With a grant from the JPII Center for Interreligious Dialogue, Vladimer Narsia, JPII Center Leader from Cohort XIV, hopes to bring attention to the long history of Jewish-Christian relations in Georgia. The mission of this project is “to promote the richness of Jewish-Christian relations from its outset up to the present time and magnify the role of Jewish people in the history of Christianity.” 

Vladimer Narsia (Georgia), JPII Leader (Cohort XIV)

Specifically, Vladimer’s project focuses on the revered St. Sidonia, a first-century Jewish woman consecrated as a saint in the Georgian Orthodox Church. “Sidonia was a Jew, but the Georgian Orthodox Church consecrated her as a Saint,” explains Vladimer. “So, Sidonia is a Christian, in terms of her religion, but ethnically a Jew.” 

The Georgian Chronicles, also known as The Georgian Royal Annals, state that St. Sidonia was a founder of Swetickhoveli, one of Georgia’s most ancient churches. Vladimer says that this cathedral is one of “the most venerated and holy places in Georgia” because it is recognized by the Georgian Chronicles as “the burial site of Christ’s robe.” 

Vladimer began the implementation of this project at the beginning of October and shares that it is going well. The first of Vladimer’s public lectures around St. Sidonia and the ancient roots of Jewish-Christian relations in Georgia was given to a group of students this fall. Having graduated this spring with a Diploma in Interreligious Dialogue from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome, Italy, where Vladimer was a Russell Berrie Fellow, this lecture also addressed contemporary interreligious dialogue issues within the context of Georgia and beyond.

Vladimer at the Museum of the History of the Georgian Jews in Tbilisi

Vladimer will also collaborate with the Museum of the History of the Georgian Jews, based in Tbilisi. At the conclusion of this project in the spring of next year, he will offer a presentation on Jewish-Christian relations in Georgia and share his project on St. Sidonia. By this point, Vladimer also aims to create a bilingual brochure, in Georgian and English, and create an animated movie clip to further present this important history to the world.

This project was made possible through the support of a JPII Leaders Grant offered by the JPII Center for Interreligious Dialogue. 

Photo credit: World Council of Churches

The World Council of Churches (WCC) is the biggest ecumenical body in the world with 352 member churches in over 120 countries representing over 580 million Christians worldwide. JPII Leader, Evans Nyamadzawo, attended the WCC’s 11th Assembly in Karlsruhe, Germany with the support of a grant through the JPII Center. With the theme of “Christ’s Love Moves the World to Reconciliation and Unity,” this assembly was attended by more than 4000 people from all over the world and included opening remarks from the president of Germany.

Evans was a Home Group Facilitator and a Global Ecumenical Theological Institute (GETI) 2022 participant at the Assembly in Karlsruhe. The focus of GETI 2022, an ecumenical theological education event for emerging ecumenical theologians and educators, was “Christ’s Love (Re)moves Borders.” The six themes of GETI2022 were: Healing Memories, Kairos for Creation, Witness from the Margins, Engaging with Plurality, Body Politics, and 4th Industrial Revolution & AI.

Evans co-facilitated a Home Group with Dr. Theodora Issa, a member of the Central Committee of the WCC during the Assembly. “I facilitated 5 sessions on 5 different days,” shares Evans, “It was a great experience having profile people in my group and leading discussions to further explore matters arising from the plenary.”

“One of the key highlights during the assembly,” Evans says, “was the continuous efforts by the WCC to promote interreligious dialogue.” Evans was particularly drawn to the addresses during the plenary session by Professor Azza Karam, the General Secretary for Religion for Peace, and Rabbi David Fox Sandmel, the Chair of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations.

The support of the Russell Berrie Fellowship and the JPII Center were important in preparing Evans for this WCC Assembly: “My experience in interreligious dialogue, especially my experience as a Russell Berrie Fellow, helped me to bring vibrant contributions related to engaging with plurality, a new topic since WCC’s main goal is Christian unity.”

“The Assembly was one of the places I felt that race, sex, nationality, and church affiliation were invisible: we were just one big family,” says Evans. “The major highlight is the fact that Christ’s love goes beyond Christian circles; it is for the whole of humanity.”

Photo Credit: ReStart Ukraine

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has broken communities, forced millions from their homes, and taken the lives of thousands. With the support of grants from the JPII Center, Nataly Pavlik and Taras Dzyubanskyy have designed and implemented two fantastic projects to help promote interreligious literacy, dialogue, and peace in their home country of Ukraine.

JPII Leader Nataly Pavlik created and launched Interfaithing Humanity, an interfaith coloring book. During the Russell Berrie Fellows study trip to Israel in 2020, Nataly was inspired by a visit to the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, where there is a gallery of diverse depictions of the Holy Mother of God in various cultures around the world. Nataly discusses the impact of this encounter: “At that moment, it became clear that to see the profound beauty of diversity, one should first educate one’s own eyes to see it and heart to feel it.”

