Pacem in Terris award ceremony recognizes women fostering peace

Anne Marie Amacher
Archbishop-elect Thomas Zinkula stands with the One Among Us and Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award winners Sept. 13 in the Rogalski Center at St. Ambrose University in Davenport. From left are Lisa Killinger, Sheryl Olitzky, Archbishop-elect Zinkula, Atiya Aftab and Gail Karp.

By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger

DAVENPORT — Dan Ebener was a college sophomore when he witnessed Catholic Worker co-founder Dorothy Day, now on the path toward sainthood, accept the Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award in 1972 in Davenport.

On Sept. 13, Ebener emceed the ceremony during which Atiya Aftab and Sheryl Olitzky, co-founders of the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, an international movement that builds relationships between Muslim and Jewish women, received the Pacem in Terris award. Gail Karp and Lisa Killinger, who co-founded a local chapter of Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, received the One Among Us Justice Award. The event took place at St. Ambrose University.

“We might not realize how some of our past (50) Pacem recipients were a part of a sisterhood of sorts,” said Ebener, referring to Day and three other Catholic female award recipients, Hildegard Goss-Mayr, Eileen Egan and St. Teresa of Kolkata.


“These four sisters we recognize tonight are practicing the same message of radical hospitality, peace justice and reconciliation, much the same as the four Catholic women,” Ebener said. “By recognizing them tonight, we also recognize the bonds between all religions, to our common bonds of salaam and shalom; of radical hospitality, and loving our enemies, of peace and justice, nonviolence and recognition, inspired by the same Spirit that stirred St. John XXIII to write his encyclical letter, ‘Pacem in Terris’ back in 1963 … May we be so united.”

Archbishop-elect Thomas Zinkula presented each recipient’s award, reading from the plaques that described their contributions toward fostering peace. Salaam is the Arabic word and shalom is the Hebrew word for peace. The Diocese of Davenport oversees the interfaith Pacem in Terris Coalition, whose members nominate candidates for the award.

The founders

“We represent thousands of Muslim and Jewish women, ages 13-90, from across North America, women whose faith motivates them to believe that they can make this a better world: a world based on respect for diversity, a world full of harmony, and a world surrounded by peace,” Olitzky said in her acceptance speech. “White nationalism is a disease that is spreading fear and hatred. However, the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom is proof that this infection can be stopped.”

She expressed gratitude for the award to the audience, which included her husband, and said “it is an honor to be standing on the shoulders of all the peacemakers who previously received this award.” Olitzky, who is Jewish, explained her motivation to “envision a place where Muslim and Jewish women could come together,” following a trip to Poland where she learned that Muslims were not welcome. This hatred was being expressed in a country where the Nazis murdered so many Jews. “In that moment in Poland, I was being called to change the course of hate, specifically toward Muslims,” Olitzky said.

Anne Marie Amacher
Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award winner, Atiya Aftab, right, speaks after receiving the award with Sheryl Olitzky Sept. 13 in the Rogalski Center at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.

Determination, research and networking led her to Aftab, a Muslim and an attorney. The two New Jersey women founded the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom movement in 2010. “The Sisterhood is about thousands of women who are committed to a new possibility of coexistence,” she said. It is focused on building relationships that positively affect how the women view each other’s communities, which has an impact on the greater community at large. “Atiya and I believe, just as our respective traditions teach, that if we can change one person, we can also change the world.”

Aftab also thanked the audience, which included her husband and two of their three adult children, for the award on behalf the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom and its achievements in peace and justice in America and around the world.  People, not religion, “cause division and hate and violence,” she said, people “who cloak evil in the language of religion — in the name of God.”

“… Sheryl and I recognize that true faith is grounded in love and understanding and peace and justice — through dialogue not demagoguery,” Aftab continued. “God intentionally created us different. That makes sense — no one wants a crayon box with all the same color crayon. And it makes no sense that the red crayon would hate the blue one. It is, therefore, imperative for us to not fear the other — not to demonize the other but simply to get to know one another.”

The Sisterhood, she said, creates “brave spaces to ask each other frank questions — difficult questions — questions that stem from curiosity, not contempt, and engage in heart-to-heart dialogue. We intentionally set this foundation of faith but were not naïve to recognize when Jews and Muslims are in the same room they may want to venture into contemporary geo-politics and debate about Palestine-Israel,” Aftab acknowledged. “Discussions on this tough, sensitive and painful situation, we knew, could not constructively take place until foundations of trust and understanding were established even until a facilitated guided program could be created.”

Aftab provided examples of the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom standing up for each one’s faith group in response to hate crimes against either one. The Sisterhood has also organized “Building Bridges” trips to other countries, which Aftab described as transformative. The “journey toward peace, justice and change is in our hands. Dream but make a plan and take a step and do not be overwhelmed with the depth of a challenge.”

Interfaith inspiration

Rabbi Linda Bertenthal of Davenport gave the opening prayer and Imam Bachir Djehiche of Moline, Illinois gave the closing prayer. Also during the ceremony, Karp, a Jewish cantor, sang a song of peace in Arabic, Hebrew and English. Audience members sang along, in the languages they understood. Her Sisterhood chapter co-founder, Killinger, who is Muslim, encouraged the audience to “engage in interfaith peacemaking. … It’s the best way to build peace in troubled times.”

Amelia Von Alexander, 19, a sophomore at St. Ambrose University and member of its Ambrosians for Peace and Justice, said the ceremony and an earlier breakfast session with the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom founders moved her to tears. “Seeing them working together, women taking such strong leadership roles and being so strong in their faith … was so emotional.”

Lidiia Maksarova, 21, a St. Ambrose exchange student from Russia, said she appreciates how Olitzky and Aftab are fostering peace between two religions that have had a difficult history with each other. “Their commitment to that is very inspiring to me.… I would like to create something like this in my life and share it,” she said.

Noor Warisa Ali, 21, a St. Ambrose exchange student from India, also said the breakfast session and the award ceremony inspired her to consider peace building in her country among Hindus and Muslims.

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