Bahai News - Summit of religious leaders at the UN takes interfaith dialogue to a new level
Summit of religious leaders at the UN takes interfaith
dialogue to a new level
UNITED NATIONS, 31 August 2000 (BWNS) -- The images, broadcast around the
globe by CNN and other major news networks, were compelling in their
pageantry: some 1,000 religious leaders, representing every major world
religion and resplendent in an array of saffron robes, purple vestments,
white turbans and black cassocks, were gathered together in the stately
General Assembly building of the United Nations.
Yet more significant than the imagery of the Millennium World Peace
Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders, held 28-31 August 2000 at the
UN and at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, was the substance of what was said
– and the great symbolism of having the opportunity to say it at the
"This is very different than any interfaith meeting that has happened
before," said Professor Lawrence Sullivan, director of the Harvard
University Center for the Study of World Religions, who attended the
Summit as an observer. "If you hold an ecumenical meeting in a church or
synagogue or a mosque, that is not common ground. But the United Nations
is a global common ground. It changes the nature of the conversation."
And the essence of the conversation was this: that it is time for the
world’s religious communities to stop fighting and arguing amongst
themselves and, in an atmosphere of mutual respect and understanding, to
begin working together -- in cooperation with secular leaders at the
United Nations and elsewhere -- for peace, justice, the eradication of
poverty, the protection of the environment, and social harmony.
"Humanity stands at a critical juncture in history, one that calls for
strong moral and spiritual leadership to help set a new direction for
society," states the preamble of a declaration issued by the Summit.
"We, as religious and spiritual leaders recognize our special
responsibility for the well-being of the human family and peace on
earth." Among other things, the declaration condemned all violence in
the name of religion, urged religious communities to respect the right
to freedom of religion, and recognized "that men and women are equal
partners in all aspects of life…"
A "Galaxy of Leaders"
The Summit was organized by a wide range of interfaith groups,
non-governmental organizations, and private foundations, including Ted
Turner’s UN Foundation / Better World Fund, which gave US$600,000 to
the event. It drew, in the words of former UN Under Secretary General
Maurice Strong, a veritable "galaxy of leaders" from all of the world's
major religions, including the Baha'i Faith, Buddhism, Christianity,
Hinduism, Jainism, Judaism, Islam, Shintoism, Sikhism, and
Zoroastrianism, as well as indigenous religions from nearly every
"This summit of religious and spiritual leaders is without doubt one of
the most inspiring gatherings ever held here," said UN Secretary General
Kofi Annan, in an address to the Summit. "Whatever your past, whatever
your calling, and whatever the differences among you, your presence here
at the United Nations signifies your commitment to our global mission of
tolerance, development and peace."
Among the leaders in attendance were Francis Cardinal Arinze, President
of the Pontifical Council on Interreligious Dialogue; Chief Rabbi Israel
Meir Lau, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel; Abdullah al-Obaid, Secretary
General of the World Muslim League; Konrad Raiser, Secretary General of
the World Council of Churches; Metropolitan Pitrim of the Russian
Orthodox Church; Eshin Watanabe, Patriarch of Tendai Buddhism; Hindu
spiritual leader Sri Mata Amritanandamayi Devi; Firoze Kotwal, High
Priest of Zoroastrianism; and Albert Lincoln, Secretary General of the
Baha'i International Community.
In all, some 50 "preeminent leaders," as Summit organizers termed them,
were present. Together with hundreds of other delegates and
representatives, many came from regions of significant religious
conflict, including the Middle East, East Asia, the Indian
sub-continent, and Eastern Europe. As well, a good number of the
Summit's participants have not been significantly involved in interfaith
events previously, according to Summit organizers.
"I've gone to many, many global interfaith gatherings, and what is
unique about this gathering is many of the leaders are meeting
face-to-face for the first time," said Bawa Jain, Secretary General of
the Summit. "This is going to have a major domino effect. They are
already reaching out to their own communities. I think you will see the
global interfaith movement really evolving from this Summit."
Theme of Unity in Diversity
Dr. Lincoln of the Baha'i Community called on the gathering to work for
a "global community based on unity in diversity." That could be done,
said Dr. Lincoln, by working to identify the "core values that are
common to all religious and spiritual traditions."
This theme – that the world’s religions can work together if they
respect their diversity while understanding their essential
commonalities – was echoed by many during the Summit.
"The spirit loves diversity," said Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, a Hindu leader.
"The time has come to love each other's religions as one's own."
Rev. Nichiko Niwano, President of Rissho Kosei Kai in Japan, said: "We
are members of one family. Our lives are sustained by one great light."
Even secular leaders who addressed the Summit made similar points. "We
are all one race, and there is only one God who manifests himself in
different ways," said Ted Turner, the founder of CNN, who was the
Summit’s honorary chairman. "So maybe what we ought to do – what
we have to do now is we have to work together."
The opening day of the Summit began with several hours of prayers by the
leaders, one aim being to prepare the hall for next week’s scheduled
meeting of heads of state and government at the Millennium Summit.
"Above and beyond a remarkable maturation in inter-religious dialogue,
this meeting of spiritual leaders in the Chamber of the United Nations
General Assembly, on the eve of the Millennium Summit of the world’s
Heads of State and Government, marks an historic and vital step forward
in creating the necessary mutual respect and cooperation between
religious and political leadership, conditions without which world peace
and the prosperity of humankind are probably unattainable," said Dr.
Lincoln of the Baha'i Community.
"Our disordered world is in desperate need of a moral compass that is
above passing fashion and untainted by the pervasive materialism of the
modern era," said Dr. Lincoln. "The convening of this summit suggests
that the world has become aware of this need and of the capacity latent
in the world’s religious traditions."
For many participants, the level of dialogue, combined with the high
level of representation, made for an historic event – especially in
view of the conflicts that have often broken out between religious
"The significance of this Summit is that we have just completed a
millennium -- a thousand years -- in which people too often killed other
people in the name of God, a millennium that for my people begins with
the first Crusade in 1096 and culminated in the Holocaust," said Rabbi
Johnathon Sacks, Chief Rabbi of England.
"In my view this meeting was one in which we crossed a threshold, and we
can never again go back to where we were," said Rabbi Sacks, "because
the leaders of 70 different faiths have come together in public assembly
at the United Nations to commit themselves with their faith communities
to an agenda of mutual respect and peace."
"This is no quick fix," Rabbi Sacks added. "Hatreds that have been
inculcated for centuries are not going to evaporate overnight. But the
commitment of religious leaders to religious pluralism here has been a
momentous event that will send a signal of hope to the world."
©Copyright 2000, Baha'i World News Service
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