This experience motivated Nataly to pursue the Interfaithing Humanity Colouring Book project. “The driving idea of the Colouring Book,” Nataly continues, “was to create a unique project involving art and interreligious dialogue, which could bridge civil society, academia, and religious communities on the way to peace and reconciliation.” This coloring book contains images from a wide variety of faith and non-faith traditions. For Nataly, one of the main highlights of this project was “consulting with representatives of different religious communities about their vision of characters in the Colouring Book.”

This project not only incorporated interreligious dialogue into its creation but also sought to promote it in a new way. Nataly believes that “using art and operating the visual content brings a more efficient impact on the optimistic image of religious and non-religious communities in society, decreases social pressure, and unites believers and non-believers in the struggle with ongoing violence to maintain inner peace.” This philosophy is especially pertinent to the current situation in Ukraine since, as Nataly states, “the standard methods of talking about inter- and intra-faith dialogue are not effective in limited states of human life, such as war.”

Nataly’s project has received support and endorsements from faith leaders around the world. “It is a bright testimony of human fraternity between Christians, Jews, Muslims, and people of other faiths,” states Fr. Norbert Hofmann, SDB, Secretary to the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews. “It courageously opens new horizons of interreligious dialogue in an artistic and creative way.” Guglielmo Doryu Cappelli, a Soto Zen Buddhist priest, shares: “I very much appreciated the interreligious Colouring Book ‘Interfaithing Humanity,’ fruit of a sincere commitment to the path of interreligious dialogue. I believe this initiative brings awareness of the possibility of the peaceful coexistence of different faiths and cultures.”

Nataly reflects on her own project in light of the ongoing invasion of Ukraine: “It is so empowering to receive the words of gratitude from a mother saying that the Colouring Book helped her child to overcome fear sitting in the bomb shelter and balancing between life and death; a girl who was forced to flee Ukraine as a refugee because her hometown was ruined; an old professor who admitted that by giving colours to the characters of the book, he felt young again; a young priest who confessed that he has never thought of having so much in common with our ‘spiritual neighbours.’”

Taras Dzyubanskyy, Senior Alumni Advisor of the JPII Center, also developed a project to support communities in his home country of Ukraine. In response to the mass violence and displacement, which affects families and individuals from all religious backgrounds, Taras created the Interfaith Rehabilitation Program ReStart in Ukraine to help young people from various faith communities become more resilient to the traumatic experience of the war. Cosponsored by the JPII Center and the Religions for Peace International, this program aims to help displaced people “deal with the loss that we all have in Ukraine […] through a series of creative, spiritual, and religious workshops, seminars, and trainings.” This project advocates for the psychological, spiritual, and mental support for these displaced families and individuals on top of the basic necessities of food and housing.

The Interfaith Rehabilitation Program ReStart in Ukraine offered 30 hours of intense group therapy and 10 hours of individual therapy to 40 participants. This included the staging of collective performances and the sharing of war stories. 20 trainers, speakers, lecturers, and religious leaders guided the participants; as Taras states: “We brought religious leaders, we brought speakers from different religious traditions to highlight the values from these religious traditions together to help our people to get through this trauma, from this experience of aggression, from this experience of loss and grief.”

Taras was invited to give a virtual presentation on this project and his experiences with the Multi-Religious Humanitarian Fund in the Tokyo Peace Roundtable in September. Specifically, Taras discussed how ReStart in Ukraine “contributed to strengthening multi-religious collaboration, resilience, and social cohesion.” This was the first event in the series of Beyond War and Towards Reconciliation: Convening Multi-Religious Peace Roundtables to be held by Religions for Peace International and Religions for Peace Japan. In his presentation, Taras noted that the Interfaith Rehabilitation Program ReStart in Ukraine has already been replicated in some faith communities on a local level and smaller scale. With the goal of “mobiliz[ing] representatives from different faith communities to use their resources—both spiritual and material—to uplift the spirit of the common good and unity among the youth,” this project serves as a model and inspiration for other communities in need.

Click here to download and/or order a copy of the Interfaithing Humanity Colouring Book.

To learn more about the Interfaith Rehabilitation Program ReStart in Ukraine, see this video posted by the Libertas Center.

On September 19, university students from around the world came together at Georgetown University to partake in “Building Interreligious Solidarity.” This in-person conference was organized and moderated with the help of JPII Leader Emily Judd (Cohort XI, USA) who is now operating as Senior Communications Specialist at the Higher Committee of Human Fraternity, an international interfaith organization supported by the Vatican, Al-Azhar, and the leadership of the United Arab Emirates. The conference was centered on human fraternity and interfaith dialogue and it was the product of a partnership between Georgetown University and the Higher Committee of Human Fraternity and Muslim Council of Elders.

