” He continued, “Dialogue has been recently developing in Italy. Pope John XXIII, who is familiar with the dialogue tradition rooted in the Ottomans, is an instrumental figure in the field. The Turkish experience played a role in the initiatives of the Catholic Church. Through this step, the Church has expanded to Jews, Muslims, and Hindus.”

De Salvia noted that religious freedom is explicitly stated in the Italian Constitution and that Religions for Peace has been working toward having this right be justly exercised in various contexts, including hospitals and prisons. “Through these efforts, we are seeking to curb the clashes in society. We have been enjoying the fruits of our labor and working tangibly for peace. The theme of the coming November meeting is going to be “to recognize the outsider and to say welcome,” De Salvia said. “We would like to say ‘Welcome’ again and listen to you.”

“Dialogue is to know one another”

In his speech on the panel, JWF Vice-President Cemal Usak said that to have dialogue is to know one another. Usak said JWF has been making efforts to communicate a message of peaceful coexistence across Turkey for 20 years. Arguing that NGOs engaged in dialogue should collaborate against the threats challenging the humanity, Usak maintained that cautions have to be taken particularly against the Western-rooted notions of “aggressive secularism” and “alienation from religion and religious values.”

“Proceeding from dissimilarities and common grounds, we can come to realize our similarities and highlight them. Throughout history, wars targeting dissimilarities have been fought. We can carry out projects to enrich shared values,” Usak said. He also noted that collaboration among pro-coexistence institutions in the fight against Islamophobia in the West, Christianophobia in the East, and anti-Semitism in some regions is crucial for world peace.

The next speaker was Prof. Francesco Zannini, the president of the Pontifical Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies. He explained that he has been involved in dialogue activities with the Catholic Church for 60 years now. He said, “I have worked on various religions for 30 years and learned a lot. There are so many ways of dialogue. Making an acquaintance, getting to know each other and the experience of coexistence. This is the essence of dialogue. Moreover, there is a spiritual type of dialogue. The factor that binds us together and makes us brothers, as believers, is our commitment to God. Together with Muslims, Buddhists, and Jews, in particular, we should form dialogue recognizing identities without interfering in anyone’s belief and live together as brothers, so peacefully to embrace those with no religious affiliation.”

A history of religions academic, Prof. Omer Faruk Harman, approached the topic from a historical point of view. He said, “How to treat each other, love, and respect are narrated in Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. Yet wars have always existed throughout history. Jesus urged: ‘Love your enemies.’ In God’s commandment to Moses, it says ‘You shall not kill’ and to break one’s heart is equivalent to killing him. Despite the Bible’s commandment, St. Bartholomew, in reference to the ages-long religious wars in the West, said, ‘It is impossible to understand the Crusaders.’ There have been conflicts and enmity among the religions throughout history. Can friction or a clash even exist among the prophets Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad? While no enmity exists among the founders of these religions, what is it that people have been fighting for throughout history?”

Harman also noted that people are commanded to think highly of each other. He explained, “The Torah orders: ‘Love your neighbor.’ Our duty is therefore to practice the fundamental rules in the holy books. The same rules, such as ‘You shall not steal, commit adultery, or kill’ are available in the New and Old Testament as well. Muslims are also subject to the same rules of Noah that are mentioned in the Qur’an. The Qur’an encourages competing in good deeds and so do the Bible and Torah.”

Yusuf Altintas, the secretary general of Turkey’s Chief Rabbinate, argued that only the interreligious aspect of dialogue had been discussed up to that point in the panel. “I believe the concept should involve other issues, too, besides religions,” he said. Altintas defined dialogue as “an option that requires people to respect each other just because they are human beings.” Altintas said the second option would inevitably be the opposite of the first. “The point here is to get them to choose by presenting options rather than begging them to get to know each other through well-intentioned approaches,” he said.

“Dialogue in Turkey was pioneered by Said Nursi and institutionalized by Fethullah Gulen”

In his remarks, Dogus University Professor Niyazi Oktem stated that it was the Kurdish intellectual, Said Nursi, who pioneered dialogue in the Republican period in Turkey. Oktem said Nursi visited Patriarch Atenagoras in the 1950s and called all religions to take a united stance against communism and other issues. Following Nursi, Mehmet Firinci from the same school of thought carried forward the same notion. In the 1980s, the Catholic Rev. Mons. Dubois elaborated on what could be done with respect to interreligious dialogue, and later became an apostolic and the Vatican representative to Turkey, according to Oktem.

“From 1990 onwards, dialogue was institutionalized and today’s Intercultural Dialogue Platform came into being, thanks to the initiatives of JWF Honorary President Fethullah Gulen,” Oktem said. “Consequently, joint projects have been carried out in cooperation with Mons. Marovitch from the Catholic world, who had been following the footsteps of Dubois, alongside Armenian, Jewish, and Assyrian representatives. For example, a joint prayer session was held following the attack on the Jewish synagogue. Mons. Santoro’s sister Magdelena had earlier invited us here and another joint event in memory of Mons. Santoro was held,” Oktem said. Speaking of the importance of IDP with respect to dialogue, Oktem quoted Patriarch Bartholomeos’ statement: “If the non-Muslims in Turkey are able to retrieve their confiscated belongings today, IDP has had a major role in that.”

