Religious leaders gather for their own UN Summit, also pledging to work for peace and tolerance

NEW YORK - 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 Hall 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 saying it at the United Nations.

"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 extreme 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."

More specifically, the declaration condemns all violence in the name of religion, calls for the protection of the environment for future generations, urges religious communities to respect the right to freedom of religion, and recognizes "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 Bahá'í Faith, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, Shintoism, Sikhism, and Zoroastrianism, as well as indigenous religions from nearly every continent.

"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; 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; Jain scholar Dr. L.M. Singhvi; Sikh leader Jatehdar Joginder Singh; Firoze Kotwal, High Priest of Zoroastrianism; and Albert Lincoln, Secretary General of the Bahá'í 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 subcontinent, and Eastern Europe. A good number of the Summit's participants had 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. I think you will see the global interfaith movement really evolving from this Summit."

One goal of the Summit was to develop an "International Advisory Council of Religious and Spiritual Leaders" that would offer "support to the United Nations and the United Nations Secretary General in peacemaking and peacekeeping efforts." Such an advisory council, it was proposed, would also have counterparts at the regional and national levels.

In an interview six weeks after the Summit, Mr. Jain said that religious leaders had indeed begun forming national level councils in a number of countries, including India, Japan, South Africa and the United Kingdom.

Summit organizers are moving slowly, however, on putting together the proposed international advisory council, according to Mr. Jain. "There was a lot of pressure on me before the Summit to actually declare the formation of the council at the Summit," Mr. Jain said. "I was opposed to that. I think we need to engage in an extensive process. Otherwise people feel they are not consulted with."

Mr. Jain said he will now head up a small steering group to develop a "mission, purpose, criteria and structure," for the creation of an international advisory council. Any proposal would be widely circulated, he said, "to all of the delegates to the Summit and to religious communities for their input."

At the UN, formal engagement with world religions outside of the traditional consultative status offered to religious groups as non-governmental organizations is controversial. Some governments are wary of involvement in policy-making by religious leaders and the United Nations Secretariat has been careful to heed their concerns. Although the August Summit was held at the UN, UN officials and Summit organizers took pains to state that it was not an official UN event, but rather an event organized by non-UN groups which was allowed to take place at the UN.

As well, Mr. Jain was not invited to address the Millennium Summit, which was held a week later. He said several governments had blocked such a presentation.

Mr. Jain said, however, that he received supportive comments from many government delegations during the Millennium Summit and that he intends to proceed with the creation of the international advisory council. Such a council, he said, would be "autonomous and independent," with a focus on being "available as a resource to the UN." "We do not want to replicate the work of any of the other interfaith organizations," he said. "The focus is to help support and strengthen the UN."

While some governments want the UN to keep its distance from religion, many UN agencies recognize the importance of working with religious organizations.

On the final day of the Summit, a panel of UN officials - including Nitin Desai, Under Secretary General for the Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Mark Malloch Brown, Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and Juan Somavia, Director General of the International Labor Organization - was nearly unanimous in acknowledging the spiritual dimension of the UN's work and the need to work more closely with religions.

"The unprecedented depth and breadth of participation at this event, bringing together leaders from nearly every faith and every corner of our world is a tribute to the extraordinary congruence between your shared goals and our own," said UNDP Administrator Brown.

The Declaration

Summit organizers said virtually all of the religious leaders present signed the Summit's main declaration, titled "Commitment to Global Peace," which acknowledges that religious beliefs have sometimes been used to "create divisions and fuel hostilities" but states firmly that "there can be no real peace until all groups and communities acknowledge the cultural and religious diversity of the human family in a spirit of mutual respect and understanding."

"[N]o individual, group or nation can any longer live as an isolated microcosm in our interdependent world, but rather all must realize that our every action has an impact on others and the emerging global community," states the declaration.

The declaration calls on religious leaders to do more to "awaken in all individuals and communities a sense of shared responsibility for the well-being of the human family as a whole and a recognition that all human beings regardless of religion, race, gender and ethnic origin have the right to education, health care, and an opportunity to achieve a secure and sustainable livelihood"; to "promote the equitable distribution of wealth within nations and among nations, eradicating poverty and reversing the current trend toward a widening gap between rich and poor"; and to "educate our communities about the urgent need to care for the earth's ecological systems and all forms of life and to support efforts to make environmental protection and restoration integral to all development planning and activity."

A number of smaller meetings among religious leaders dealt with regional issues, such as relations between Jews and Muslims in the Middle East and relations between Christians and Hindus in India. Mr. Jain said those meetings yielded several specific agreements and understandings.

A group of Hindu and Christian leaders, for example, negotiated and signed an "informal working understanding" on "Freedom from Coercion in Religion." That agreement states that "the free and generous preaching of the Christian Gospel is welcome in India" but also condemns "the use of coercion and religious proselytism," specifically rejecting "the exploitation of the issue of poverty in religious outreach and missionary work" and stating that "no altruistic work will be a means for conversion."

Theme of Unity in Diversity

In their speeches, religious leaders stressed many common themes. Perhaps foremost among them was the idea that the world's religions can work together if they emphasize their essential commonalities while respecting their diversity.

Dr. Lincoln of the Bahá'í Community, for example, 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."

Others echoed this call. "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 Better World Fund's Ted Turner, also the founder of CNN (Cable News Network), 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 Summit's opening day began with several hours of prayers, one aim being to "spiritually prepare" the hall for the Millennium Summit. [See page one.]

"Above and beyond a remarkable maturation in interreligious 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 Bahá'í 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."

Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of England, said the Summit was historic for its focus on peace among the religions. "We have just completed a millennium in which people too often killed other people in the name of God," he said.

"In my view this meeting was one in which we crossed a threshold," said Rabbi Sacks. "We can never again go back to where we were, 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."

Link to the complete Millennium World Peace Summit Declaration