Speakers included the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar His Eminence Professor Ahmed Al-Tayeb (virtual), UAE Minister of State for Youth Her Excellency Shamma Al Mazrui, and US Ambassador At-Large for International Religious Freedom Rashad Hussain (virtual). Student participants were from diverse religious backgrounds and countries including the United States, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, and Poland.

The goal of the conference was to build upon the Document on Human Fraternity, signed in 2019 by the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar and His Holiness Pope Francis. This monumental document looks toward human fraternity among all people as a means to promote peace and justice. The creation of the Higher Committee on Human Fraternity was inspired by the Document on Human Fraternity and seeks to implement and further the ideals of this interfaith document.

In 2021, three members of Cohort XIII of the Russell Berrie Fellowship, Gianluca Avanzato, Gloria Guisbert, and Sophie Palopoli, participated in an international youth Zoom meeting with the Higher Committee for Human Fraternity. In a group of 12 students from around the world, including the United States, Egypt, Israel, Palestine, Morocco, Ghana, UAE, and Kuwait, these three JPII Leaders spoke about their visions of human fraternity and had the opportunity to hear from 2011 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Leymah Gbowee. The JPII Center is grateful for Emily’s work with the Higher Committee for Human Fraternity and looks forward to being involved in future events too.

It’s with great joy that the John Paul II Center welcomes Cohort XV to Rome! This year’s cohort includes a range of fascinating Fellows from around the world: the USA, India, Pakistan, Russia, Myanmar, Nigeria, Vietnam, Zimbabwe, and Germany.

There is enthusiasm in this group about being at the Angelicum. “As the first member of my family to attend University, I have always considered knowledge-seeking an immense privilege,” shares Russell Berrie Fellow Hilal Avci (Germany). Liz Langan (USA) also sees this education a privilege for her own reasons: “Other than my personal faith, I have only studied religions in a secular context, so I’m looking forward to learning more about them in the Catholic educational setting of the Angelicum.”

“As a Buddhist Monk,” shares Ashin Mandalarlankara (Myanmar), “I am so excited to learn interreligious Dialogue in the Christian community, Christian University, with Christian Scholars and students.”

Beyond Christianity, the Diploma in Interreligious Dialogue at the Angelicum offers the opportunity to explore a variety of religious traditions, and Dr. Maria Petrova (Russia) hopes that these studies will broaden her “knowledge of Judaism and Islam as well as Catholicism and other Christian denominations.”

Fr. Jackson Johnson (India) writes: “From this Fellowship programme, I would like to know more about the theoretical and practical aspects of interreligious dialogue: theoretical aspects from the lectures and the seminars in Angelicum and practical aspects from the various events and programs organized by the John Paul II Center and the Fellowship.”

The Russell Berrie Fellowship and the John Paul II Center for Interreligious Dialogue offer learning even outside the Angelicum. During the Orientation week, the Fellows went to the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue to meet with Father Norbert Hofmann, Secretary to the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews. They also went on a two-hour pilgrimage tour of the ancient necropolis underneath St. Peter’s Basilica, where, as Taras, JPII Leaders Coordinator, shares, “we visited 22 ancient Roman mausoleums and learnt how culture and religion coexisted and influenced each other in the Roman times.” This visit culminated in the Vatican crypts at the tomb of the Apostle Peter, where numerous popes are also buried.

With Orientation beginning at the end of September, Fellows are already feeling a sense of connection. Fellow Andrew Mixson (USA) is “already inspired” by his cohort: “we have had some fantastic discussions—and we have only completed orientation week!” Sr. Minh Sa (Vietnam) is excited by the prospect of getting to know others better in the coming year. “With this opportunity,” she continues “I will have more chances to build relationships, have more friends coming from different religions and varied cultures.”

As members of Cohort XV, these Russell Berrie Fellows join a rich network of over 100 alumni who have studied at the Angelicum, completed the program, and become JPII Leaders. “The aspect intrigues me the most,” writes Sr. Josmy Jose (India), “is the various opportunities during the year and the continuous network between the previous cohorts even after this year.”

The JPII Leaders Network is thrilled to get to know this year’s Fellows and connect with them on each one’s journeys—journeys that echo the goal that Halil Avci shares for his fellowship experience: “Rooted in the study of God and drawing from the world’s religious traditions, I am striving for personal and social transformation to seek peace and justice in a diverse and interconnected world.” May we find togetherness and support in our striving for transformation, peace, and justice.

