Frederic and Anne-Laure Pascal are devout Roman Catholics who built their lives around their religion. When she lost her job last year, the young couple decided on an unlikely expression of their religious commitment: a worldwide "interfaith pilgrimage" to places where peace has won out over dueling dogmas.
Since October, the French couple has visited 11 nations from Iraq to Malaysia in an odyssey to find people of all creeds who have dedicated their lives to overcoming religious intolerance in some of the world's most divided and war-torn corners.
The husband-and-wife team blogs about their adventures _ and their own soul-searching _ and takes short video clips for the project they've dubbed the Faithbook Tour.
The Pascals travel on a shoestring budget, kept afloat by 115 individual donors who are mostly friends and family. They say their travels are meant to illuminate examples of hope and peace in a world that is too often torn apart by faith-driven fervor. Their conversation, in a mix of French and English, is peppered with quotes from Mahatma Gandhi, ancient Chinese proverbs and references to their inspiration, St. Francis of Assisi.
They began the three-week U.S. leg of their trip late last month after arriving in California jetlagged from Japan and will visit Israel before hanging up their backpacks.
"There is a saying, `A tree that falls makes more noise than a forest that grows.' My aim was to meet the people who make the forest grow and not the people who make the tree fall," said Frederic, 29, as the couple took a break during a recent visit to Claremont Lincoln University, an interreligious graduate institute in Southern California. "We have to be the mirror to reflect their light."
On its face, the project seems almost naive, but in practice, the Pascals' blend of religious journalism and personal exploration has brought them face-to-face with some of the world's top religious thinkers and deposited them in some of the most forgotten parts of the planet.
In their five months on the road, the couple has trekked through the Sahel in the West African nation of Burkina Faso, explored interfaith schools in the slums of Cairo and traveled across the Iraqi desert in the dead of night to reach a camp dedicated to Christian and Muslim children.
Along the way, they have felt their own faith deepen.
"What really hit me in Egypt is the Muslim call to prayer. The more I heard that call, the more I was called back to my own faith and the more I asked myself, `How do I pray? Do I pray regularly? Am I faithful in my prayer or not?'" said Anne-Laure, 28. "There were a lot of things like that where, in meeting others, we were brought back our own faith and how we live our faith."
The idea for the trip came last year after Anne-Laure's contract as a librarian at the Catholic University in Lille wasn't renewed. Frederic decided to take a sabbatical from his job editing dozens of parish newsletters. The couple, who met a decade ago through a youth group, delayed plans to buy a house and start a family and instead spent 10 months narrowing down what countries they would visit and setting up a foundation to finance their travels.
They started their tour in October in Assisi, Italy, to coincide with the 25th anniversary of Pope John Paul II's World Day of Prayer for Peace, a 1986 gathering of a rainbow of international religious leaders. From there, the Pascals set out to visit interfaith projects in nearly a dozen nations, including Tunisia, Algeria, Burkina Faso, Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, India, Japan, Malaysia, the U.S. and Israel.
Over thousands of miles, the two have met with impoverished Christians and Muslims in the West African nation of Burkina Faso who work together to trap rainwater and maintain holding ponds in parched desert landscape; mingled with Sri Lankan leaders at a lay Buddhist monastery in Kyushu, Japan; and stayed for a week with oppressed Christian families living in the Iraqi autonomous region of Kurdistan.
In the U.S., they began their visit touring classrooms and talking with students at Claremont Lincoln, an interreligious graduate school 30 miles east of Los Angeles where students of all faiths study together in a unique experiment that began last year. They will also stop in San Francisco, New York, Washington, D.C., Richmond, Va., and Philadelphia before heading to Israel next month.
For both, the most memorable stop on their trip was in Iraq, where they spent a week in Irbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan.
They said their Christian host families had only hatred for their Muslim neighbors and some bore scars from a 2010 attack on a bus filled with students.
"We wondered, `Why did we choose to come here? There is nothing about dialogue. There is just hate,'" Frederic said. "After eight days with them, we were infected by their fear."
Then, a chance meeting led them to a camp in a far northern Iraq dedicated to fostering friendship between Muslim and Christian children from Baghdad. The group included some children from Our Lady of Salvation, a Baghdad church that was attacked by Islamic militants in a 2010 bombing that killed 58 people.
The Pascals arrived at the camp, run by a Lebanese group called OffreJoie (Offer Joy), after riding through the night on a bus driven by a man with one arm across a moonlike landscape dotted with burning oil wells. When they arrived in the pre-dawn hours, the children were singing a welcome song.
During a whirlwind visit, the young couple watched the children work together to draw maps of the "Iraq of their dreams," play trust games and find hidden puzzle pieces that, when assembled, revealed a giant map of their country. There was no hint of the hatred that haunted them just the day before.
"We got back on the road, strengthened by this encounter, for the rest of our odyssey," Frederic wrote later on his blog. "And we are reassured that even where it seems there is no more hope, there will always be peacemakers."
Faithbook Tour 2012: http://faithbooktour.blog.pelerin.info/english/
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