Ilja Sichrovsky, the 31-year-old founder of the MJC, was born in Berlin but grew up in Vienna and his father’s family have Jewish roots in Vienna dating back centuries.
He told The Local he was inspired by a personal experience to help create dialogue and understanding between Muslims and Jews. “Until the age of 25 I had no constructive contact with Muslims, but a student conference meant I had to step out of my comfort zone. I was a left-wing student but had appalling misconceptions about Muslims.
A lot of the participants came from Pakistan, Lebanon… the wider Middle East. It was really a personal relationship that started it, with a participant from Pakistan - we both realised how little we knew about each other’s religion and culture and how problematic the ideas we had about each other were.” Mustapha is now his best friend.
When Sichrovsky decided to set up the MJC most people told him it was “unthinkable that a grassroots organisation could deal with this issue - especially as established organisations have failed. People told us we were making a big mistake.”
But Sichrovsky thinks the problem is that the organisations that are working on building interfaith relations and solving the Middle East conflict have an agenda - and are jeopardised by either financial or political influence.
Ilja Sichrovsky. Photo: Daniel Shaked.
“The power of the MJC is that it really is neutral and independent of all the existing organisations and institutions. We do have financial support but we’re not affiliated with anyone.”
The MJC is struggling financially, as it refuses to take money from sources that want to have a say in what it does.
Its main sponsors are private donors, but it operates on a shoestring budget. The last four conferences were run on a total budget of €250,000, which included salaries.
It takes a full year to organise each conference which has taken place in a different city every year - including Kiev, Bratislava and Sarajevo. A core team of 35 volunteers work across 25 countries.
Conference attendees have to pay for their own flights, and the MJC pays for their accommodation, food, and events. There is no conference fee.
Sichrovsky praises the participants, who are often “taking a risk, going against their communities, their religious background, sometimes they are identified as a traitor, but they are brave enough to hop on a plane and do something unprecedented - without these people we wouldn’t exist.”
The MJC has applications from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Libya and Sichrovsky credits word of mouth and social media for helping spread the news about the grassroots movement.
“We’ve never had to campaign to get people to apply for the conference - and we’ve got 400 alumni from the previous conferences who have really spread the word and are ambassadors for the cause.”
Every year they have between 200 and 300 applications - and accept around 100 people. “The demand is there - people want to make up their own minds and there isn’t a forum in which to do that. If we had a bigger budget we would have more than one conference a year.”
Of course there are still people who believe that the MJC is wasting its time and meddling - “many people try to tell us that we should accept that this is an impossible task… but we don’t agree, and we think we have a right to try and make interfaith dialogue possible.”
“We want to be taken seriously, this isn’t some feel-good programme that we do two days a year… and I think if organisations like ours don’t get supported and funded Europe is going to be a very uncomfortable place, racism, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia is not something that is going to go away by itself.”
“Hate-speech on social media and violence on the streets has to be taken seriously - the Muslim and Jewish minority have to stand up for their rights as citizens of European countries,” Sichrovsky adds.
His grandfather fled from Nazi Austria and fought his way back to Vienna with the British army in 1945. He resettled in Vienna, and serves as an inspiration to his grandson. “I’m not willing to give up on this place. Looking at the odds he overcame I know I can develop the patience and stamina to keep doing this.”
With anti-Semitism and Islamophobia growing in Europe, Sichrovsky believes interreligious dialogue is the only solution to bring people together. “You have to destroy these stereotypes and this hatred, which I think we manage to do in seven days…We need to find a language where we can agree to disagree, and be friends, not enemies.”
This year the visit to the Mauthausen concentration camp memorial was a moving experience.
“Being able to see a group of Muslim participants coming together and reciting their prayer for the lost loved ones, really made the Jewish participants emotional. They were sharing the pain together - the same thing happened in Srebrenica where we went last year - and I think this has a healing effect that goes beyond words and projects…which will last a lifetime.”