IDP President Prof. Suat Yildirim said, “Some friends affiliated with Said Nursi and Fethullah Gulen friends came up and said: We have tried debating and challenging each other a lot, but not having dialogue, over history. Let us try the dialogue way with other faith members. God created all human beings honorable. Everyone is therefore in search of righteousness and truth. So, they attempted to communicate with people through education, in particular. Schools have been founded in 140 different countries. These schools have directly made specific contributions to dialogue. For example, the Bosnia case. Since the war, Serbian, Croatians, and Muslims have been living there. Students from diverse faiths are attending those schools and learning to live together.”

Zeki Basatemir, the president of the Syriac Catholic Church Foundation, noted that although past experiences in Turkey were negative, there had been changes for the better, and they were hopeful that there would be continued progress with Turkey’s new constitution. Basatemir revealed that while 20 years ago they had been afraid to come to Anatolia with their patriarchs, recently they had visited those regions through IDP activities and were well-received by the locals.

Istanbul Deputy Mufti Kadriye Avci Erdemli discussed women and religion. She said, “Women are deemed important in every religion. The Qur’an says ‘O people!’ which encompasses male and female believers. All religions gained strength with women. For example, the Virgin Mary, or the woman who rescued Moses from the river, or Khadijah.” However, stressing that a place cannot be seen for women in today’s religious structures, Erdemli said, “All religions promote peace. Islam means peace, after all. It says: ‘To kill one man is to kill all mankind.’ Women are more pacifist, which all statistics confirm. Women contribute to peace more.” Erdemli underlined the need for more positions for women in religious structures and decision making authorities.

Despite feeling ill, American Jewish Committee Vatican Representative Lisa Palmieri Billig said, “I got up and left my house for the first time to say welcome to you. I’m delighted to see this democratic atmosphere. I hope our friendship will continue.”

Baha’i community official Guido Morisco said every country has a meaning in the Baha’i faith. In Turkey’s case, he said, “Turkey is said to play a role in peace building. Turkey’s plurality and openness gave me hope. I’ve seen Istanbul, Konya, and some other cities. I admired the country’s trend towards advancement and the youth’s feelings about it.”

Enrico Modigliani, a Jewish community official and a former deputy, said, “Rome’s Jews are the oldest Jewish community and had lived, until 150 years ago, in the Roman Ghetto you saw yesterday. My grandfather was born there. That region was flooded when the river overflowed. There were two religions in Rome at the time: Judaism within the Ghetto and Christianity outside. Today, there are 22 of them.” Modigliani went on to say, “Secularists too should be involved in this project. We should try to understand each other as we are. There are two obstacles to that: prejudices and fundamentalism. The role parents and schools play in this is significant.”

At the end of the panel, Magdelena Santoro, the president of Italy National Committee of Religions for Peace, greeted all the panelists and participants. Her presence was especially meaningful as her brother, Fr. Andrea Santoro, had been murdered in Trabzon, Turkey.

The panelists of the event were as follows: IDP President Prof. Suat Yildirim, Marmara University academic Prof. Omer Faruk Harman, Istanbul Deputy Mufti Kadriye Avci Erdemli, Syriac Catholic Church Foundation President Zeki Basatemir, Secretary General of Turkish Jews Chief Rabbinate Yusuf Altintas and Undersecretary Isak Kolman, Syriac Orthodox Virgin Mary Church Foundation’s Deputy President Kenan Gurdal, Armenian Catholic Deputy-Patriarch Satenik Usta, Dogus University Professor Niyazi Oktem, the Directorate of Religious Affairs’ Director of Education Services Prof. Ali Erbas and Religious Affairs Supreme Council member Dr. Ayten Erol, and IDP Secretary General Kudret Altindag.

Observers from Italy included Italy’s Religions for Peace Founding President Giovanni Cereti and Secretary-General Dr. Luigi De Salvia, American Jewish Committee Vatican Representative Lisa Palmieri Billig, Italian Protestant Valdese Church official Dr. Adelina Bartholomei, Pontifical Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies President Prof. Francesco Zannini, Focolare Movement official Silvio Daneo and Interreligious Dialogue Center Director Dr. Roberto Catalano, Fr. Santoro’s sister Prof. Maddalena Santoro, Baha’i community official Guido Morisco, Jewish community official and former deputy Enrico Modigliani, and Rome Tevere Institute President M. Cenap Aydin.

The Turkish delegation later visited historical landmarks in Rome and the Vatican, including San Gioacchino Church, whose construction included Ottoman contributions; Saint Angel Church; St. Peter’s Basilica; San Teodoro Church; the Roman Ghetto; and the Turkish embassies in Rome and the Vatican.

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