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Tony Blair discusses multifaith volunteering at U of T

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Tony Blair, left, and Dr. Michael Silverman. [Michelle Bitran photo]

TORONTO — Faith can be a force for good in the world, former British prime minister of Tony Blair said at the University of Toronto’s Multi-Faith Centre.

Blair was speaking Nov. 17 as part of a panel about his foundation’s multifaith Faiths Act program, which works to help the world’s poorest people. Also on the panel were Avrum Rosensweig, founder and president of Ve’ahavta: the Canadian Jewish Humanitarian and Relief committee; Dr. Michael Silverman, assistant professor of internal medicine and infectious diseases at U of T, and three pairs of multifaith Faiths Act Fellows.

“In all religions, people have done the most terrible acts of fanaticism in the name of faith… but there has been, also in the name of faith, extraordinary sacrifice and endeavour,” Blair said.

Blair is the official envoy of the Mideast Quartet of nations, comprising the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia, as well as the founder and patron of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, which brings together people of different faiths for volunteer initiatives around the world.

The Faiths Act program, a part of the foundation’s work, seeks to achieve the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals, a set of eight anti-poverty targets to be met by 2015.

Faiths Act focuses mainly on the goal of preventing and educating communities about malaria, a disease that kills more than 750, 000 people each year.

The Faiths Act Fellows are young people of different faiths from the United States, India, Britain and Canada who work with NGOs that contribute to reaching the Millennium Development Goals.

For the Canadian fellows who were at the event, those organizations are the Islamic-based International Development and Relief Foundation, Ve’ahavta: the Canadian Jewish Humanitarian and Relief Committee and the Multi-Faith Centre of Toronto.

“There’s quite an aggressive secularism today essentially saying faith is bad,” Blair said, addressing the issue of the negative perception of religion in a modern world. “Faith is not something that, as you get more sophisticated and more developed, you leave behind,” he added.

While Blair said that both people of faith and secular people do good in the world, he emphasized that multifaith volunteering highlights the elements about various faiths that urge people to help others. “It’s all about action and service in order to demonstrate that your faith is compelling you to do something positive,” he said.

Service to others and helping the less fortunate, Blair said, are things that all major faiths have in common. He added that while religion has the potential to divide people, the similarities and positive messages of different religions can and should unite people to do good.

“As globalization pushes the world together, does religion become a civilizing force on globalization,” he asked the audience, “…or does religion become a badge of identity in opposition to others?”

Blair pointed to Canada as a positive example of people of different faiths and cultures living together. He added that people with different religious backgrounds mixing together is a great learning opportunity.

Silverman, who has volunteered with various organizations and communities around the world, agreed that multifaith volunteering is an eye-opening and rewarding experience.

When asked about the potential for conflict between religious groups such as Muslims and Jews, Silverman, who is Jewish, explained that he hasn’t encountered hostility, but rather, has found people to be very accepting and eager to learn and work together.

“I think that there’s nothing that helps to get over this intolerance better than when people see each other face-to-face, rather than read about each other in the paper,” he said.

For Blair, who is Christian, his foundation is a way to create dialogue and understanding between faiths while bettering the world through them. “If you had a world without faith… I actually think we’d lose something immensely powerful.”

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