Victor, Josselin, Samuel, Ilan and Ismael are atheist, agnostic, Christian, Jewish and Muslim, in that order. With religious tolerance in mind, the five twenty-something French students, decided to travel across the world from July 2013 to June 2014 for their Interfaith Tour. The goal? To raise awareness of the many interfaith projects already out there making a difference.
In French-language interviews with Global Voices, the group offered details on the project and described their experiences along the way.
Global Voices (GV): After your journey around the world, you have now begun a tour of France to share your experiences. How has the project been received in France so far?
Victor (atheist): The tour was well received in France, better than we imagined. People in France are interested in inter-religious topics and the international component that we provided. Many people come to see us at the end of our talk to thank us, they were moved by the work we achieved during this tour and the hope it gives them. The impact in the media was also quite impressive. A French daily newspaper called us to tell us that the article about our trip on their Facebook page was the most shared and commented of the past two years, ahead of articles about Barack Obama or François Hollande.
GV: Long trips and close quarters with others often lead to self-introspection and additional personal changes. Has your view of your faith evolved during the trip? If so, how?
Josselin (agnostic): My faith has not changed, although it has been questioned at times. Because of my particular belief, agnostic, within the scope of the project, people often believed that I was looking for a religion to adopt, but it was not like that at all. The tour, in fact, strengthened my agnosticism because I believe in God, or in this case the being I call God, without seeing myself belonging to any religion or current religious practices. After this trip, I am even more convinced that we all have the same God and that for instance, Christians and Muslims simply take different paths to reach God.
Samuel (Christian): My Christian faith is always evolving because it is a relationship. It changes, mutates, evolves. Traveling around the world is always an opportunity for internal change. I have not been subjected to too much radical questioning with the exception of three months in Asia from December to February, from Mumbai to Jakarta to Tokyo, Beijing and Kuala Lumpur. This region is a desert of Christian communities and it can be difficult not to feel alone. These are great moments of poverty that allowed me to root my faith in the good soil, which does not require a favorable context to bear fruit.
Ilan (Jewish): The Torah says “VéAhavta IreHa KamoHa” (Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself). This command is the foundation of life in society and it has guided me throughout the tour. The constant back and forth between our inner-selves and others has fed my life experiences. Through encounters with the Other, I reinforced my sense of belonging to the Jewish community, its unique history and its universal values. The trip has definitely “converted” me to this brotherhood but I never forgot who I am and where I come from. This dual action – self-doubt and identity reinforcement – seems fundamental to me when we project ourselves when we meet other people. This action is independent of how beautiful and rewarding the meetings with others are.
Ismael (Muslim): I am not sure if I’d say that my faith has evolved, but one thing is for sure: This trip has opened my world much more than I thought. We often talked about inter-religious themes during this tour and during my two years as a member of the Coexist Association. As a Muslim, I was always happy to work with people of different faiths. However, with people in my own community, and by that I mean Muslims from other denominations than Sunnis, I was not as open and a bit suspicious. During this tour, I had the opportunity to see how the global Muslim community was divided and how urgent it was for me to get involved in both the intra-religious and the inter-religious aspect of our work. But I have hope that we can do better because I will always remember that day after a Friday prayer at the great mosques of Muscat in Oman when I unknowingly prayed next to an Ibadi and a Shiite by my side. That day reinforced my belief that when we want to live together, we can always find people willing to help us in that endeavor.
Victor: I was strengthened in my vision of the world, but also in the belief that it is necessary to start a conversation not just between believers, but also with non-believers, humanists and eventually, the whole world. In France, one-third of the population are believers, one-third are non-believers and the final one-third are agnostics. Therefore, inter-religious conversation is our tool for social cohesion and we need to discuss with everyone. I am reinforced in my approach to the world when I am in contact with others. This is what we call the mirror effect. Furthermore, we have managed to identify the line between affirming our identity and being open to otherness. This is what we call Active Coexistence and it is at the heart of the message of the COEXIST association.
GV: Five different denominations but no woman in the group. Was it a deliberate choice or simply how things turned out?
Victor: The original team had a young Jewish woman named Raffaëla. She worked with us for a few months on preparing the project but unfortunately she left a month before we begun the tour out of fear and, it must be said, because of family pressure. Having no women in the team is not a deliberate choice, it was just something that happened and we tried as best we could to remedy this situation by inviting young women from the CoExist association of different faiths (an atheistic in Berlin, a Christian in Turkey, a Buddhist in India, a Muslim in Singapore and Jakarta).
GV: During the trip, you had the opportunity to meet with Pope Francis, the Grand Imam of the Al-Azhar mosque in Cairo and top level politicians including Laurent Fabius, the French minister of foreign affairs. In total, several hundred people, religious leaders and local figures of inter-religious dialogue. Which one had an important impact on you?
Victor: The meeting with the Pope was obviously one of the highlights of this tour, even for the atheists or agnostics. Meeting for 10 minutes the man with the most media coverage worldwide and the top authority in one of the largest religions is necessarily very impressive and emotional. Meeting religious and political leaders is extremely important for us to know what they think regarding some inter-religious topics and to what extent they are willing to engage in this topic. Still, it should also be clear that the people we really wanted to meet during this trip were common folks who nonetheless worked for years towards peace and reconciliation between communities.
GV: What region has had the most significant impact on the project?
Victor: Dozens of regions in the world have been outstanding in our opinion during this world tour, and it is not easy to choose a specific one, but Burkina Faso remains one of the most striking countries in my view. While its neighbors such as Nigeria and Mali are experiencing religious or ethnic tensions, Burkina Faso is an exception in West Africa regarding social cohesion and togetherness. Christians, Muslims and animists live in perfect harmony thanks to a century-old tradition of “humorous relationship”. In short, this tradition strives to create social bonds through inter-ethnic and inter-religious marriage and defusing social tensions through laughter. People who tell ethnic jokes to one another are also linked through ethnic marriages. In the same family in Burkina Faso, you can find several religions that coexist and live together peacefully. Humor also means expressing stereotypes about each other vocally, to say what we think and in doing so, defuse tensions or frustrations throughout all the layers of the populations.
GV: Pope Francis brings a fairly modern vision of Catholicism. According to you, who are the religious leaders of other monotheistic religions also offering a modern vision of their faith?
Victor: The Grand Imam of Al-Azhar also provides a similar view of Islam and he urges Muslims to actively coexist with other religions. But lesser known leaders such as the Chief Rabbi of Poland or the Maronite Patriarch of Lebanon are leading figures in inter-religious dialogue and action.
This article was initially published at globalvoices