Learning to live together: Is religion doing enough?

28 November 2016
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BIC NEW YORK — Religious leaders have a responsibility to consider if their actions are helping people learn how to live together—or keeping them apart. This message formed part of the keynote address given by a Bahá’í representative at an international conference on security. Diane Ala’i spoke about the critical role that religious leadership can play, as well as the harm that can be caused by insisting that only one faith hold religious truth.

“Building peaceful societies and safeguarding freedom of religion and belief depend on the abandonment of claims of exclusivity and finality by religious leaders,” she said.

In her address to the Global Summit on Religion, Peace and Security, which brought together senior official from the United Nations, ambassadors, and representatives from other European governments, Ms. Ala’i rejected the idea that religious communities only needed to put up with each other. “Living side by side is not enough,” she explained. “People of different faiths must learn to live together.”

Her remarks echoed the themes of a well-known letter addressed to the World’s Religious Leaders in 2002 by the Universal House of Justice, the supreme governing body of the Bahá’í Faith. It drew attention to the unavoidable conclusion that, all too frequently, organized religion has been an obstacle to brotherhood and peace rather than helping to bring it about.

Ms. Ala’i stressed that another way was possible—that the real influence of religion in the community should be to bring people together. This was not just hypothetical. Bahá’í communities around the world have direct experience of how this can be achieved.

“We are finding,” she continued, “that collective service to the common good is a powerful factor in dispelling misunderstandings between people.”

This has even proved true in an environment like Iran, where the authorities and the religious leaders are openly hostile towards the Bahá’ís and are taking every possible measure to isolate them and keep them apart from mainstream society. “The community has been able to contribute to the changing of hearts and minds in the country through the constructive resilience it has demonstrated in the face of decades of oppression, working shoulder to shoulder with fellow citizens for the betterment of Iranian society,” Ms. Ala’i said.

“In its constructive approach to social change, it has witnessed a rising level of support from fellow Iranians within and outside of the country in recent years.”

Alongside other international organizations, the Bahá’í International Community was a participant at the three-day summit which was organized by the United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect as well as the International Association for the Defence of Religious Liberty.

The text of this article was updated on 17 March 2017.