Sir Sigmund Sternberg, a celebrated interfaith campaigner, businessman and only Jewish recipient of a Papal knighthood, has died at the age of 95.
Former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks was among the first to pay tributes to the late philanthropist, writing on his Facebook page that Sternberg was “an irresistible, indefatigable force for good interfaith relations – a one-man campaign for reconciliation between Christians, Muslims and Jews.”
Sternberg – known as Siggy to those who knew him – was born in Hungary in 1921, before immigrating to England at the age of 18 in 1939.
Following the break out of World War Two later that year, Sternberg was not allowed to seek paid employment in Britain so set up his own scrap metal company in London. In a 2011 interview with the Jewish Chronicle, Sternberg explained that the authorities viewed him as “a friendly enemy alien.”
His business thrived, and in 1965 he was able to sell his company and devote his time to charity work. He set up the Sternberg Foundation in 1969 in order to promote racial and religious harmony between the Abrahamic faiths. He went on to establish the Three Fraith Forum (3FF) alongside Sheikh Dr Zaki and Rev Dr Marcus Braybrooke in 1997.
He told the Jewish Chronicle: “I always wanted that there should be good relations between Christians and Jews. Hatred never leads anywhere.”
Sternberg will be remembered for his positive contribution to Jewish-Catholic dialogue. Among his significant achievements was defusing tension between religious communities around the relocation of a Carmelite convent at Auschwitz in 1984. He was also responsible for organising Pope John Paul II’s visit to a synagogue in 1986; the first official papal visit to a Jewish place of worship.
Owing to his good relationship with Pope John Paul II and his reported ability to “get along with people”, Sternberg was able to use his influence to convince the Vatican to officially recognise the State of Israel.
In his 2011 interview he said of his 1994 visit to the Vatican: “I spoke on Vatican Radio and in the end they just got so tired of me they said: ‘OK, let’s talk about recognition.’”
Among Sternberg’s many honours and awards were his 1976 knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II, a Papal knighthood awarded in 1985 and the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion.
When receiving the Templeton Prize in 1998, Sir Sigmund said: “I am really a simple soul, a businessman, who, in a modest way, has been smiled on by fortune and who has tried to repay the blessings which have been bestowed on me by opening to others a sense of the goodness which lies in us all, regardless of our faith.”
On his passing, 3FF Director Phil Champain said: “Sir Sigmund was a true giant of the interfaith movement who spent most of his life building better relations between people of different faiths and beliefs. The founding of 3FF was only one of his many achievements in the field, as he worked tirelessly to resolve conflicts within and between religions both in the UK and internationally. This speaks not just of a great statesman, but of a profound, sensitive, caring and outstanding human being. 3FF is an important part of his legacy, and we will continue to strive for the vision he believed in, of a world where people live together in mutual respect and understanding, regardless of their faith.”
Sternberg is survived by his two children.