Every year, Russell Berrie Fellows visit Israel for an intensive 11-day trip that combines an academic seminar at the Shalom Hartman Institute, practical workshops and visits to holy sites. Due to the pandemic, it was not possible for Cohort XIII to travel to Israel last year. Only this year, both Cohort XIII and Cohort XIV of Russell Berrie Fellows had the chance of travelling to Israel between from June 12 to June 22. The Israel study tour concluded their experience as Russell Berrie Fellows and introduced them to the Network of John Paul II Leaders for Interreligious Dialogue.

The time in Israel allows Fellows to learn more—among other things—about the lived experiences of dialogue in the Holy Land. This year the Fellows were part of two practical workshops offered by the Rossing Center for Education and Dialogue and the second by Sia’h Shalom.

On Friday June 17th, a team of students and facilitators, both Israelis and Arabs, who usually run or attend programs organized by the Rossing Center at their universities joined the Russell Berrie Fellows. They introduced two projects: Healing Hatred and Meeting Place. These projects use different methods that enable participants to listen to one another empathetically and address different aspects shaping their personal and national identities, including faith, beliefs, tradition, culture and politics. Healing Hatred is an innovative model for interreligious dialogue based on the tools of spiritual counseling to allow space to communicate about core spiritual and moral dilemmas, while Meeting Place is a theme-based text study and discussion with Jewish, Christian and Muslim sources. The workshop offered the chance not only to experience the two dialogue practices developed by the Rossing Center but also to interact with young people who live in Jerusalem and who, despite the challenges, decide to walk the path of dialogue.”

On Sunday June 19th, the Fellows were active participants in the second workshop organised by Sia’h Shalom (Talking Peace), an organization dedicated to constructive engagement with, and inclusion of, religious communities and individuals in Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts. After an introduction about the philosophy of the organization, the leaders led the group through a text study of religious sources and then invited the Fellows to discuss conflicts in their own countries of origin and gave a practical demonstration of how they lead discussions about such sensitive issues.

The opportunity to see how different organizations experience and facilitate dialogue in Jerusalem and the surrounding areas is a great chance for the Russell Berrie Fellows who come from all over the world and who then implement their projects of dialogue in their own countries.

For the Russell Berrie Fellows of Cohort XIV, this academic year was full of interreligious engagement and scholarly discoveries. As their Fellowship is coming to an end, we invited them to share some final reflections. The Fellows reveal the main highlights of their studies at the Angelicum, reflect on how their stay in Rome has influenced their worldviews, and how they plan to apply this interfaith experience in the future.

Cohort XIV, 2021-22

Jan Janoszka, Poland/UK

In many ways, the blend of academic input (especially the lectures with Rabbi Jack Bemporad) combined with our various experiences in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Nazareth, confirmed one potential form of living out a calling to interreligious dialogue. I am referring to an intentional and free choice to be immersed in the lives of those who live on the margins of our societies, e.g., the displaced or stateless persons, refugees, and those forced to be “on the move.” I would like to transfer the wealth of knowledge gained during the Russell Berrie Fellowship and STL program at the Angelicum into the context of poor communities of diverse traditions and cultures. Hopefully, I will be able to communicate the gift of faith that does justice, heals our common wounds, and helps us grow together as one human family.

Fr. Van Thien Tran, Vietnam

As a Dominican, I understand that dialogue is the synodal process of seeking the truth. It is the hope to understand the mysterious dialogue between God and men in the line of human history. Moreover, it is an effort to discover the “seed of Logos” that the Holy Spirit puts in everyone and every religion. Once I told my friend that we do not dialogue only by language but also by heart. Synodality and an open heart are essential principles for dialogue. At the Angelicum, I feel being both a student and a family member. I do hope that the knowledge gained during this academic year will assist me in my mission.

Ms. Olena Komisarenko, Ukraine

The most memorable moments during the Fellowship year in Rome were related to Jewish culture, which I could observe and join. The Sabbath dinner explained by professor Noam Zion opened a new reality of the meaningfulness and holiness of time for me. I believe this new attitude would change my lifestyle as a Christian.

Ms. Meilia Irawan, Indonesia

As a Muslim woman in Rome, I have learned a lot from my colleagues during the Fellowship. Each of them respected different views and developed a culture of discussion. I took the example of practical dialogue between various denominations that can sit together despite fundamental differences. My learning journey was enriched by people who support each other even though they have a large ideological gap. Moreover, I was interested in studying the schism because the history of church divisions provides a glimpse of the complex history of Christian theology and its development. The extraordinary experience I gained at the Angelicum will certainly be helpful for interfaith dialogue in Indonesia and necessary for our interreligious maturity.

