Religious leaders worldwide respond positively to message on eliminating religious prejudice
NEW YORK — The Bahá'í community has been greatly encouraged by the response of religious leaders to the April 2002 message from the Bahá'í Faith's international governing body, the Universal House of Justice. The message calls for decisive action to eradicate intolerance and fanaticism.
Delivered so far to at least 1,600 leaders in more than 40 countries by the worldwide Bahá'í community's network of national and local level governing councils, the message warns that the "rising fires of religious prejudice" threaten to "ignite a worldwide conflagration" of "unthinkable" consequences. It urges the leaders of all religions to condemn fanaticism, to renounce claims to exclusivity or finality, and to undertake a wider interfaith dialogue.
The response as of the end of June has been overwhelmingly positive, with religious leaders, academics who study religion, and specialists in related fields saying that the message is a much needed and timely summons.
"This is the message. This is the moment," said Professor Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of Great Britain and the Commonwealth. "We are facing the greatest challenge that God has ever given us and this is the message we need."
Moreover, in line with general increase in interfaith activity and cooperation worldwide, many leaders -- whether Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Islamic or other -- have praised the message's call for a greater interfaith discourse.
"Multiple paths to the Divine is something we promote," said Dr. Karan Singh, the New Delhi-based chairman of the Temple of Understanding. "I do appreciate the statement and the role of the Bahá'í Faith in trying to bring about religious harmony and understanding."
Reports from Bahá'í communities indicate that delegations bearing the message were well received. "We felt an extraordinary courtesy from them all, a response not so much to us in particular, but to the occasion itself and the inherent weight of the message," said Amy Marks, a member of the local Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of Cape Town, South Africa, which presented the message to a dozen local religious leaders.
The message points to a general trend towards oneness over the last century, noting that prejudices based on gender, race, or nationality have been widely recognized as unacceptable by people everywhere. Despite humanity's integration on other levels, however, religious prejudice persists.
"Tragically, organized religion, whose very reason for being entails service to the cause of brotherhood and peace, behaves all too frequently as one of the most formidable obstacles in the path; to cite a particular painful fact, it has long lent its credibility to fanaticism," writes the Universal House of Justice.
"With every day that passes, danger grows that the rising fires of religious prejudice will ignite a worldwide conflagration the consequences of which are unthinkable," continues the message. "The crisis calls on religious leadership for a break with the past as decisive as those that opened the way for society to address equally corrosive prejudices of race, gender and nation." [The full text of the message can be found on the World Wide Web at: http://www.bahai.org/article-1-1-0-1.html]
National Bahá'í communities focused first on distributing the message to national religious leaders, along with academics and journalists who specialize in religion. In Brazil, for example, the National Spiritual Assembly prepared a list of some 44 national religious leaders, theologians, and religious academics, and then sent the message by mail or personal delivery. As a second step, some 330 copies of the message were sent to 66 local Spiritual Assemblies in Brazil, for distribution to local religious leaders.
"In Brazilian society, religious divisions are a problem," said Roberto Eghrari, secretary of external affairs for the Brazilian National Spiritual Assembly. "So we believe the distribution of this message is very timely, that it has the potential to bring new understandings. And so far, the reaction has been very positive."
A number of religious leaders indicated that they will distribute the message among other leaders in their own organizations. In one African country, the national Muslim council requested additional copies for distribution to all mosques in the capitol. An academic dean at a Catholic-run Latin American university expressed interest in working with the Bahá'í community to develop a program for professors and students at the university that makes use of the message.
In many countries, leaders wrote back to Bahá'í communities with letters of appreciation.
In the United Kingdom, George Carey, the Archbishop of Canterbury and head of the Anglican Church, wrote: "I very much share your view that we all need to address the question of how our different faiths can become forces for peace and justice. Much honest discussion between the communities will be required as we pursue this goal."
In Tanzania, Biharilal Keshavji Tanna of the Hindu Council of Tanzania wrote: "I have read the document with great interest and feel that it contains a supremely important message not only to the leaders of the faith groups, but to all thinking individuals, who must shoulder the duty and responsibility of breaking down barriers amongst the various groups of the family of mankind."