Civil Society

At the UN, governments and religious NGOs convene a peace conference

UNITED NATIONS – At its heart, the United Nations is a secular institution. The UN Charter, for example, does not mention religion, other than to encourage nations not to discriminate on religious grounds when it comes to human rights.

And for many years, in both official and unofficial activities, the UN kept its distance from religion, preferring to deal with other ideologies and challenges that seemed more directly related to the UN's basic mission of promoting world peace.

More recently, however, and especially since the 9/11 attacks, many at the UN have come to recognize that religion is a force in world events that must be addressed.

Perhaps the most significant recent evidence of this trend can be seen in the coming together of an unusual group here on 22 June 2005 to discuss the increasing need to address interfaith harmony in world affairs.

Held in Conference Room Four at UN headquarters, the day-long “Conference on Interfaith Cooperation for Peace” brought together three distinct groups — governments, UN agencies, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Sponsors said it was the first time ever that representatives of those three groups have convened a substantive interfaith event at the United Nations.

“Religions lie at the heart of each culture and civilization,” said Alberto G. Romulo, Secretary of Foreign Affairs of the Philippines, who opened the event. “We look forward to a more proactive approach of religious NGOs, in partnership with governments, in promoting sustainable peace and security, not only at the global but also at the national and community level.”

At the end of the day, participants produced an “outcome document” that urged the UN to take steps to encourage greater interreligious dialogue and cooperation, suggesting in particular that world leaders gathered for the September Millennium Plus Five Summit “should recognize that dialogues among civilizations, cultures, and religions constitute vital contributions towards the promotion of a just and sustainable peace.”

“The 2005 September Summit should call for an expansion and deepening of the relationship between the United Nations and civil society, including religious NGOs,” said the outcome document, which also called for the formation of an “open-ended tripartite consultative group” to continue the work of the Conference.

“Part of the solution”

“There is a clear recognition at the UN that if religion is part of the problem, it must now be a part of the solution,” said Jeffery Huffines, a member of the Committee of Religious Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) at the UN who served on the planning committee for the Conference.

“Part of what makes this event unique and unprecedented is that, rather than coming from the religious community or even from the UN itself, this conference was driven by the concerns of member states, who are suggesting now that the most effective solution to religious extremism and terror is to encourage interreligious dialogue,” said Mr. Huffines, who is a representative of the Bahá'í community of the United States to the UN.

The event brought together participants from a wide range of backgrounds and disciplines, from high-level United Nations ambassadors to academic experts on religion and conflict resolution to representatives from religious organizations themselves.

By and large, speakers focused on the overall need to recognize the importance of religious cooperation and understanding in any overall global effort to promote peace — especially in the context of religious conflict in many parts of the world.

“If religions have contributed to the peace of the world, we have also to recognize that they have been used to create division and fuel hostilities,” said Jean Ping, President of the UN General Assembly. “It is important that in building our civilizations, we enhance interfaith cooperation among governments, civil society, and the United Nations system.”

Ambassador Munir Akram of Pakistan, president of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), said that while there had been clashes between various faiths and cultures throughout history, such conflicts arose mainly because of competing political and/or economic motivations, not from the fundamental precepts of any religions.

“The basic tenets of all faiths and cultures are fundamentally similar, prescribing indivisible peace, dignity, honesty, equality, harmony, tolerance, cooperation, patience, and fortitude,” said Ambassador Akram.

Katherine Marshall of the World Bank shared the Bank's experience with the World Faiths Development Dialogue, saying that the mere discussion of religion at international institutions like the World Bank and the UN can be controversial. She said there was a common perception among many in the development field, particularly, that religions are problematic because they are “divisive, dangerous, and defunct.”

“There is a sense of ‘Why would we want to engage in dialogue with people whose views are so fundamentally different?'” said Ms. Marshall, adding that she believes dialogue between secular groups and religions is essential. Among other things, she said, religions and religious groups have a huge role to play in ending poverty.

Ambassador Gunter Mulack, Germany 's Commissioner for Dialogue with the Islamic World, called for all countries to uphold the right to freedom of religion, as expressed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

“Despite national legislation and internationally binding covenants, many states continue to actively deny their citizens the right to freedom of religion, including the right to observe, practice, or change religion or belief. Many states fail to protect their citizens' right to freedom of religion or belief or to promote tolerance for others' religion or belief,” said Ambassador Mulack.

“Germany believes that interfaith and intercommunity dialogue, along with education and consciousness-raising initiatives, holds the key to unlocking many of these problems,” said Ambassador Mulack.

The Bahá'í view

Bani Dugal, principal representative of the Bahá'í International Community to the United Nations, said that persistent religious intolerance requires “a fundamental change in the way that believers of different religions relate to one another.”

“The remedy for the repeated crises plaguing our communities today is to center our efforts and frank deliberations on that which we hold in common rather than that which sets us apart,” she said.

The key to interfaith harmony and cooperation is to focus on the essential oneness of all religions.

“It is this essential unity of religion, across the tremendous diversity of history, culture, tradition, philosophy, and practice, that should now become the operating principle of religious discourse,” said Ms. Dugal.

Ms. Dugal said that growing numbers of people are already coming to realize that the truth underlying all religions is, in its essence, one. “This recognition arises not through a resolution of theological disputes but through an awareness of the reality that there is only one human family and that the Divine Essence, from which all life has sprung, has also been the impulse behind the principles and laws of the great religions of the world,” she said.

Co-sponsors of the Conference on Interfaith Cooperation for Peace were:

Member-states:

  • Argentina
  • Bangladesh
  • Ecuador
  • The Gambia
  • Germany
  • Indonesia
  • Iran
  • Kazakhstan
  • Malaysia
  • Morocco
  • Pakistan
  • Philippines
  • Senegal
  • Spain
  • Thailand
  • Tunisia

UN Agencies:

  • The UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs
  • UNESCO
  • The World Bank

Non-Governmental Organizations:

  • The Committee of Religious NGOs at the UN
  • The Bahá'í International Community
  • The International Public Policy Institute
  • Soka Gakkai International
  • The Temple of Understanding
  • The United Methodist Church
  • The United Religions Initiative
  • The World Peace Prayer Society
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