If you want to know more about a super interesting and important Interreg project in the Upper Rhine region that deals not only with religious matters but also with fundamental political and social issues you should keep reading. I had the chance to interview the project managers Jörg Röder and Dr. Beate Bengard of the project INTERRELIGIO and ask them a few questions about Interreg, their project and the importance of solidarity.

Books at the University of Strasbourg

Dr. Beate Bengard is a theologian and works on the project Interreligio, of which she is in charge if the scientific research in the field of interreligious dialogue.

Jörg Röder is a theologian as well, his focus on New Testament studies. He is the project manager for the project Interreligio and he is responsible for the organizational part.

How did you find out about Interreg? What is Interreg?

Dr. Beate Bengard: In the first place Interreg is a program of the EU which supports projects that are located in border regions. Thanks to Interreg, different European countries work together in one region, as it is the case here in the Upper-Rhine region. For us, Interreg is a really important structure because ultimately Interreg provides financial resources through which various projects can be realized. Our interreligious dialogue project is called Interreligio and is a project within the Interreg V program. That means that it is already the fifth program that the EU supports which shows that projects like this one are good.

Jörg Röder: Maybe we can say that Interreg makes the European Union, the vast regions of Europe, more regional and promotes regional issues, regional projects, simply supports regions like the Upper-Rhine. Let it be economically speaking, or socially speaking or like for us scientifically speaking. That is also a great thing for Switzerland. Switzerland is not part of the EU, but it is part of Interreg, part of the Upper-Rhine region and therefore is it a great chance for it to work together with the partners of our project.

What is the project "Interreligio" about?

Jörg Röder: The title already tells us what the project is about. It is about communication and understanding of different religious communities, that is really important for us, and that this communication does not only happen on the social level and sphere where there are already many interreligious dialog initiatives, but especially on the scientific level. We deal with questions like "What is a scripture and how do you interpret it?", "What is god for us?", "What is the status of religion and theology?", "What does that even mean?". All that on a scientific level and all the different religious communities like Christendom, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism are part of the project and disclose their scientific perspectives. A project like this does not yet exist anywhere else in Europe.

Dr. Beate Bengard: The special aspect of the project is that it works in the interreligious context but also in the international context. In our case, it works on a tri-national basis, Switzerland, France and Germany. As Jörg already said, we try to reflect the process of interreligious rapprochement on the academic level. That means we accompany that process step by step. An important part of the project consists of building two new master programs. The master programs are directed towards people that are already active in those processes and that wish for further training, or towards young people that can imagine to study a full master program about the interreligious dialog.

What is the state of affairs of the project?

Dr. Beate Bengard: We made good progress, our continuing education program, the certificate of advanced studies at the University of Basel, starts in September 2018 and we are expecting the first applications soon. The European master study program is course of preparation at the moment and will be launched next winter semester in 2019. In addition, several working groups have already meet. There are 3 working groups within the project. One about religion at university, that one is particularly interested in how religion is scientifically reflected in different countries. Maybe you know that this works very different in France than in Germany and Switzerland. Another group deals with the basics of interfaith, organized by the Universities of Basel and Heidelberg, in particular the University of Heidelberg. And the group we especially care for is a group for the hermeneutics of sacred writings. We work together with colleagues from the University of Tübingen, especially with the Center for Islamic Theology.

Dr. Beate Bengard and Jörg Röder

Why is it so important that the project operates beyond borders?

Jörg Röder: We just gathered what was already there in the Upper-Rhine region. Although the region is partly a rural region we have the great luck that we have various theological centers, universities, departments that have all what you need for the interreligious dialog in each country. We have all the religious communities represented in the different countries and to accompany that scientifically you need especially those different perspectives. And we are lucky, I think there is not one region in Europa where all those aspects are in so close proximity in order to realize a project like this.

Did the political and social development in some of the EU Member States play a role for the development of the project?

Jörg Röder: Yes.. the idea of the project was born in Strasbourg. Social problems and social tensions are strong there, especially in the coexisting or non-coexisting of various religious communities. That was the occasion to act, for example in terms of extremism, which played a great role because it is from utmost importance to reappraise where religion is misused for extremist matters. That was one of the reasons for the realization of the project. In addition, we want the faculties of science to help realize the successful coexistence of different religions, and therefore, the very current political development plays an integral part.