Mr. Evans Nyamadzawo, Zimbabwe

The Russell Berrie Fellowship has changed my worldview and broadened my understanding of co-existence, religious dialogue, and peacebuilding. I benefited greatly from the academic sessions at the Angelicum, extracurricular interreligious events, internal networking sessions, and the Jerusalem study tour. I was privileged to visit a mosque and a synagogue as well. My studies at the Angelicum broadened my understanding of the Catholic teachings and relationships with believers of other faiths, namely the Jews and Muslims. I was honored to be taught by prominent experts and professors, such as Rabbi Jack Bemporad, Gavin D’Costa, and others. The program allowed me to meet and learn from other people and organizations in the interfaith field, which is a key for future collaborations.

Rev. Humphrey Uche Udechukwu, Nigeria

My stay in Rome offered me an opportunity to study at the prestigious Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, Angelicum. Within this academic year, two main areas were particularly significant to me. Firstly, the academic studies which exposed me to learn more about ecumenical and interreligious dialogue. Secondly, the extracurricular activities that offered me a chance to meet with religious leaders from different faith traditions. Furthermore, my studies in Rome taught me to value and respect our common humanity and to treat people on the basis of love. Finally, I am eager to put into practice what I have learned in Rome. I plan to organize some interreligious conferences in my diocese in Nigeria to create a cordial relationship between Christians and Muslims in my country.

Fr. Norbert Lis, Poland

The topic I took up during my one-year Fellowship was human dignity seen from the perspective of Christian-Jewish dialogue. I wanted to look at my subject from many angles. But I could not separate one thought of human dignity from another, as if I were able to grasp pure Jewish thought and place it separately in one drawer, and put pure Christian thought in another, packing both of them in airtight foil. It is impossible to prove something independently, as if they have never touched each other. It would be a falsehood and a denial of the subject’s dignity. Hence, a more efficient tool in some parts became a phenomenological view of the topic from several sides after revision. I was familiar with Christian philosophy and theology, so I focused on learning about Judaism. The lectures of Rabbi J. Bemporad, Prof. A. Afterman, Prof. I. Knohl, and many others were beneficial for me. Human dignity is a topic that unites, not divides. Hence, Jewish thought walked hand in hand with Christian thought. Both traditions are and will be sewn like one garment of human dignity weaved by “two crochet knitting needles.” Such a common view will facilitate my future work on Christian-Jewish dialogue and make it more practical and active.
Another significant highlight of this year was our combined two Cohorts’ study trip to Israel. Most important for me was a wide range of possibilities to enter into dialogue in practice.

Ms. Bogdana Katarzhuk, Ukraine

Without exaggeration, a year spent at the Angelicum as a Russel Berrie Fellow changed me completely. I learned how to be open to different worldviews and revised my own. I also fought the fear of asking inconvenient questions, especially about my own faith. The year spent in Rome became for me a period of renewal in many senses. Undoubtedly, I will continue to apply the knowledge acquired during the Fellowship both in politics and art; now it gains additional importance for me as interreligious dialogue can also be applied as an additional basis for unity in my homecountry, Ukraine.

Ms. Diana Marinescu, Romania

As someone who spent all her life in universities and libraries and enjoyed several scholarships abroad, I can say that my year as a Russell Berrie Fellow at the Angelicum was the most fruitful experience as a student. From the very beginning, I was impressed by the general atmosphere: for a person with a lay scholar background, studying in a confessional and theological university with religious staff made me feel…home. It is so because we all believe in God and are sensitive to religious issues, because we all organize our lives around religious values and because we all try to find solutions to today’s world problems.

Then, entering in contact with outstanding professors, who are high-ranked Christian and Jewish scholars, and actively engaged in the field of interfaith and ecumenical dialogue, made me feel the actual pulse of this dialogue. Afterwards, encountering students at the Angelicum from all around the world (Chinese and Indians, Vietnamese and Argentinians, Poles and Russians, Irish and Hungarians, Americans, Nigerians, Congolese, Indonesians, Georgians and Peruvians etc.), belonging to such different cultural and religious backgrounds and traditions was enlightening for me since I come from a country which culturally and religiously is rather uniform. It is hard, if not impossible, to fully understand cultural and religious diversity unless you come in contact with it – and this was the greatest advantage of my studies at the Angelicum.

Another thing that really impressed me is the spirit of friendship and fraternity established between us, the Russell Berrie Fellows (and JPII Leaders). I felt we all were one, like a body with multiple brains but one heart. We studied, prayed, joked, ate and had a lot of coffee, museum and church visits together. I must confess that all these opened my taste for joint projects in the future, for I realized that power resides in unity and common witness.

