In 1219, St. Francis of Assisi and Sultan Malik al-Kamil met in Damietta, Egypt, during a time of war, seeking peace and understanding of each other's religion and culture and sparking an interfaith dialogue that would last centuries.
That conversation between a Christian monk and an Egyptian Muslim is the inspiration behind the Damietta Cross-Cultural Center at Siena College, a Catholic Franciscan institution. The director of the center, Oscar Mayorga, said he hopes to continue this same type of dialogue among students at the college.
The center is based on the belief that we're all created equally, said Mayorga. "We're all created in God's image, and because of this we're all called to love one another."
Learning something you are not familiar with or having a discussion with someone who has a different cultural background than yourself is promoted by the center. The hope is that students will be able to gather information and discard their preconceived notions of what a particular religion or culture actually entails. Mayorga stresses that a lot of these stereotypes can produce fear of something that a student may not know very much about.
"There's a lot of demonization and we're really trying to break down those walls and say, 'No, we're all created equally and we're all equal," he said. "That's what the center is trying to do. Having experiences where students get to be in a place they're not normally in and to hopefully after that experience be able to reflect on that and say, 'How did that affect me? What was the thought process of that?'"
Mayorga said the sole purpose is not to eliminate fear but to learn more about another culture and foster love. What can kill a democracy is constantly being suspicious of those who are different than you, said Mayorga.