Com­pan­ions live to­gether, on and off the road

A French or­ga­ni­za­tion tours the world in search of so­lu­tions to the is­sues of in­terreli­gious re­la­tions

The China Post - - COMMENTARY - BY JAKE CIGAINERO

Two years ago, Sa­muel Gry­bowski and three travel com­pan­ions ar­rived in Nagoya, Ja­pan, feel­ing tired, dirty, and in need of a bit of alone time — a rare lux­ury dur­ing their year to­gether on the road. “We were al­ways one on top of another, there was re­ally no mo­ment when we could be alone other than in the shower,” he said. So it was a shock when they learned they’d be bathing in a tra­di­tional public bath with about 200 other men. Gry­bowski re­called, “It was kind of em­bar­rass­ing.”

When Gry­bowski cre­ated an or­ga­ni­za­tion de­voted to help­ing peo­ple of dif­fer­ent re­li­gions learn to live to­gether, com­mu­nal bathing was not part of his plan. The young French­man founded Coex­is­ter (“Liv­ing To­gether”) in 2009 at age 16 af­ter the con­flict be­tween Is­raelis and Pales­tini­ans started to heat up again.

Since then, the group has con­ducted cul­tural ex­change events and com­mu­nity projects. Its big­gest un­der­tak­ing has been its am­bi­tious In­ter­Faith Tour, a jour­ney around the globe to dis­cover how or­ga­ni­za­tions in other coun­tries de­velop pos­i­tive re­la­tions be­tween dif­fer­ent re­li­gious com­mu­ni­ties. The first tour took place in 2013. This July, a new group con­sist­ing of a Mus­lim, a Jew, a Chris­tian and an athe­ist will start off on the sec­ond one.

Re­li­gious iden­tity has long been a pres­sure point of so­ci­etal ten­sions. Vic­tor Grezes, another mem­ber of the first tour, says that his home coun­try has dif­fi­culty con­fronting these is­sues. They re­cently came to a head when ter­ror­ists in Paris at­tacked the satir­i­cal news­pa­per Char­lie Hebdo and a Jewish gro­cery store.

“The prob­lem in France to­day is that peo­ple be­lieve unity can only ex­ist be­tween peo­ple who look and act the same,” said Grezes. “But we are deal­ing with di­ver­sity. Ei­ther we try to make ev­ery­one the same, or we re­al­ize the po­ten­tial of di­ver­sity and build unity based upon it.” Fol­low­ing the Jan­uary at­tacks, Pres­i­dent Hol­lande asked the group for ad­vice on the word­ing for a press con­fer­ence.

The pur­pose of the tour, Grezes said, is not to spread a mes­sage around the world — “that would be pre­sump­tu­ous.” Rather, the aim is to raise aware­ness about the breadth of in­ter­faith ini­tia­tives, as well as to con­nect or­ga­ni­za­tions, en­abling them to share ideas and best prac­tices that pro­mote tol­er­ance and co­op­er­a­tion be­tween re­li­gious com­mu­ni­ties.

The first tour vis­ited 48 coun­tries in ten months, meet­ing 435 or­ga­ni­za­tions. This was fol­lowed by two months in France shar­ing their find­ings with schools and other or­ga­ni­za­tions. From those pre­sen­ta­tions, 10 ad­di­tional Coex­is­ter chap­ters were born, bring­ing the to­tal num­ber to 21 and grow­ing.

One of the ini­tia­tives that stood out from the de­but tour was an an­nual Ber­lin-based event called the Long Night of Re­li­gions, with around 100 places of wor­ship open­ing their doors to the public. In In­dia, the trav­el­ers learned about a sports tour­na­ment called “Cricket for Peace” to strengthen Mus­lim-Hindu re­la­tions. And in Buenos Aires, there was a bi­cy­cling route for re­li­gious dis­cov­ery.

Now Samir Akacha, Lea Fry­d­man, Ari­ane Julien and Lu­cie Neu­mann will fol­low in their pre­de­ces­sor’s foot­steps as In­ter­Faith Tour Team 2, with a 100,000 euro ( US$ 108,000) bud­get col­lected through fundrais­ing, French gov­ern­ment grants and var­i­ous or­ga­ni­za­tions (in­clud­ing Sparknews, who has been a Coex­is­ter part­ner since the first tour).

Although the sec­ond team will travel to only 30 coun­tries, it will spend more time at each stop, vis­it­ing new lo­ca­tions such as Azer­bai­jan and Tu­nisia. The in­forma- tion they col­lect will be archived at the Univer­sity of Vi­enna as part of an on­go­ing re­search part­ner­ship. The team will also pro­duce a mul­ti­me­dia Web doc­u­men­tary, and a mo­bile app will al­low users to fol­low the tour through live up­dates from the road.

The sole woman slated for the first tour’s team had to drop out, but this year the gen­der ta­bles have turned with three women and one man. And while trav­el­ing in strict Mus­lim so­ci­eties might seem chal­leng­ing for a mostly fe­male en­tourage, Akacha said it’s ac­tu­ally an ad­van­tage, as they will have ac­cess to tra­di­tional gath­er­ing places for women — such as pri­vate kitchens-that were off lim­its to the all-male group.

For Fry­d­man, a 20- year- old phi­los­o­phy stu­dent from Paris, the tour is as much a so­cial cause as a per­sonal iden­tity quest. “As a Jewish per­son, I’ve been shocked to see an­ti­semitism is present in France,” she said. “It has re­in­forced my con­vic­tion that what we are do­ing in Coex­is­ter is not only im­por­tant but nec­es­sary.”

Akacha said he ex­pects the tour to make his faith stronger through in­ter­ac­tions with other re­li­gions. “I would not be the same Mus­lim if I was just in my com­mu­nity, if I was not meet­ing Jews and Chris­tians, go­ing to Chris­tian gath­er­ings or syn­a­gogue events,” he said. “Peo­ple ask ques­tions, so I have to an­swer to de­fend my re­li­gion. I have to ques­tion it and learn more, so I be­come a bet­ter Mus­lim.”

Coex­is­ter’s ul­ti­mate goal is not only to en­cour­age a spirit of tol­er­ance among re­li­gious groups, but also to foster col­lab­o­ra­tion to build com­mu­ni­ties that value di­ver­sity.

“In­stead of say­ing de­spite our dif­fer­ences, we say it’s thanks to our dif­fer­ences that we are stronger,” said Grezes.

As­so­ci­a­tion Coex­is­ter/Corinne Si­mon

The first In­ter­Faith Tour team meets their suc­ces­sors, who will em­bark on the sec­ond In­ter­Faith world tour in July 2015. Vic­tor Grezes, Is­mael Med­j­doub, Lu­cie Neu­mann, Sa­muel Grzy­bowski, Ari­ane Julien, Samir Akacha.

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