The other event which was life-changing for me was the Israel study tour. Everything was so densely packed there that I will need many months from now on in order to digest what I witnessed and lived: the encounter with so many scholars and rabbis, their amazing stories, an extraordinary religious diversity (probably unique in the world), the sanctity surrounding the Holy Places (especially the Holy Sepulchre and the Western Wall), the warmth and the chromatic melisma of the muezzins’ call to prayer in the afternoon, the exquisite and unrealistic beauty of the Galilean landscapes which made me actually realize why these places were the Promised Land, the heart-breaking story behind Yad Vashem, the pulse of a vivid and genuine Jewish culture with tallits and tefillins, kippahs and payot, with its Sabbath men’s dancing and singing and its delicious kosher food, and finally the tragic avatars of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in one of the most political-sensitive places in the world.

We are proud of our Fellows and excited to welcome them to the network of JPII Leaders worldwide. Heartfelt blessings on your interfaith ministries and future achievements!

The Russell Berrie Fellows of Cohorts XIII and XIV spent some unforgettable 10 days of June 2022 in Israel. During their annual study tour to the Holy Land, Fellows had an excellent opportunity to experience in person the realities of the coexistence of the three Abrahamic religions. The program included academic studies in Judaism and interreligious dialogue, as well as educational visits to the Jewish and Christian sacred and memorial places.

One of the most touching moments of this journey was the visit to Yad Vashem – the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, which is a worldwide known place for the Shoah education and research. Built in 1953 on Mount Herzl, the Yad Vashem’s mission is not only to preserve the memory of the persecuted Jews but also to honour the non-Jews who, by risking their lives, chose to help their fellows escape the genocide.

“My heart sobbed painfully as I walked through the long walls of the Yad Vashem that shed light on the memory of the unfortunate Jewish people who lived in the most horrible Nazism and Fascism dictatorship periods in the 20th century,” shares Fr. Baiju Julian (Cohort XIII) from India. He adds, “My mind desperately threw some questions: How could humanity permit such atrocious systematic killing, totally negating the fundamental human right to life? Why were Jewish people haunted and treated in this way? Why did the German people tolerate inhuman actions in their country?”

Reflecting on the emotional appeal of the inner space of Yad Vashem, Olena Komisarenko (Cohort XIV) from Ukraine points out that the building is unique in the way it resembles the fear in the lives of people who experienced unprecedented genocide. “It is filled with cold gray cement on the hill in a position that seems unstable from a distance as if it would be about to fall into the abbess. It creates a sensation of danger and total absence of life control or security that is so evidently present all the time,” she notices.

Christopher Akongnwi (Cohort XIII) from Cameroon remembers the two places that brought out tears from his eyes during the visit, namely the Hall of Remembrance and the Children’s Memorial. “I could not withhold myself from anger seeing the modern cruelty of political leaders against their fellow human beings; how the sacredness of God’s most beautiful creature, the human person, is jeopardized for selfish interest,” Christopher says. “Some people would certainly ask me, ’Where is your God?’ and I would obviously answer with my humble faith, ‘Our God is in heaven, he does whatever pleases him’ (Psalm 115),” he concludes.

Inside the museum, the unbelievable quantity of informative materials is accompanied by visual symbols reflecting the hardship of the Jewish lifestyle in this sorrowful period of human history. The clothes and shoes of the victims, the stones from the Jewish ghetto in Poland, the 10-meter deep black well reflecting the photos of victims, and at the end of the visit, the candles in a totally dark and silent room in remembrance of the deaths of Jewish children. Olena Komisarenko emotionally states, “Everything in Yad Vashem quietly screams about the tragedy making us feel so deeply that human life and dignity are above all in any circumstances.”

At the end of the exhibition, Fellows reached a section with the names of victims killed without being identified. “When the whole group left,” says Evans Nyamadzawo (Cohort XIV) from Zimbabwe, “I remained there alone with my colleague. We were both staring at different pictures, but I believe that we shared the same feeling. I saw a little girl with a lovely smile in the photo. I could not take my eyes off her innocent and beautiful face. I saw a child whose future, dreams, and life were cruelly stolen.”

Evans admitted his feeling of perplexity about how a human being could do such an atrocity to another fellow being. He argues, “I must raise my kids and influence people in my community so that they will be among the Faithful Among the Nations (i.e., non-Jewish people who saved Jews from being persecuted and killed).” “I bow in front of people who risk their lives for others, who are ready to stand up for what is right even if it costs their own lives, and even though they might have such differences as nationalities, races, religions, languages and so on,” Evans comments.

Fr. Baiju concludes his reflection about the Yad Vashem visit with a powerful statement: “The fate of millions of Jewish people who became the victims of the horrors perpetrated by political policies must never be repeated again in the world. The Museum of Yad Vashem serves as a reminder to humanity.”

We pray to God for miracles to touch the hearts of people to strive for the common good and respect for the life and dignity of human beings. We stand with all people who suffered then and now.

