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 CNS Story:

TEDX-ROME Apr-19-2013 (980 words) With photos to come. xxxi

Papal stargazer, graffiti artist, rabbi hit stage for religious rights

By Carol Glatz
Catholic News Service

ROME (CNS) -- A Kuwaiti princess, a Jesuit astronomer, a British-born rabbi, a former NBA star, a Muslim graffiti artist and the Cuban-American singing sensation Gloria Estefan all took the stage at a Rome concert hall not far from St. Peter's Square.

They were among the more than 20 speakers who each talked in turn to a nearly full auditorium for a TEDx conference dedicated to religious freedom in the world today.

"Since we're truly in a situation of danger of fundamentalism" with religious restrictions and hostilities growing globally, "I thought this could be a service for all of humanity," said Legionary Father Hector Guerra, who organized the April 19 event.

The key, he said, was turning what could have been an ordinary conference confined to those in attendance into a series of so-called "TED talks," which have a global audience.

The nonprofit TED conferences were started in 1984 to bring people together from the worlds of "Technology, Entertainment, Design," hence the series' acronym.

Today, TED events encompass a number of topics, but they entail a consistent format of filming a speaker who's on stage before a live audience. The speaker has 18 minutes or less to deliver an engaging, often personal talk about "ideas worth spreading," according to the TED website.

TEDx conferences, such as the one organized by Father Guerra, share the same mission but are independently organized on the local level.

Every TED event turns into a global lecture that's given a prominent place online on the popular TED websites and its YouTube channels. The April 19 event is online at www.tedxviadellaconciliazione.com.

Father Guerra told Catholic News Service that when he discovered TED, he knew he had to take advantage of its unique medium as a new way to present the Christian message of peace and tolerance.

It took him more than a year to drum up the funding and find the speakers.

The state of religious liberty was given an overview by global researcher Brian J. Grim of the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion and Public Life.

He said gathering precise data on government restrictions and hostile acts by individuals can act as "an early warning system of mass atrocities and genocides" that may be brewing.

While his data collection is like "a thermometer" that only measures and "doesn't diagnose or treat," he believes the facts can help decision-makers who are in the position to make a difference.

Rabbi David Rosen, director of interreligious affairs at the American Jewish Committee, said religion is abused, and it would be a mistake to crack down on people's religious beliefs or identity in response to religiously motivated violence or intolerance.

Cultural, national and especially religious identities are essential parts of the human person, he said.

"You turn to your identity for support, succor, self-confidence, assurance and self-justification," especially in times of trouble, Rabbi Rosen said.

The problem is when that support system morphs into a motivation for self-righteousness that "deprecates, despises or demonizes the other," he said.

Both Grim and Rabbi Rosen talked of the growing number of positive, cooperative initiatives in the world that deserve greater media attention.

Religious identity needs to be seen "as a blessing, not a source of a curse," the rabbi said, and "we need to see our differences not as something to denigrate, but as something to celebrate."

Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, a papal astronomer, showed people how his Jesuit collar and school ring from his alma mater, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, offered living proof that a person could be "both a fanatic and a nerd. I'm fanatic about science and a nerd for my church," he said to laughter.

While science works with man-made theories about how the world works, religion -- conversely -- starts with divine truth about the whys of the world, he said. Both religion and science observe the natural world, "but then they proceed with blind faith" because scientists and believers never have all the information they need to be absolutely certain.

Science and religion are "on the same road going in different directions" and they are both worshipping the same God, the God of truth, he said.

British graffiti artist Mohammed Ali said humanity has always used art to communicate ideas and messages to the world -- everywhere from the spray painted scenes on New York City subways to the frescoed underground catacombs in Rome.

People today need to "find new ways of communicating and connecting, something our authorities fail to do," he said.

Instead of talking about religious freedom, Ali said he wanted to paint a picture of it to give as a gift to Pope Francis.

With the flourish and flair of a musical conductor, Ali sprayed aerosol paint cans, swept brush strokes and slapped a paint-soaked board against a dark gray makeshift wall turning it into a piece of art. The words "freedom" in English and Arabic appeared before a city of basilicas and minarets under a rose-colored sky.

Estefan didn't sing, but she talked about how, even though she was raised Catholic, music had always been her "religion," giving her strength and healing in hard times.

"Artists have a unique opportunity and privilege to influence people in either a positive or negative way," she said.

She has always been aware of that responsibility, Estefan said, so she made sure her music could help people, empower them, give hard-to-express feelings a voice or give people a chance to forget their problems for a bit and have fun.

Father Guerra said he wants to organize another TEDx talk "in this spirit of new evangelization."

He said he wants to help scientists, artists, sports stars and experts "be the new evangelizers" who can highlight the "cultural reflection of universal human values" like respect, peace and religious freedom.

The lineup included Sheikha Hussah Sabah al-Salem al-Sabah, princess of Kuwait, and former NBA basketball star, Serbian-born Vlade Divac.


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