Dr. Beate Bengard: It was really remarkable that the initiative for the project, which came from Strasbourg, did not come from the theologians but from the social scientists. It was the lawyers and the sociologists who acknowledged those problems that Jörg mentioned earlier like radicalization and parallel societies, and who have said it also requires theological expertise to investigate and act on this together. That’s why we also work interdisciplinary in the project and very much incorporate the perspectives of the social sciences.

Does the project contribute to the integration of recently arrived members of other religions which have gained more importance today in the region?

Jörg Röder: I'm convinced of that because it is about the fact that extremist tendencies often arise through lack of knowledge. Religion is being instrumentalized in order to achieve a political objective. And those ones who tend towards a certain extreme direction know their own religion in the rarest cases really accurately and this applies not only for Islam but also for all other religious communities. Here, it is important that one acknowledges the different positions the religious communities have towards certain topics and that you try to understand that collectively. It's not just about research collaboration and writing clever books that we can publish that are only read in the scientific context. That’s why we plan to create an interreligious studies master program, so that one can study this in depth and carry it on to the religious communities, the church congregations and the society. That’s how one can contribute and to help others to acquire greater knowledge and competence in religious matters and finally also to boost integration. We fell assured that the project will be successful.

Dr. Beate Bengard: I have to specify that we do not directly boost integration but in any case we boost indirect integration, which is really important. We are in the position to provide training for multipliers, we are passing on competences on how the interreligious dialog can be implemented. Of course, it would be a wonderful project if we could say we reach the people that are most skeptic about the interreligious dialog. But this is maybe not necessarily the target group that we can reach, even if we would wish for that, but we reach those people that are already positively inclined towards the interreligious dialog and who wish for some strengthening of their positions. And there we can assist. And later on, those people will effectively contribute that the interreligious dialog takes a step forward and helps in the process of integration.

Jörg Röder: I think its also about familiarization. It is really about engaging in different positions, to get to know and to understand them, before just rejecting them. That's what it is about. And that to promote understanding, exchange ideas and to get to know each other.

Solidarity, cooperation and social engagement are core values of the EU. The EU aims at boosting those EU values especially among young Europeans. Does the project enhance more solidarity in the Upper-Rhine region?

Jörg Röder: Yes, this can be the effect if I show understanding towards my counterpart, also in his religious belief, then I show solidarity within my group but also within his religious community. Then I just know why certain opinions evolve and I can understand them better and can show solidarity, or at least contribute to a compromise.

Dr. Beate Bengard: Even in its structure, the project already stands for solidarity and cooperation. We are dependent to cooperate with our partners in Germany and France, and this is an experience we are having at the moment in which the structures of the program are slowly evolving and the development of the curriculum is making progress by working hand in hand. It needs lots of willingness to compromise and at the same time solidarity and cooperation. And I think if we provide this now on the level of the scientific groundwork, it will reflect in the course of studies and even beyond that. The whole project is pervaded by this values and it will contribute to strengthen those values even more in the long term.

Jörg Röder: If you look at the Swiss 'Röstigraben' (a humorous term describing the cultural differences between, on one side, the German-speaking Switzerland and, on the other, the French-speaking parts), than you realize it is already difficult to communicate within the borders of Switzerland. And now we have Swiss, French and Germans sitting on one table. This is already difficult enough but on top of that you have the different religions. Consequently, this is true-life solidarity in this project.

Dr. Beate Bengard: It is about approaching each other, and in this matter we are still learning.

Last question: Interreg in 3 words?

Dr. Beate Bengard: Interreg? Let's say Interreligio in 3 words! Cross border cooperation, that's really important. Openness to dialog. And for us I think confidence in an internationalized teaching, thus, internationalization of the teaching. That is crucial and is very much supported by the project. In that manner, our project is a forerunner.

Jörg Röder: Keywords related to life: actively lived Europe, actively lived interreligious dialog and actively lived cooperation!

Interview by Felicitas Krebs

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