NEW YORK, March 4, 1998 — Sir Sigmund Sternberg, whose quiet diplomacy played a critical role in relocating a Catholic convent at Auschwitz, helping to organize the first-ever papal visit to a synagogue, the Vatican’s recognition of the State of Israel, and other extraordinary breakthroughs in interfaith dialogue, has won the 1998 Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. The announcement of the award was made at a news conference today at the Church Center for the United Nations.
Sternberg, a Hungarian-born British philanthropist and businessman who made his fortune through metal trading and real estate, is Chairman of the Executive Committee of the International Council of Christians and Jews (ICCJ) and one of the world’s foremost advocates of improved inter-religious relations. He will receive the Templeton Prize from H.R.H. Prince Philip at a private ceremony at Buckingham Palace in May. A public ceremony will be held at the United Nations on June 26.
The Templeton Prize, begun in 1972 by global investing pioneer Sir John Templeton, is given each year to a living person who has shown extraordinary originality in advancing humankind’s understanding of God and/or spirituality. Valued at 750,000 pounds sterling, about $1.23 million, it is the world’s largest annual monetary award.
Through his work at ICCJ, the Sternberg Centre for Judaism in London — Europe’s largest Jewish cultural center — and myriad other endeavors, Sternberg, 76, has tirelessly promoted cooperation, harmony and greater understanding among the world’s religions and, despite the enormity of that challenge, has achieved unqualified successes.
Among his most notable accomplishments was his help in resolving the crisis that arose in the 1980s when a small group of Carmelite nuns established a convent at the perimeter of the Auschwitz death camp in Poland. Many Jewish leaders and even some Catholics viewed the cloister as an inappropriate and insensitive intrusion into a setting indelibly linked to the Holocaust — of the nearly two million killed at Auschwitz, the overwhelming majority were Jews.
When Catholic leaders balked at moving the convent, the situation quickly escalated into a full-blown threat to years of Catholic/Jewish dialogue. Comments from the presiding Polish Primate, Jozef Cardinal Glemp, appeared to some to verge on anti-Semitism. Similarly, both Catholics and Jews where shocked when a small group of Jewish demonstrators jumped the convent’s fence, trampling what the Church considered a consecrated area, and then were beaten by nearby construction workers in the presence of the police, who refused to interfere.
Resisting those who demanded a “forceful solution,” on the one hand, and others who were content to delay any resolution at all, Sternberg met repeatedly with various Catholic, Polish, and Jewish representatives. Eventually, he shepherded the disparate opinions into a consensus that moved the convent and its imagery of Christian martyrdom from the Auschwitz perimeter into an interfaith center some distance away.
Similarly, Sternberg played an important role in responding to Catholic efforts to reach out to Judaism that began with the Second Vatican Council, cultivating links between the two religions that led to the 1993 recognition of the State of Israel by the Holy See. Indeed, in a striking symbol of his valued importance as a roving interfaith “ambassador,” it was Sternberg who was one of those chosen to escort Pope John Paul II to a synagogue in Rome in 1986, the first such visit ever by a pontiff and a landmark in religious reconciliation.
In 1985, Sternberg also broke new historical ground when he was named a Knight Commander of the Pontifical and Equestrian Order of St. Gregory the Great, one of the few Jews ever named. As an indication of his pride in the honor, KCSG is the rare case of a title — out of the many, many honors and awards he has received — that Sternberg commonly uses with his name. Another is Sir, the title which describes the knighthood he received from Queen Elizabeth II in 1976 for charitable and political services. In 1997, Sternberg’s wife, Hazel, was named Dame of the Pontifical Order of St. Sylvester, the first Jewish woman ever to be made a Papal Dame.
Beyond his unequivocal commitment to Christian/Jewish relations, Sternberg has also been at the forefront of improved relations among other religious groups, as with ICCJ’s work since 1993 that has sought to draw Muslims in Spain into a wider dialogue built on the shared history of Judaism and Islam in Iberia. Other interfaith efforts include the establishment, together with Sheikh Dr. Zaki Badawi, of the Three Faiths Forum in 1997, which seeks to explore and develop the common ground of the religions that share Abraham as a common ancestor — Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Sometimes it is literally common ground, as in his support for the Neve Shalom settlement of Jews, Muslims and Christians in Israel.
In his nomination of Sternberg for the Templeton Prize, Dr. John B. Taylor, former Secretary-General of the World Conference on Religion and Peace/International, wrote:
“Sir Sigmund has pioneered and proved inter-religious dialogue as a new force for reconciliation and the understanding of God…. he is launching an inspiring new enterprise…he is pointing to the need for much more effective and holistic cooperative work for peace and justice, for dynamic ethics and renewed spirituality. He is bringing his vision of ‘shalom’ to make of religion not a constraint, but a liberating and reconciling force.”
In a statement prepared for the press conference today, Sternberg said:
“I bring you no great religious insights nor do I have something original to say on the human condition. And I am certainly no saint…I am really a simple soul, a businessman who, in a modest way, has been smiled on by fortune — fortune which I believe to be divinely inspired — 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 or, indeed, whether we have religous faith at all….
