Iowa peace award goes to founders of group to build ties between Muslim, Jewish women

By Barb Arland-Fye | OSV News

DAVENPORT, Iowa (OSV News) — St. Ambrose University in Davenport will honor the co-founders of an organization to build relationships between Muslim and Jewish women with the Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award.

The organization, Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, began as a small group of 12 women on the East Coast that blossomed into a sisterhood engaging in public advocacy, life cycle events, holiday celebrations and regular get-togethers. Since gaining nonprofit status in 2013, the Sisterhood of Salaam has grown to 150 chapters across the U.S., Canada and England and has 10 youth chapters.

Sheryl Olitzky and Atiya Aftab, who co-founded Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom to build bridges between Muslim and Jewish women, are pictured in an undated photo. The two women will receive the Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award in Davenport, Iowa, Sept. 13, 2023. (OSV News photo/courtesy Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom)

Co-founders Atiya Aftab, who is Muslim, and Sheryl Olitzky, who is Jewish, will accept the award from Archbishop Thomas R. Zinkula Sept. 13.

“The church takes seriously the responsibility of interreligious dialogue and interpersonal encounter, which Atiya Aftab and Sheryl Olitzky have demonstrated in creating the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom,” Archbishop Zinkula said. “Pope Francis has said that a culture of encounter and dialogue is the only way to peace.”

“The Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award, which the Diocese of Davenport oversees, recognizes this commitment in the work of the co-founders of the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom,” added the archbishop, who was Davenport’s bishop until Pope Francis named him to head the Archdiocese of Dubuque July 26. (He will be installed there Oct. 18.)

The two women’s names will be inscribed on a display featuring past award recipients, including the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day, St. Teresa of Kolkata, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Cesar Chavez, the Dalai Lama and Sister Norma Pimentel, a Missionary of Jesus who ministers to migrants at the U.S-Mexico border.

Olitzky said that during her tenure as executive director of the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom and as part of her ongoing research in interfaith dialogue, she sought to “identify and understand institutions and organizations dedicated to peace building.” The work of the interfaith Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award committee was among them.

Committee members represent the Diocese of Davenport; St. Ambrose University; Augustana College; Islamic Center of Quad Cities; The Catholic Messenger, Davenport’s diocesan newspaper; Muslim Community of the Quad Cities; Congregation of the Humility of Mary; Sisters of St. Francis, Clinton; and the Sisters of St. Francis, Dubuque.

The award represents one more way to “share the work of the Sisterhood with as many people as possible,” Olitzky said. “We know that every time a person hears about our dedication to bridge building, dialogue and to peace work, that person is changed. This change is reflected in a shift of their attitudes, stereotypes and actions. This includes, but is not limited to, sharing with others about what they have learned.”

“By accepting this award in a public ceremony,” she added, “we will be sharing the groundbreaking work of the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom. … We will be breaking down walls of hate and replacing them with bridges of understanding, empathy and respect.”

“I am very excited to be an award recipient!” said Aftab, an attorney, educator and activist. “I was humbled to read about those who were previously given the award. More importantly, I was further humbled to learn the objective of the award was to honor ‘achievements in peace and justice, not only in (the recipient’s) country but in the world.'”

“When I co-founded the Sisterhood, our hope was to spread love and peace and understanding across faith,” she said. “To achieve this, we brought Muslim and Jewish women together in our homes to create a brave space so that we could talk about anything — ask difficult questions and simply be curious about someone who is seemingly different. It is a particular challenge in the contemporary world given geopolitics, to bring Muslim and Jewish women together. The topic of Palestine-Israel — of justice — is always looming. In the Sisterhood we aim to create relationships of love and trust before we tackle the more difficult issues.”

She added that she is “amazed by the meaningful relationships that have been forged and by the lives it has changed — as we say — one sister at time.”The co-founders met in 2010, after Olitzky returned from a trip to Poland during which she saw the enormity of planned hate and destruction. “I left Poland knowing that I had to do my part to stop hate and negative stereotypes,” she said in a letter published on the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom website,

Young people hold a flag reading “peace” in Italian at the end of Pope Francis’s weekly general audience in the Paul VI Audience Hall at the Vatican Aug. 23, 2023. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)

“When I decided that I wanted to create a group of Muslim and Jewish women who could come together to dialogue and build relationships, I did not know any Muslim women to reach out to,” she told The Catholic Messenger. “I did know the imam from the local mosque and I called him and told him what I wanted to do. He suggested that I meet Atiya and the rest is history!”

Aftab noted her own “deep Catholic connections.”

“My grandfather’s (mother’s father) was from a Catholic family in England and when my grandmother married him, she converted to Catholicism. My mother was raised Catholic in England. It was a challenge being a minority among the majority Protestant population,” she said.

“I am comforted to be honored by those of faith — those who believe there is a higher purpose to life on earth and that one day we will all meet our maker and explain how we tried to achieve peace and justice on earth,” Aftab said. “Finally, my hope is that the take away from the award ceremony is that the ordinary is extraordinary. Each one of us has been endowed by God to do good works and that the ripple from each good deed changes the world. As stated in the Quran and the Old Testament — to save one life is to save the world.”

“It is my hope that the participants will take away at least one new thing that they can do to build bridges between people who are different from themselves,” Olitzky said. “I am confident that the award ceremony will change any perceptions of Jews and Muslims in general and towards one another. And, importantly, it will counter the negative communication that we hear and read about in the media. The participants will leave the ceremony full of hope for a better, more peaceful future.”
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Barb Arland-Fye is editor of The Catholic Messenger, newspaper of the Diocese of Davenport.


Author: OSV News

OSV News is a national and international wire service reporting on Catholic issues and issues that affect Catholics.

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