During the recent study tour to Israel, Russell Berrie Fellows had the unique opportunity to attend an academic program at the Shalom Hartman Institute, the leading research center of applied Jewish thought and education in Jerusalem.

The Fellows were generously invited to learn more about the vibrancy and diversity of Judaism. Gianluca Avanzato (Cohort XIII) from the USA tells how each speaker offered unique insights into their own tradition in a way that cannot be experienced through books or online sessions. He says, “The Institute was our home base for encounters facilitated by interfaith dialogue groups, such as the Rossing Center. Studying with and beside these amazing people – Jews, Muslims, Palestinians, Israelis, men, and women – was a privilege.” Gianluca is excited to have learned so much during his time at the institute: “I am reminded of the complexity of identity and the power of storytelling – of sharing the truths that we keep in our bodies and hearts.”

During the academic program, the Fellows participated in chavruta sessions, a traditional rabbinic approach to Talmudic study in which a small group of students (usually 2-5) analyze, discuss, and debate a shared text. Ana Petrache (Cohort XIII) from Romania points out, “The professors were with us not just to pass on information about Judaism but to build a community around a text, which is both an emotional and intellectual experience.” “Imagine an institute inspired by the Seder ritual – she explains with more details – where families and friends share not only food but interpretations over the sacred text. The community built around the Torah is equally about knowledge, friendship, and dialogue.” Ana also stresses that “learning is a spiritual journey and transformation process where, on one side, there is God, and on the other side, the community.”

Furthermore, the Fellows learned about rabbinic prayer and liturgy during a few practical sessions. Jan E. Janoszka (Cohort XIV) from Poland/UK says, “Now I understand a little bit better the mitzvah of tefillin. Noam Zion has taken a pair of leather boxes and a strap. Having explained to us the Torah passages inscribed on parchment scrolls and placed into the tefillin, he put one of the boxes on the upper arm and the other on his head. By wrapping himself in the Torah, he showed us his special bond with our common Creator.”

Sharing her experience in Israel and at the Shalom Hartman Institute in particular, Sr. Jisha Jacob (Cohort XIII) from India states that she could pray and experience the presence of God, inner joy and peace. “These memorable days will stay in my heart,” she exclaims with gratitude.

Organized by the John Paul II Center for Interreligious Dialogue, this event brought together Russell Berrie Fellows, JPII Leaders, and local partners in Rome to delve deeper into interreligious dialogue through a reflection on the practice of dialogue today by participants with a strong academic and theological foundation.

The John Paul II Center for Interreligious Dialogue was honored to host a large-scale interreligious event during the special visit of many of the JPII Leaders – alumni of the Russell Berrie Fellowship at the Angelicum – who gathered in Rome for some days of networking, workshops, and interfaith engagement. In numbers, thirty nine interfaith leaders from four continents and 19 countries (Albania, Bangladesh, Canada, Georgia, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, Nigeria, Philippines, Poland, Romania, Sri Lanka, UK, Ukraine, USA, Vietnam, and Zimbabwe) met to discuss the role of interreligious dialogue in academia and learn about each other’s experience in the field from all around the world.

The event was rich in public lectures open for everyone interested in dialogue, closed workshops created for the JPII Leaders, and informal sessions and discussions. One of the main highlights of these days was a public in-person event at the Angelicum – “Interreligious Dialogue: From the University to the Field.” The first session united prominent scholars of the three Abrahamic traditions: Judaism (Professor Adam Afterman, JPII Center; Tel Aviv University), Christianity (Professor Gavin D’Costa, University of Bristol), and Islam (Imam Yahya Pallavicini, COREIS), who discussed the grounds and best approaches to teach and study interreligious dialogue at the university level in today’s world. The round table was welcomed by Sr. Catherine Joseph Droste, Dean of the Faculty of Theology at the Angelicum, and moderated by Elena Dini, Senior Program Manager of the JPII Center.

The next session gathered four JPII Leaders from four continents: Nataliia Pavlyk (Ukraine), Fr. Gokum Richard (Nigeria), Allyson Zacharoff (USA), and Sr. Pascalina Purobi (Bangladesh) who shared their experience in applying academic education to practical interfaith dialogue initiatives. The speakers shared with great inspiration how academic reflection supports implementation and fostering of dialogue projects in their countries. Professor Gavin D’Costa admitted, “Listening to how the Berrie Fellows had opened new doors in interfaith dialogue with such creativity and insight was inspiring. Each had made very specific interventions with a real understanding of ways of building bridges without eradicating difference.”