“There is still burning within me an unrequited
passion, one to which I hope to dedicate many of my remaining years and in
which I seek the partnership of thousands across the globe who are not yet
aware of the fact that they have a special contribution to make to global
“It is time for religion to come out of the church, the synagogue, the mosque, the temple and to create bonds between people which, while it is recognized that all religions have their own truths, and these shall be unassailable, there is a sense of a spirit which soars above all else and which, if harnessed, could contribute to the creation of caring societies as nothing else could.
“I think it is time we started. My dream is of a great assembly of businesspeople from around the world who, whatever their ambition in business, regard themselves as men of faith, believers in a religious ethic which, while they might not be able precisely to articulate it, guides them to treat fairly with their fellow people in the marketplace, in the work place and in their social relations.”
Sternberg is one of only two Jews, and the first Reform Jew, ever chosen to receive the Templeton Prize. In 1991, Orthodox rabbi the Rt. Hon. Lord Jakobovitz, former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain and author of the groundbreaking book, Jewish Medical Ethics, won the prize. His award for interfaith work follows the Templeton Prize awarded in 1979 to Rev. Nikkyo Niwano, founder of the World Conference on Religion and Peace and co-founder of Rissho Kosei-Kai in Japan, a Buddhist group that promotes “mutual exchange of thought among people of faith.”
Other Templeton Prize winners include Mother Theresa, who won in 1973, 1982’s winner Rev. Dr. Billy Graham, and 1983 recipient Aleksandr Sozshenitsyn. Last year’s winner was Pandurang Shastri Athavale, founder and leader of a spiritual self-knowledge movement in India credited with liberating millions from the shackles of poverty and moral dissipation.
Just as Athavale turned his Templeton Prize money over to communities in India to continue his work, Sir Sigmund has indicated he intends to distribute his award to several of the charities he has sponsored throughout his career.
The Templeton Prize is the latest in a vast array of honoraria and citations Sir Sigmund has received, including:
Commander of the Order of Merit by the government of Poland;
Commander’s Cross (1st Class) by the government of Austria;
Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit by the government of Germany;
Econmienda del Merito Civil by the government of Spain;
Commander Order of Honor by the government of Greece;
Royal Order of the Polar Star by the government of Sweden;
Silver Jerusalem Mayoral Medal;
Order of the Orthodox Hospitallers, First Class with Star and Badge of Religion by the Greek Orthodox Church; and
Officer of the Venerable Order of St. John of Jerusalem.
Along with his extensive activity in the area of religious reconciliation, Sternberg has also distinguished himself as a community leader, businessman, and philanthropist working in a broad field of humanitarian endeavor. Often in partnership with Hazel Sternberg, a magistrate and counsellor, Sir Sigmund has built a long history of personal achievements and social advancements — regardless of the odds and sometimes in spite of them.
When a strict quota on entry of Jews to the university in his native Budapest and because of the rise of Nazism in Europe, Sternberg traveled to study in Britain. Those plans were foiled, however, with the outbreak of World War II and so he instead served part-time in the Civil Defence Corps until the end of the war, while engaged in the recycling of metal under the war-time Essential Works Order. That, in turn, led to his work in the metals industry at war’s end, when he also became a commercial accountant. That same business acumen brought him to establish Martin Slowe Estates, a successful real estate concern and other property companies in 1971, and ISYS plc, a computer software company, in 1986.
Not content to sit back and simply enjoy the rewards of his labors, Sternberg early on immersed himself in community affairs, often on a global scale. His membership in the Rotary Club of London, for instance, translated into a concentrated effort to re-open the Rotary clubs of Eastern Europe following the collapse of communism. He has encouraged the establishment of Rotary Clubs in other parts of the world. After serving on the board of a hospital in London, he was appointed to a regional board which was responsible for the administration of large hospitals in the London area, including the Tavistock Clinic. And, far from being an organizational bureaucrat collecting titles, he is credited with a hands-on style that shares the burden as well as the glory.
And he seems to always have time for one more project, in a host of pursuits:
- Currently, he is working to have the Vatican throw open some of its war-time files insofar as they relate to Nazis and Jews and the relations of both with the Catholic church;
- Helping to use funds stolen by the Nazis and now newly recovered in European banks for the benefit of surviving families of victims of the Holocaust;
- Having many letters published in national newspapers, such as the one to the Times of London on 25th June 1996, complaining about press coverage of soccer, which said “the tabloid press has attempted to whip up anti-German fervour by resorting to wartime terminology and the unbridled use of military imagery; it has substituted a sense of brutality for one of good sportsmanship and must bear almost the whole of the responsibility for any ill-feeling which lingers once the players and the fans have returned home.”
- Serving as chairman of the Institute for Archaeo-Metallurgical Studies for 25 years, which supports digs and studies of ancient mining sites.
In sum, Sternberg’s perspective is securely founded, yet always reaching higher — precisely the sort of commitment that now reaps the 1998 Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion.