In Monreale, Sicily, Ambassador Ahmed and the Journey into Europe team visited the famous Monreale Cathedral, one of the great cathedrals of Europe. The cathedral, built by the Norman-Sicilian King William II in the 12th century, is notable for the extensive Islamic influence in its art and architecture. This union of different influences reflects the Norman-Sicilian vision of a multicultural and multi-religious society with Catholic and Orthodox Christians, Muslims, and Jews living together. This spirit can still be seen today, with the Italians saving 1300 immigrants from the sea just before the Monreale Cathedral visit and Monreale artisans expressing how unhappy they were with the violence in the Middle East which they said was destroying the rich artistic legacy of that region.
In the cathedral, the team was fortunate to meet Sister Francisca from Argentina and Sister Maria Jose from Chile, both of the Order of Our Lady of Loreto, who shared their deep knowledge of the cathedral, its history, and the different artistic and cultural traditions reflected in it. In their gentleness, kindness, and commitment to interfaith relations, they reflected the best of Christianity. Two of the team members, Dr. Amineh Hoti and Zeenat Ahmed, were especially delighted to meet the sisters as they were educated by Catholic nuns at the Convent of Jesus and Mary in Pakistan, famous for producing prominent figures such as former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. As 2014 ends, let us learn of love and compassion from these two South American sisters.
In Marseille, France, Ambassador Ahmed, Harrison Akins, and Frankie Martin met with Mr. Salah Bariki, Charge de Mission in the Cabinet of the Mayor of Marseille. Of Algerian descent, Mr. Bariki is the first and only Muslim to serve in the Mayor’s cabinet. Mr. Bariki is in charge of relations between the Mayor’s office and the minority communities, especially the Muslim community, in Marseille and heads the Mayor’s interfaith initiatives. In Mr. Bariki’s office, Ambassador Ahmed also met the president of the Jewish Association of PACA (Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur), Mr. Clement Yana, to discuss Jewish-Muslim relations in Marseille.
Mr. Bariki also oversees the proposed mosque project for the Marseille government. In his office, Mr. Bariki showed Ambassador Ahmed the plans for mosque. The mosque project is an important project for Marseille and its Muslim community because there are 300,000 Muslims in the city, largely from former French colonies in North Africa, yet with no official mosque. This mosque would be the first purpose-built mosque in Marseille and would be constructed on land allotted by the government. Following the meeting in his office, Mr. Bariki invited members of Ambassador Ahmed’s team to visit the mosque site.
The Journey into Europe team recently arrived in Palermo, Sicily in time for Christmas, where they celebrated Christmas Mass at the historic Palermo Cathedral. Originally constructed in the 12th century on the site of a former mosque, it is the largest church in Sicily. The team has a busy schedule in Palermo with several important interviews already confirmed which include the Mayor and Chief of Police in Palermo, They are also scheduled to meet the president of the Muslim Association in Sicily, based in Catania on the eastern coast of Sicily.
In Marseille, Ambassador Ahmed visited the Monument to the Heroes of the Army of the Orient and Distant Lands standing on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. The Monument was erected in 1927 to the memories of soldiers from the French colonies, especially Muslims from North Africa, who fought for France during World War I. At the Monument, Ambassador Ahmed discusses the Muslim community of Marseille and the colonial legacy of France.
The Journey into Europe team recently arrived in Marseille, France where Dr. Amineh Hoti sat down with Messaouda Akacha, a social activist in the Muslim community who interacts with the media in order to improve relations between communities. Having just finished her master’s degree, she is interested in further studies and continuing her work in interfaith dialogue. Messaouda discussed her Algerian background, the Muslim community in Marseille, and the challenges Muslims face in France.
Marseille, the second city of France, is the major port in southern France lying on the Mediterranean Sea. It has a storied role in French history, with volunteers from Marseille in the French Revolution coining the French national anthem, Le Marseillasse. This ancient city has had a long history of immigration to its shores, especially from former French colonies. Currently, there are roughly 300,000 Muslims living in Marseille, largely from North Africa, which makes them over 30% of the population of the city.
Dr. Amineh Hoti of the Journey into Europe team was privileged to sit down with Ms. Sanila Rana, a Big Data Sales Executive at IBM Denmark and founder of the organization Multikulturelle Erhverskvinder. She is one of the senior-most executives at IBM with an immigrant background. Born in Denmark to immigrant parents from Pakistan, Ms. Rana founded the organization Multikulturelle Erhverskvinder in order tostrengthen the career opportunities for multicultural women in the Danish business community and to establish a relationship between Danish companies and multicultural businesswomen.
During the interview, Ms. Rana discussed her perspective on Danish identity, her own experiences growing up with a Pakistani background in Denmark, and how to improve relations between different communities.
Ambassador Ahmed visited the Little Mermaid statue in Copenhagen where he discussed the issues relating to Islam in Denmark, including the controversial publication of the cartoons depicting the Prophet of Islam in 2005.
The Little Mermaid statue is one of the iconic symbols and major tourist destinations of Denmark. It was unveiled in 1913 and depicts the main character of the famous tale by the Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen.
While in Copenhagen, Ambassador Ahmed, Dr. Amineh Hoti, and Harrison Akins visited Rabbi Bent Melchior, the former Chief Rabbi of Denmark, at his home in order to discuss the Jewish and Muslim communities of Denmark.
Rabbi Melchior is descended from a long line of rabbis and became Chief Rabbi of Denmark in 1969, succeeding his father who served as Chief Rabbi from 1947 to 1969. Rabbi Melchior has been very involved in bringing the different faith communities together both in Denmark and internationally. Since 1999, he has been Honorary Life President of B’nai B’rith Europe as well as being involved in numerous other international organizations.
During the interview, Rabbi Melchior discussed the history of the Jewish community in Denmark, his experiences in World War 2 during which the Danish people saved the vast majority of the Danish Jewish population from the Nazi concentration camps, the lessons the Jewish community learned in integrating in Denmark, and what he sees as the essence of Judaism.
The Journey into Europe team recently arrived in Copenhagen, Denmark where the visit was launched with a lecture on the Journey into Europe project by Ambassador Akbar Ahmed at the University of Copenhagen.
The lecture was sponsored by Professor Ehab Galal of the Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies and the Forum for Islam Research at the University of Copenhagen. The audience was at capacity in a packed room in spite of the freezing rain and end of semester exams. There were many distinguished guests in the audience–Ambassador Masroor Junejo, the Pakistani Ambassador to Denmark; Rabbi Bent Melchior, the former Chief Rabbi of Denmark; and many other prominent professors and leaders in the Muslim community.
While in Copenhagen, the Journey into Europe team has a very hectic and exciting schedule, meeting with leaders of the various faith communities in Denmark, interviewing other prominent members of Danish society, and visiting with the Muslim community in their mosques and homes in order to better understand Danish society and culture and the experiences of Muslims in this Scandinavian country.