Bahai News - World Religious Leaders Gather 08:13 PM ET 08/28/00

World Religious Leaders Gather

AP Religion Writer

UNITED NATIONS (AP) _ Songs, cries and calls for prayer opened the Millennium World Peace Summit of religious leaders at the United Nations Monday, a gathering as much about private talks between adversaries as formal resolutions passed in public.

Participants say they hope the summit, which runs through Thursday, will result in a declaration on peace, poverty and the environment, as well as the formation of a council of religious leaders to advise the United Nations on preventing and settling disputes.

But the meeting of more than 1,000 leaders drew controversy before it even began when participants learned last month that conference organizers did not invite the Dalai Lama to the first two days of the event for fear of offending China. China accuses the Tibetan Buddhist leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner ``creating turmoil'' in Tibet, from where he fled in 1959 after an abortive uprising against China's occupation.

Dissent on that issue aside, participants said they were grateful for the event, considering the number of global conflicts with strong religious components. Sessions were planned on the role of religion in conflict resolution, with specific workshops on the Balkans, Russia and Central Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.

``This afternoon, this General Assembly hall has become a sanctuary,'' Bawa Jain, the summit general secretary, told an audience in gilded robes and woven tunics, pointed caps and long white veils.

Some noted that the real work happens away from the podium ``Sometimes you have a meeting between people who are officially enemies who find they like each other,'' said Israeli Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, a leading Talmudic scholar. ``That makes more of a difference than resolutions.''

Eritrean Bishop Zekarias Yohannes said he plans to meet with Ethiopian leaders. The two Horn of Africa neighbors recently signed a cease-fire in a bitter border war.

Israeli Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau said he hopes to talk with Muslim sheiks during the conference. ``Here we are not in a hostile neighborhood,'' he said.

Sheikh Abdoulaye Dieye of Senegal said he had mixed feelings as he entered the United Nations for the first time.

``I'm full of hope, but I have fears,'' he said. ``The summit is a very good thing for humanity if we manage it properly. There shouldn't be too much politics.''

Yet politics intruded on the issue of the Dalai Lama. During the summit's opening session, a group of about 150 Tibetan monks, exiles and activists protested in the plaza across from U.N. headquarters.

``To not invite him is totally incongruous with what we're trying to do here,'' said Yangdon Tsering, a Tibetan exile who lives in New Jersey.

Organizers invited the Dalai Lama only to the last two days of the conference _ being held at a New York hotel. He declined.

Bawa Jain, the chief summit organizer, said an eight-person delegation of Tibetan Buddhist leaders had been sent by the Dalai Lama, and that two of them would be speaking in the General Assembly hall.

``But I don't want it to get into anything political,'' said Jain, a member of the Jain faith from New Jersey by way of India. ``I've made that clear to them.''

The United Nations did not sponsor the event nor issue invitations. An interfaith coalition organized the program and picked the participants. The only delegations chosen by their government were China's and Vietnam's.

Among the leaders on the program were Cardinal Francis Arinze, president of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue; Cambodian Buddhist leader Samdech Preah Maha Ghosananda; the Grand Mufti of Bosnia, Mustafa Ceric and the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

Leaders who declined to come include Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, who sent a videotaped message, and Jerusalem Mufti Ikrema Sabri, who has refused to meet with Rabbi Lau.

The summit has received funding from Ted Turner's U.N. Foundation, Better World Fund and others. Turner, who once said that Christianity was ``for losers,'' will give the keynote address.

©Copyright 2000, Associated Press

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