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Premawardhana to direct
New York, October 1, 2007 –The Executive Committee of the World Council of Churches at its meeting in Armenia on September 28 elected Rev. Dr. Shanta Premawardhana as its Director of Inter-religious dialogue and cooperation. Dr. Premawardhana will begin his new assignment in Geneva this November.
Since 2003, Dr. Premawardhana served the National Council of Churches USA (NCC) as its Associate General Secretary for Interfaith Relations and Director of its Interfaith Relations Commission. The Commission comprises representatives of the NCC’s 35 communions and experts in interfaith relations, and meets twice a year to undertake the work of relations with other religious communities on behalf of the churches.
Clare J. Chapman, NCC Acting General Secretary, said Premawardhana did much to facilitate in the U.S. "an essential dialogue among faith groups. He helped bring all of us closer together and the mutual insights we gained enhanced both our understanding of other faiths and our commitment to our own. He takes much experience and wisdom to the World Council of Churches."
During his tenure, Premawardhana co-convened on behalf of Christian partners, a Jewish Christian leaders’ dialogue table, which brought together staff level leaders from the mainline Jewish organizations and Christian denominations in the United States.
Often tense– for instance, during the 2004 controversy over divestment of funds from organizations that do business in Israel, proposed by the Presbyterian Church (USA) – Premawardhana insisted that it is particularly during times of tension that religious people must be in dialogue with each other.
A highlight of that table was a joint Jewish-Christian trip to Israel and Palestine in 2005, in which each side visited the people and neighborhoods which the other side presented to them. A similar Muslim Christian leaders’ dialogue table is presently being planned.
Convinced that a latent racism inhibits Christian relations with other religions, in his writings and presentations, Premawardhana pushed and prodded the church to examine its continuing anti-semitism, growing islamophobia and religious legitimization for violence.
Emphasizing that Christian theology as a discipline does not take with adequate seriousness the reality of religious diversity, he organized a series of sessions at the American Academy of Religions. Using the WCC’s “Thinking Together” model he proposed that the time has come when the Christian theological table must include the participation of scholars and leaders of other religious traditions.
At the same time, since the work of interfaith relations must move beyond theological conversations, he advocated for faith-based diplomacy where religious leaders take the lead in diplomatic initiatives, particularly in conflicts that are religion-related and diplomatic maneuvers of politicians are failing.
Earlier this year Premawardhana participated in meetings with Iranian religious leaders, which included a meeting with President Ahmadinejad during an ecumenical delegation’s visit to Iran.
A Baptist pastor and community organizer from the south side of Chicago, Premawardhana brought significant organizing skills to his work. Recently, a table of religious leaders he brought together organized a nation-wide interfaith fast to call for an end to the war in Iraq, scheduled to take place on October 8.
Constantly advocating that Christians must stand in solidarity with Muslims at a time when the Muslim communities in the U.S. are being discriminated against, he urged churches to learn about the peaceful religion followed by millions of their fellow Americans, so that they can become aware of the distortions about Islam often portrayed in the media. In recognition of his many efforts, the Islamic Society of North America recently presented him with the Interfaith Unity Award.
Premawardhana leaves the NCC at a time of significant transition. The work of the Interfaith Relations Commission, however, will continue unabated. At the World Council of Churches Premawardhana will have the opportunity to be a global leader in interfaith relations at a time in history when such work is critically important.
Dr. Premawardhana received a Ph.D. from Northwestern University in the Phenomenology of Religion specializing in Hinduism and Buddhism. Continuing to live in Chicago, he was the founder/director of the Chicago Ashram of Jesus Christ and pastor of Ellis Avenue Church in the Hyde Park neighborhood for 14 years.
A native of Sri Lanka, he is married to Dhilanthi Fernando, a musician and educator who owns the Taprobane Academy of Music in Cliffside Park, New Jersey. They are parents of three adult children: Charith, Devaka and Amali.
NCC News contact: Dan Webster, 212.870.2252, NCCnews@ncccusa.org
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