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A pop queen descends on the Vatican

Pop star Gloria Estefan is speaking at the TEDx event (Photo: AP)

What do the “Queen of Latin Pop”, the daughter of the world’s richest man, the sister of the Emir of Kuwait and a Polish-Jewish architect have in common? Answer: all four will be speaking at an unusual Vatican-sponsored conference this month. Gloria Estefan, Soumaya Slim, Sheikha Hussah Sabah al-Salem al-Sabah and Daniel Libeskind will be taking part in the TEDxViaDellaConciliazione event on April 19.

The conference is being held under the aegis of the Pontifical Council for Culture, the Courtyard of the Gentiles project and the TED organisation. TED, which is short for Technology, Entertainment and Design, offers a worldwide platform for what it calls “ideas worth spreading”. Its conferences feature imaginative and entertaining speeches lasting precisely 18 minutes on developments in the sciences, computing, media and the arts.

TED was founded in 1984 and has become a global phenomenon. Speakers at TED events have included the politicians Bill Clinton, Al Gore and Colin Powell, the artists Bono, Annie Lennox and James Cameron, the scientists Francis Collins, Jane Goodall and Richard Dawkins, the business leaders Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Larry Page and Sergey Brin and a clutch of Nobel Prize winners. TED’s current curator is the British former technology journalist and magazine publisher Chris Anderson.

This month’s TEDx event (the “x” signifies that the event is organised by a third party rather than TED itself) will be held in the Auditorium della Conciliazione, located at the beginning of the via della Conciliazione, the wide street that leads up to St Peter’s Square. It’s no accident that TEDxViaDellaConciliazione is being co-promoted by the Courtyard of the Gentiles, a project led by Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, the polymath president of the Pontifical Council for Culture. The cardinal has turned the Courtyard into a high-profile forum for dialogue rather than polemics between Catholics and non-believers. It’s no surprise, then, that he has teamed up with TEDx.

The theme of the Vatican-backed conference is “Religious freedom today”. Curator Giovanna Abbiati explains: “We want to reaffirm that religious freedom is a fundamental human right. First of all, it is an aspiration of the soul. Religious freedom consists in the protection of all men and women from coercion of conscience. Second, through religion we discover who we are. We discover values and the respect of these values. Genuine religion has a full role to play in society to make our world one of justice and peace. All religions have a common responsibility to humanity and the world.”

Some might wonder what a pop star or architect can contribute to a discussion of religious freedom. “We chose from every walk of life from a singer to a nurse, from a nun to a basketball player,” Abbiati tells me. “We did not intend to deal with the issue of religious freedom in university teaching posts, but at the level of real, concrete life.”

Explaining Gloria Estefan’s presence at the conference, she says: “She won’t sing. She will instead show a clip that explains how her songs were born, in memory of her homeland, Cuba, where as a young girl she experienced fear. And she will talk about her faith. She is a devout Catholic.”

Why is the daughter of the Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim attending? “People in Latin America had few opportunities to see works of art and she created a museum as a gift for them,” Abbiati says.

Sheikha Hussah Sabah al-Salem al-Sabah was invited for a similar reason: she has gathered together artworks from across the Islamic world for the benefit of the general public.

Cardinal Ravasi will open the event with a speech entitled “Networks of common ground”. This will be followed by talks by Jesuit astronomer Brother Guy Consolmagno, global religion expert Brian Grim and former Chief Rabbi of Ireland Rabbi David Rosen.
“We looked for speakers able to promote unity in every field,” Abbiati says. “We started from culture. We looked for singular talents and visionaries able to show us the existence of common ground, common ideals, common predicaments, both in the religious world and in the cultural world.”

Other speakers will include street artist Mohammed Ali, world champion basketball player Vlade Divac, the “white angel” of the indigenous Guarani people Pilar Mateo, Comboni missionary Sister Alicia Vacas, art historian Elizabeth Lev, Shroud investigator Barrie Schwortz, educator of tribal children Wenzong Wang and Egyptian business leader Hisham El-Sherif.

“In an era of sharing,” Abbiati says, “TEDx is able to spread ideas in a positive way. When we watch television, listen to the radio or explore the web what we receive is often a negative view of the world. TEDx is a platform for talks that share optimism. We don’t want to say that evil does not exist, but that to talk only of darkness – forgetting that the light is there – is so negative for human beings. It clips our wings. We’re made of flesh but our spirit is made to fly beyond.” At the same time, she says: “TEDx has inspired us to be more concrete.”

Paolo Gambi is a contributing editor of The Catholic Herald. If you would like to attend the event in Rome on April 19, visit

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Catholic Herald dated 12/4/13