Interfaith 'pilgrims' circle world on faith quest

By Gillian Flaccus

Associated Press

Published: Monday, April 9 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

In this Wednesday, March 28, 2012 photo, Frederic and Anne-Laure Pascal stroll through a garden at Claremont Lincoln University, an interreligious graduate institute in Claremont, Calif. The young French couple has been traveling the world for the past five months, from Africa to Malaysia to Italy to visit interfaith projects and initiatives around the world. They then blog about their experiences and have attracted a following for what they call their ?interfaith pilgrimage.? (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

Associated Press

CLAREMONT, Calif. (AP) — 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.

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