International donations support the Religion, Conflict and Dialogue research unit at the University of Helsinki

The University of Helsinki has received international donations from the Open Society Foundations and the William and Mary Greve Foundation. The foundations will support the operations of the multidisciplinary Religion, Conflict and Dialogue research centre at the Faculty of Theology. Specifically, the donations will promote research on the role of religion and gender in conflicts and their resolution.

Michael Hall, Senior Policy Analyst for Eurasia at the Open Society Foundations, is eagerly awaiting the cooperation with the Religion, Conflict and Dialogue research centre.

“We are very pleased to be able to support this new and important research unit as part of our efforts to help researchers from the Eurasian area become more integrated into in the global exchange of ideas.”

Hall says that cooperation with RCD can help new researchers discuss issues of religion, gender and conflict in a more clear and nuanced way, both internationally and in national contexts.

“I also believe that the cooperation will help the Open Society Foundations and its partners question their own assumptions and develop new, interesting approaches to the above issues,” he adds.

Established in 1979, the Open Society Foundations are a network of offices and foundations created by the philanthropist George Soros. OSF funds a range of programs around the world aimed at building vibrant and tolerant societies whose governments are accountable and open to the participation of all people.

Better understanding of the use and abuse of religion

According to John W. Kiser, a representative of the William and Mary Greve Foundation, religious arguments now play a role in conflicts throughout the world.

“It is important to note that sacred texts and their message can be interpreted in various ways. The utilisation of religion for power-political purposes must be recognised, and religion itself must not be denounced,” Kiser explains.

He heard about RCD from his friend Horton Beebe-Center, president of the Eurasia Foundation, who has sat on RCD’s international advisory board.

“Horton thought that the Greve Foundation and RCD share several interests, and introduced us to each other. That’s how our cooperation began,” Kiser says.

Kiser believes that more information is needed particularly on the diversity of Islam because the global perception of interpretations of the Koran focuses on its abuse.

“I hope that researchers at RCD will explore the thoughts of, for example, the Algerian religious leader Emir Abdelkader (1808–1883), who said that no religion owns God.”

The Abdelkader Fellowship Program at the RCD center celebrates the legacy of Abdelkader, who with his own example set an impressive model for an interreligious dialogue that was based on intellectual reasoning, tolerance, and willingness to learn from others. Abdelkader was able to combine religious and political authority in a humane and sustainable way. His attitude towards the necessity of inter-religious dialogue is beneficial not only to Muslims but also to other people of faith.

The applicants are asked to write a short essay on Abdelkader and his relevance to the present-day interreligious thought and practice. The fellows will be selected by small committee at the Faculty of Theology working in close cooperation with the RCD Center. Advisors from the William and Mary Greve Foundation can be asked for further advice.

“The Fellowship is intended to educate Finns and other European communities about the Islam of Emir Abdelkader. His lived Islam will be used as a counter narrative to the Islam that is known only via the media,” Kiser sums up.

Established in 1965, the William and Mary Greve Foundation is focused specifically on the issue of Islam and Islamophobia in the world.

Developing the Religion, Conflict and Dialogue research unit with donations

Professor Elina Vuola, the director of the Religion, Conflict and Dialogue unit, says that the donated funds will be used to hire visiting researchers.

“We can now recruit several researchers as the first employees of RCD, which means we’ll get some meat on our bones! Of course, we hope that the projects in question will continue, but as a first initiative, the funding will enable the unit’s operations to be fully launched.”

The multidisciplinary RCD research centre produces in-depth knowledge about the role of religions in conflicts and their resolution. Particular attention will be paid to gender issues, which are often ignored in research on peace, conflict and religion. The operations of the RCD centre will be based on the long history of Finland and the other Nordic countries in resolving international conflicts.

“It’s great that the Faculty of Theology at the University of Helsinki has been successful in its fundraising efforts. We plucked up our courage and sought opportunities abroad, networked with those in the field and contacted potential funders,” Vuola explains.

She believes that there is a great need for high-quality research on religion, and not just in Finland.

“The status of the Faculty of Theology as part of a top-level university has definitely had a positive effect on increasing the awareness of funders about the fact that their funding is used for research, not religious activity,” Vuola notes.

“On the other hand, our theological competence, including the content of religions, may have attracted funders. Religions must also be understood via their sacred texts and teachings,” Vuola says.

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