Interfaith

World religious leaders call for action on poverty, peace, and the environment

In Brief: 
  • Some 80 world religious leaders gathered at the World Religions Summit, inviting G8 and G20 leaders to “inspired leadership and action”
  • Specifically, they asked global political leaders to do more to halt poverty, protect the environment, and end violent conflict
  • Among the ideas that emerged was that religious groups and organizations must take a greater role in the public sphere if they are to fully address social issues at the political level — while also redoubling their own efforts at the grassroots level

WINNIPEG, Canada — Religious leaders from around the world convened in June in this central Canadian prairie city to challenge global political leaders to take “inspired leadership and action” to halt poverty, protect the environment, and work harder to end violent conflict.

The World Religions Summit, held 23-24 June 2010, brought together more than 80 leaders from at least 20 countries, representing all the major independent world religions, including the Bahá’í Faith.

Convened in advance of the G8 and G20 meetings held a few days later in and around Toronto, the explicit goal of the Summit was to reflect the moral conscience of the world’s peoples as embodied in global faith traditions.

Acknowledging our common humanity and embracing the imperative to treat all persons with dignity, we affirm that no one person is more or less valuable than another,” said a Summit statement, issued after many hours of deliberations at the University of Winnipeg.

“We urge the political leaders to consider first the vulnerable among us, particularly our children, and to work together to address the dehumanizing scourge of poverty and injustice, and practice and promote care for our common environment, the Earth,” the statement said.

The Summit was the sixth in a series of interfaith gatherings associated with the annual G8 meetings. The Reverend Dr. James Christie, secretary general of the Summit, said the meeting and its output were directed principally at the leaders of the so-called “Group of 8” countries because they represent the nations that have the most power to effect change in the world.

“The reality is that these nations have the money, they have the clout, and they make a difference,” said Dr. Christie.

As an interfaith gathering, the Summit was also notable for the deliberative process that went into drafting the statement. Although an advance draft had been prepared, delegates spent a considerable amount of time at the Summit consulting about revisions.

Need for grassroots action

Among the ideas that emerged was that religious groups and organizations must take a greater role in the public sphere if they are to fully address social issues at the political level — and to increase their own efforts at the grassroots level.

In the deliberations, Jim Cornelius of the Canadian Foodgrains Bank told other participants that politicians have told him that while they agree with the goals of things like spending more to fight poverty, they can’t act without political support.

The politicians say, frankly, that ‘if I do what you tell me to do, I am not going to be in office for very long,’” said Cornelius, whose organization represents 32 Christian denominations.

He and others concluded it was important for the religions themselves to work harder to motivate their own followers to “create a political space” for politicians to act on social issues.

Others said it was also important for the religious communities themselves to redouble their own efforts to address poverty, the environment, and conflict resolution, to set an example.

“We are living in a very critical period in history,” said His Holiness, Aram I, of the Armenian Orthodox Church. “We religions, I believe what is important for us is building community. It is not just living side by side, coexisting peacefully. It is a question of building integrated communities, communities of integrated diversity, accepting and respecting the others, but living together.

"What is important for us is building community. It is not just living side by side, coexisting peacefully. It is a question of building integrated communities, communities of integrated diversity, accepting and respecting the others, but living together."

--His Holiness, Aram I, of the Armenian Orthodox Church

“This is a basic value in all religions, and we have to tell the G8 and the world that we religions not only speak together but that we are working together to build communities of integrated dialogue,” said His Holiness Aram I.

Bahá’í participation

Among the Bahá’í representatives at the Summit was Susanne Tamas of Canada, who was joined by Bahá’ís from five other countries — France, Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

“We believe that spiritual principles need to be brought into the discussion of such challenges as poverty, the environment, and peace and security,” said Ms. Tamas. “We want to create a space where the political leaders can reflect and make decisions for the long term, and for the common good, rather than on short-term, national concerns.”

“We’re also here to learn — because these issues are complex and we need to learn what other faiths are saying about them,” she said.

As a prelude to the Summit, the Bahá’í community of Canada sponsored a seminar on human rights and religious freedom. The day-long event — held in Winnipeg on Monday, 21 June — brought together four human rights experts from different religious backgrounds. [See side story]

“Courageous and concrete” actions

The Summit’s final statement asked global political leaders to take “courageous and concrete” actions to combat poverty, heal the environment, and make peace.

The section on poverty noted that more than a billion of the world’s people are “chronically hungry” and that women, children, and indigenous peoples are among those most affected by poverty.

“The magnitude of poverty would be overwhelming were it not for the knowledge that this global inequity can be transformed into a shared life of human flourishing for all. Together, we have the capacity and the global resources to end extreme poverty and its impacts,” the statement said, urging countries to meet Millennium Development Goals.

“We condemn religiously motivated terrorism and extremism and commit to stop the teaching and justification of the use of violence between and among our faith communities.”

“All countries must do their part: educate girl children to high school level as one of the most effective development interventions; practice good governance; combat corruption, and put in place poverty reduction policies that ensure everyone has access to basic rights such as nutritious food, safe water, health care, education and economic opportunity,” said the statement.

The statement noted that all faith traditions “call us to careful stewardship of the Earth.” It warned that “bold action is needed now” to stop climate change. “We must move beyond short-term political interests and arguments over who pays,” said the statement.

Peace and justice linked

On peace, the statement said “well-being and shared security” can “only be realized when grounded in justice.” It called on governments to halt the nuclear arms race, and to make new investments to create a “culture of peace.”

The statement also noted that religion itself has been used to justify violent acts — and the leaders here vowed to work against religious violence.

“We condemn religiously motivated terrorism and extremism and commit to stop the teaching and justification of the use of violence between and among our faith communities,” the statement said.

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