The winners of the 2017 King Abdullah II World Interfaith Harmony Week Prize with King Abdullah, centre, at Al Husseiniya Palace in Amman, Jordan. (photo from worldinterfaithharmonyweek.com)
On April 30, the leaders of the Calgary Interfaith Council were in Amman, Jordan, to receive the 2017 King Abdullah Award for World Interfaith Harmony’s first prize from the king himself.
The council’s co-chairs – Rabbi Shaul Osadchey of Beth Tzedec Congregation, Debra Faulk of the Unitarian Church of Calgary and Imam Fayaz Tilley, a chaplain at the University of Calgary and board member of the Muslim Council of Calgary – were invited to attend the ceremony at the Royal Hashemite Palace. They were presented with the award by King Abdullah II. It included a cheque for $25,000 US to put toward their continuing work in Calgary.
Osadchey described the experience as “memorable, momentous, impactful.”
“The Calgary Interfaith Council (CIC) was reconstituted in February as part of the launch of the United Nations World Interfaith Harmony Week program,” Osadchey told the Independent. “The CIC is now the amalgamated body of five or six other smaller interfaith organizations in Calgary. It was launched as the central voice of the interfaith community here, so we decided to première that with the United Nations World Interfaith Harmony Week.
“We organized a week of programs that highlighted interfaith cooperation and strength of the community. We did a program that began with an opening ceremony at city hall. The mayor had issued a proclamation for the city that designated the week of Feb. 1st to the 7th as UN World Interfaith Harmony Week in Calgary, and he personally came and spoke.”
They had 15 different religious communities involved in the festivities, which included interfaith breakfasts, a weekend open house, and people were welcomed into various congregations for workshops and tours. There were also two “build days,” where participants volunteered to build a house with Habitat for Humanity.
“We raised $15,000 for the Habitat project,” said Osadchey. “It was a program with depth.”
The Calgary Interfaith Council submitted what they did to the website that oversees the worldwide program of activities, said Osadchey. “There were over 1,000 events worldwide and we were selected as the outstanding program for 2017 and won first prize, the gold medal. What that meant was that they asked us to send three representatives to receive the award in Jordan, along with the second- and third-place winners – the second-place winners were from Bosnia and the third-place winners were from London, England. We were flown to Jordan and spent three days there.”
According to the prize’s press release, the International Forum Bosnia’s Centre for Interfaith Dialogue was honoured “for their efforts toward dialogue and cooperation among ethnic and religious groups in Bosnia and Herzegovina” and the London-based nonprofit PL84U Al Suffa for “providing meals and services to the homeless, elderly and others in need in an atmosphere of interfaith respect and cooperation.”
At the Sunday morning awards ceremony, both King Abdullah II and Prince Ghazi ibn Muhammad were in attendance, with the latter giving a talk. Osadchey was asked to give a three-minute speech on behalf of the winning delegation.
Osadchey was the first Jew and rabbi to be part of one of the award ceremonies. “They were very respectful, very interested and engaged in the conversation about Judaism and about the Jewish experience in the interfaith arena,” he said. “Both the king and the prince were pleased to have me as a delegate and acknowledged that the interfaith dimension of the program had taken a significant expansion by having Jews included.
“I was looking forward to being able to convey some comments to the king. I began by reciting the brachah [blessing] that is said when you’re in the presence of the king or head of state. I recited it to the king in Hebrew and then translated it into English. And my comments were about how religious literacy is a necessary component for creating interfaith harmony.
“I suggested to the king that the World Interfaith Harmony Initiative develop a youth component that would focus on religious literacy among the youth of the world. And, when I received the medal from him and we had a few moments to exchange some words, he asked me to follow up on that proposal, as did the prince.”
Osadchey said he is in the process of writing a proposal to create this youth component, and added that he is looking forward to running a youth interfaith harmony week in Calgary. He hopes that others will use his model and do likewise in their communities.
“I think it’s important that not only adult leaders engage in creating relationships, but that we begin developing those among the next generation,” he said. “If we can do that, then the road to true harmony will be a lot easier to create.”
Since the world interfaith award was created in 2010, said Osadchey, there have been two other Canadian cities that have won awards – Toronto and Halifax, both achieving third place in their respective years.
The Calgary Interfaith Council is hoping to inspire a national designation of Feb. 1-7 as World Interfaith Harmony Week across the country and to bring other Canadian cities and communities into the picture. They are starting with their home province, encouraging their leaders to issue a proclamation designating it throughout Alberta. “We’re pretty close to getting that done,” said Osadchey. “Then, we’ve got an MP that’s working in Ottawa to do the same.”
Osadchey returned from Jordan full of hope and was impressed by the respect, interest and welcoming response of the Jordanian people he encountered. Nonetheless, he thought that, while interfaith activity might take place among the upper echelons of Jordanian society, he suspected that the general population is likely not as open or accepting. “That would have to do with probably lower levels of literacy, education, just in general,” he said.
He added, “The fact that their neighbour is Israel – and even though they have a fairly good relationship with Israel – it is still tinged with the Palestinian issue as well. I don’t think the ‘man on the street’ really cares about interfaith relationships in Jordan, but the leadership and the king certainly are trying to push the country more toward an acceptance of that.”
In Jordan, dialogue is mainly with the Christian world and does not seem to have any links with the Jewish world, but Osadchey is hopeful it may happen as a consequence of his visit.
“We’ll see how that takes place, but they’re reaching out,” he said. “The fact that the king of Jordan is the one responsible for this initiative…. They are trying to project a different image internationally.
“It’s really been very positive…. It’s had a positive effect on the Calgary community, both Jewish and non-Jewish, seeing this as a great recognition of our efforts in the interfaith community. It’s garnered a lot of recognition locally and spurred people to get more involved in our program, so that’s been a really positive benefit.”
For more information and to see more photos from the ceremony in Jordan, visit worldinterfaithharmonyweek.com/2017-prize-awarding-ceremony.
Rebeca Kuropatwa is a Winnipeg freelance writer.