Niwano Peace Prize goes to Mohammed Abu-Nimer, a Palestinian advocate for peace and interfaith dialogue

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Niwano Peace Prize goes to Mohammed Abu-Nimer, a Palestinian advocate for peace and interfaith dialogueThe 2024 Niwano Peace Prize, the “Nobel Prize for Religions" was given to a Sufi Muslim, who teaches at the American University in Washington, for his "holistic contribution to the cause of peace”. After the Hamas attack sparked Israel's war in Gaza, he renewed his work in recent months. Religious leaders must not allow themselves to be dragged into the "polarization", but ought instead to maintain a "prophetic voice" to promote justice.

Milan (AsiaNews) – The Niwano Foundation awarded the 41st edition of its much-coveted Peace Prize to Prof Mohammed Abu-Nimer, a Palestinian-American who has distinguished himself for his "holistic contribution to the cause of peace.”

A scholar and an active and committed person, he spent a life working for peace and interfaith dialogue, with involvement and dedication to his mission from his years of youth until today.

The award ceremony is set to be held on 14 May in Tokyo, Japan, and the chosen recipient highlights the importance of the commitment to dialogue and reconciliation in a region like the Holy Land, which is still the scene of wars and violence caused by religious, political, and social divisions.

The latter have deepened even more after the Hamas terrorist attack on 7 October in the heart of Israel, causing more 1,200 deaths, which led the Jewish state to unleash a bloody war in the Gaza Strip. In less than five months, the conflict has killed almost 30,000 people mostly civilians, especially women and children.

Islam, forgiving and reconciliation

In their motivation, Niwano Peace Prize Committee emphasises Abu-Nimer’s contribution to integrating “education with conflict resolution and peace-building activities, particularly through his profound understanding of forgiveness and reconciliation in Islam”.

His contribution is not only theoretical, but is applied "effectively in practice" and has greater significance today "in the light of the ongoing conflict" in his homelands, Israel and Palestine, where "one of the region’s most devastating wars” is taking place. That is why, the Committee notes, there is "no more fitting and timely recipient for this year's Niwano Peace Prize."

A Sufi Muslim of Palestinian origin, committed to dialogue between Jews and Muslims, Abu-Nimer teaches at the American University in Washington, DC.

He is the founder of the Salam Institute, based in the US capital, a non-profit organisation dedicated to research, education and practice of issues related to conflict resolution, non-violence, human rights, and development.

In its work, the institute pays particular attention to the "differences" between Islamic and non-Islamic communities, undertaking projects that embrace different cultures and faiths with a view to building peace, as well as sustainable and community development, particularly in Muslim-majority countries.

Originally from a village in northern Galilee, near Tiberias, home to Muslims, Christians, and Druze, he is the author, among others, of the first book on non-violence in Islam, a topic very dear to him, translated into five languages.

From a very young age he witnessed confessional and political conflicts that brutalised the Holy Land and that continue unresolved to this day.

Still in his 20s, he took part in a training course on dialogue that marked his future life and professional path, encouraging him to become personally committed to outreach and exchange between Muslims and Jews, Israelis and Palestinians, paying special attention to the areas of greatest conflict and tensions.

Since the 1990s, he has worked on Catholic-Protestant relations in Northern Ireland, Buddhist-Hindu relations in Sri Lanka, as well as Muslim-Christian relations in Mindanao (southern Philippines), the Balkans, and several African countries.

He was also one of the first to organise interfaith projects in Saudi Arabia and has worked extensively in several Arab countries, from Iraq and Syria to Lebanon and Jordan.

Nobel of religions

The Niwano Peace Prize honours Nikkyo Niwano, founder and first president of the Buddhist organisation Rissho Kosei-kai, universally recognised as the "Nobel Prize of religions".

The prize is intended to reward and encourage individuals and organisations that have made significant contributions to interfaith cooperation and the cause of world peace, making their achievements as widely known as possible.

The Foundation thus hopes to improve understanding and cooperation among members of different religions and encourage more people to dedicate themselves to the task, or rather "mission," of world peace.

The Niwano Peace Foundation was established in 1978 to contribute to the realisation of world peace and the enhancement of a culture of peace. It promotes research and other activities based on a religious spirit and serves the cause of peace in fields such as education, science, religion, and philosophy.

To avoid undue emphasis on a particular religion or region, each year the organisation calls for the nomination of persons of recognised intellectual and religious stature throughout the world.

Around 600 people and organisations representing 125 countries are involved in the nomination and selection process.

The first edition, in 1983, went to Brazilian Catholic Archbishop Hélder P. Câmara, followed over the years by the World Muslim Congress (1987), Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam (1993), Venerable Maha Ghosananda (1998), Rabbis for Human Rights (2006), and Rajagopal P. V. (2023).

Gaza conflict

Earlier this month, before learning of the prestigious recognition by the Niwano Foundation, Prof Abu-Nimer published his thoughts on the ongoing conflict in Gaza in the America magazine.

As suggested in the title, "Interfaith peacemakers cannot remain neutral on Gaza," he reiterated the principles that underlie his work, urging everyone to work for dialogue and reconciliation.

Starting with the number of victims, mostly women and children, and the tens of thousands of homes destroyed, and the 1.5 million Palestinians displaced, he noted that the situation today has "reverted” to 1948, to the “dynamics of hatred and displacement”, when the “dehumanization of Palestinians became a normal expression within the Israeli and many Western governments”. Recently, this has been coupled with an “increase in expressions of antisemitism and Islamophobia around the world.”

For the scholar, “There will be no clear victory for Israelis or Palestinians;” on the contrary, the war has inflicted deeper suffering on all parties involved, tarnishing the reputations of European and North American governments, accused of "double standards and political hypocrisy.”

The way this conflict has been handled has “harmed the credibility and legitimacy of so-called international and multilateral organizations (including the United Nations, the European Union and the Arab League).”

“There is also a global crisis of polarization between those calling for solidarity with the Palestinian people, and recognition of their dignity and freedom, and those who refuse calls for a cease-fire and instead insist on supporting the Israeli military campaign against Gazans and Palestinians in the West Bank.”

For this reason, he calls for renewed action on the part of religious leaders, who otherwise run the risk of being “caught in this polarization.” Indeed, “many of them seem unable to take a clear moral and ethical stand against the war on Gaza.”

“Interreligious leaders and their organizations can be a clear prophetic voice for peace and justice. [. . .] In the current context of Israel-Palestine, religious leaders can at least agree on [. . .] a cease-fire, which would include a joint interreligious call to stop all attacks on civilians”.

Ultimately, religious leaders "can call for the release of all hostages on both sides" while "Interreligious leader delegations can plan trips to Gaza (or Gaza’s borders), the West Bank and Israel to act as witnesses to the truth on the ground.”

Muslim, Jewish, and Christian leaders can work together to provide a platform for care and reconciliation and support all victims, especially women and children, on the path to healing.

By Dario Salvi