(RNS) The foundation started by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair has named 30 interfaith fellows, including 12 Americans, to raise awareness about efforts to fight malaria in Africa.
The fellows are expected to receive training in London and Chicago, to travel to Mali, Malawi and Tanzania in Africa to view humanitarian efforts against malaria, and to then begin their work in the United States.
They probably will meet with Blair, who served as the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister from 1997 to 2007, a few times during the 10-month fellowship.
Blair, in a conference call today with reporters, stressed that malaria deaths are preventable and that he thinks the work of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation fellows will spread positive messages about religious faith.
“What a lot of people read about religious faith today is basically negative,” he said. “It’s about people fighting each other. It’s about people being divided in a sectarian way. … The purpose of this program is to show how important faith can be in doing something positive and constructive and compassionate.”
“We will have people of different faiths together, so the interfaith idea is right at the heart of the program,” he said. “What they become in a sense is ambassadors for an interfaith fight against malaria.”
The stated goal is for each fellow to reach at least 1,000 people about malaria. Blair, who in 2007 left the Anglican Church and converted to Roman Catholicism, said he hopes the fellows can inspire people at churches, synagogues, temples and mosques to donate to anti-malaria campaigns.
“My own experience of faith communities is, when they have something explained to them, and people go in and say, `Look, I’ve seen this on the ground. This is what happens; this is what we can do,’ there’s a huge well of compassion and commitment that’s there,” Blair said. “But it needs to be drawn by people who’ve got the experience.”
Two American fellows, Rutgers University student Avi Smolen and Randa Kuziez of the Washington-area Muslim Students Association, will work to educate youth groups, reach out to religious communities, and develop programs to promote awareness of malaria’s toll in Africa, where it kills an estimated 1 million people a year, most of them children.
“My passion is social justice work, and that’s why I’m very excited about this fellowship,” said Smolen, a student at Rutgers University. “I hope my experience in the fellowship can give me an opportunity to see what policy work in D.C. is like.”
By Jeff Diamant
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