Furthermore, the JPII Leaders had the opportunity to meet Msgr. Indunil J. K. Koduthuwakku and Fr. Markus Solo Kewuta at the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. They discussed the current challenges and perspectives of interfaith relations in the world. Emily Judd from the USA says, “I left the event with new perspectives on global interfaith dialogue, new connections within the JPII Leaders network, and a renewed personal responsibility to promote interreligious relations. Being surrounded by the other alumni – brilliant and dynamic leaders committed to humanitarian and multifaith efforts – I felt a sense of a greater purpose that we all are advancing together in our own ways.”

Undoubtedly, the culmination moment of the May Event was the Papal Audience at the Vatican and meeting Pope Francis in person. JPII Leaders received the apostolic blessing of the Holy Father for their interreligious work. Sr. Vimal from India mentions with excitement, “The chance to meet His Holiness personally made a lasting spiritual impact on me.” Nataliia Pavlyk from Ukraine adds: “Overflown with happiness and spiritual joy after shaking the hand of Pope Francis, I felt the necessity to share love with the whole creation!” Rabbi Allyson Zacharoff also admits, “My favorite moment was when I asked the Pope if I could pray briefly, and he closed his eyes and lowered his head, and I recited the shehecheyanu, a Jewish prayer for special moments. I felt he showed me great honor in that moment by respecting me and my prayer. I was very impressed that he could meet so many people that day, and yet still have such a personal interaction.”

In the next days, participants were invited to take part in the workshop on antisemitism and countering hate speech with Melissa Sonnino, Facing Facts Coordinator at A Jewish Contribution to an Inclusive Europe – CEJI. The Russell Berrie Fellows and JPII Leaders learned and reflected on the concept of hate speech and its conceptual differences (legal/illegal/harmful); understood how old myths and conspiracy theories about Jews were recycled today; and worked on the possible actions to overcome antisemitic hate speech in their sphere of influence. Fr. Mak Caesar Abagna from Ghana pointed out, “It is the absolute joy of knowing that other people, though totally different from you on two essential things, language and religion, share your vision and dreams. We have something in common, which is dialogue as the way to peace.”

Many of the JPII Leaders presented their vision of dialogue and interfaith engagement during workshops they offered to a diverse audience. Sr. Gracy Joseph Vadakara from India and Gianluca Avanzato from the USA spoke about living interreligious dialogue in today’s world taking insights from the living Catholic tradition. Fr. Michael Ufok Udoekpo (Nigeria), Fr. Mak Caesar Abagna (Ghana), and McKenzie Flowers Fergus (USA) offered practical examples of interreligious relations from the Ghanian and Nigerian contexts. McKenzie shares, “The Russell Berrie Fellows and I took a journey across the theological divide to gain an understanding of interreligious dialogue. Our conception of religious studies particularly presented many valuable insights. The leaders cultivated their skills by learning to face hate speech, upholding tolerance, as well as promoting peace building, among other things.”

Emily Judd and Peter Dziedzic from the USA presented a workshop “From the Grassroots to Institutions: Experiences and Tips in the Field of Christian-Muslim Dialogue” to PISAI students, by sharing their experience of scholarly and practical encountering the Arab world. Presenting his genuine opinion on the May Event, Fr. Humphrey Udechukwu from Nigeria stresses, “It offered me an opportunity to appreciate our common humanity as I saw people from different religious backgrounds engage in an admirable koinonia. The world can only be a better place when we love ourselves as children of God, irrespective of our religious affiliations.”

Besides academic meetings and non-formal sessions, the JPII Leaders took time for leisure and spiritual activities. For instance, they visited Villa Borghese, a worldwide famous art museum in Rome with exceptional masterpieces. Also, they participated in the Holy Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica celebrated by Fr. Norbert Lis, a Russell Berrie Fellow from Poland, and co-celebrated by other JPII Leaders

Speaking of the May Event, Fr. Richard Babao indicates, “The event made me realize that now I have a family in Rome. The inspiration and passion to do interfaith work was truly strengthened, and it fueled me to do more activities back in the Philippines.” Bogdana Katarzhuk from Ukraine shares this vision by saying, “Without exaggeration, the alumni meeting warmed me up. When I returned from Ukraine a few days before the May event, I honestly did not know how I would feel when I got back into a peaceful academic environment after the atrocities of the war I had faced in my homeland. But meeting my colleagues from around the world and listening to the impressive cases of interreligious work was a true healing to my soul.”

Finally, Peter Dziedzic summarizes his experience in Rome, “This gathering offered a humbling and exciting opportunity to draw on the collective energy, insights, and experiences of over ten years of Russell Berrie alumni. For me, the most fulfilling element of our time together was reconnecting with old friends in the program while meeting new alumni with similar interests and goals, all while brainstorming for future projects and initiatives in interreligious dialogue. As we begin to pivot towards more fully developing the JPII Leadership Network, I look forward to what the next ten years bring.”