Lisbon, Portugal, 11 July 1998 — The role of faith organisations in addressing development challenges and the principles underlying Portugal's draft law on religious freedom could yield model legislation for a more ethnically and religiously diverse Europe. Portugal's President Jorge Sampaio and His Highness the Aga Khan, Imam (spiritual leader) of the Shia Ismaili Muslims, today echoed this shared sentiment at the inauguration of a landmark building for cultural and social interaction in the centre of Lisbon.
"Social harmony, coupled with the freedom and respect of religious expression, is a prerequisite for all human progress" the Aga Khan said. He went on to highlight an approach taken by the World Bank in a recent dialogue that it sponsored with nine world religions. A common ethical basis permits co-operation between faith organisations, co-operation that the Aga Khan felt, could address "some of the most pressing problems of our time: food security, post-conflict reconstruction, delivery of social services, and the role of culture and cultural institutions for healthy societies."
Hailing the achievement represented by the new building, President Sampaio explained how the Ismaili Community and the Aga Khan Development Network were enabling people of all faiths and backgrounds to respond to these challenges.
The Centro Ismaili, which follows the establishment of similar centres in London and Vancouver over the past fifteen years, is the first of its kind in continental Europe. An 18,000 square metre complex of buildings and courtyards is set amidst a landscaped park off busy thoroughfares on the edge of central Lisbon.
Indian architect Raj Rewal and Frederico Valsassina of Lisbon, neither of whom are Muslims, have incorporated into the design of the Centro Ismaili, a Manueline inspiration from Jeronimos Monastery and a diversity of Islamic architectural influences from Andalusia to Persia and Mughal India to Turkey. Both President Sampaio and the Aga Khan acknowledged the blending of tradition and the innovative use of contemporary technology.
Domes are suspended on pre-stressed cables, whilst granite and steel in geometric trellises recall Islamic decorative forms but also provide structural support. Fountains and gardens of indigenous flora unite to furnish a refreshing environment which reflects a profound Muslim concern noted by the Aga Khan: "to achieve equilibrium between human existence and the Absolute, and therefore to attend to both spiritual and physical needs."
The Centro Ismaili thus is more than just spaces for religious gathering, cultural, educational and social facilities. It will also house the headquarters of the Aga Khan Development Network. The Network is a group of non-denominational development agencies working to improve living conditions and opportunities, especially for the most disadvantaged. Fundacao Aga Khan, which is part of the Network, has, in collaboration with partners such as the Gulbenkian Foundation and the University of Minho, been expanding its successful efforts to better educational and social conditions for underprivileged children in Portugal.
The Aga Khan, who is accompanied on this visit to Portugal by his wife, the Begum Aga Khan, was yesterday invested with the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit by President Jorge Sampaio for his "outstanding contribution to human understanding and to social and economic progress in different areas of the world." Amongst those whom the Aga Khan is meeting in Lisbon are President of Parliament Almeida Santos, Prime Minister Antonio Guterres, Minister of Justice Vera Jardim and the Partriarch of Lisbon, D. Jose Policarpo.
Photo available from Reuters, Associated Press and Lusa, Lisbon.
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