UN forum sees interfaith dialogue as essential to peace
UNITED NATIONS — Last month some 33 governments sent delegations to a special conference here on how religions and governments can work together for peace.
"The High-Level Conference on Interfaith Cooperation for Peace" was sponsored by a unique coalition of governments, United Nations agencies and religious non-governmental organizations, including Baha'i representatives.
Participants said the 21 September event drew a wide range of participation at the UN, reflecting rising concern about the spread of religious intolerance and the need to promote religious dialogue and tolerance as a remedy.
"What was most significant was that perhaps the best represented sector was governments, particularly from the developing world," 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.
"Many of these countries are suffering from the consequences of religious conflict. They were the ones at the table, wanting to learn, wanting to share their perspective on the importance of promoting religious dialogue and cooperation," said Mr. Huffines, who is also a representative of the Baha'i community of the United States to the UN.
In addition to some 33 government representatives, participants included a number of UN agency officials and leaders from various religious groups and civil society organizations.
The event was organized by the Tripartite Forum on Interfaith Cooperation for Peace, formed in 2005.
Alberto Romulo, Secretary of Foreign Affairs of Philippines and the chair of the Forum, said the event reflected an "unprecedented level" of participation by governments, religions and UN agencies.
"Some of the atrocities, violence and problems which the world encounters rest squarely at the doors of proponents of varied religious orientations," said Secretary Romulo, stressing the need for new levels of dialogue and cooperation.
Abdoulaye Wade, President of the Republic of Senegal, delivered the keynote address, setting the tone for the event, which focused on the theme of "Contributing to Peace-building and Development."
"Interfaith dialogue has become an urgent necessity," said President Wade, adding that the world is currently fighting "the demons of suspicion, ignorance and contempt for people of other cultures."
Intolerance and extremism fly in the face of the sacredness of true religious purpose, said President Wade, suggesting instead that people should examine the common roots of religions and recognize that they all come from a source that "prescribes good and encourages forgiveness and love."
President Wade, who is a Muslim, said there is no justification for violence in the name of the Qu'ran. "The real message has always been rapprochement and harmony."
Haya Rashid Al Khalifa, ambassador to the UN from Bahrain and president of the 61st General Assembly said the initiative was "a necessity for our time."
"To think that any one of us can become secure while others are not is purely an illusion," said Ambassador Al Khalifa. "Everyone must be engaged in this process to fight misperception.
"In this era of interdependence and globalization, it's time for people to reach out and live together in harmony and peace as we all belong to one large human family," she said.
Religious leaders at the conference - which was held also to coincide with the UN International Day of Peace, celebrated each year on 21 September - echoed similar themes.
Bishop Joseph Humper, United Methodist Church in Sierra Leone, and chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission spoke about what religions have in common. The ultimate goal of dialogue is to reach a better understanding about the different and the new. "This dialogue must be seen as means of eliminating violence, hatred and bigotry."
Rabbi Arthur Schneier, president of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation, said: "We cannot permit God to be hijacked and religion to be misused."
Dr. John Grayzel, holder of the Baha'i Chair for World Peace at the University of Maryland, said religious leaders have an obligation to promote tolerance and, even, unity among religions, in recognition of "a common source of moral authority which takes precedent over baser determinants of daily action and response."
"Religious leadership holds the power to set the tone for acceptance, tolerance, respect, and mutual collaboration for the common good of humanity," said Dr. Grayzel.
"If the religious organizations of the world were to unite they could initiate a new global response group on ready alert to step forward at the first appearance of contention, conflict, or misunderstanding.
"This group could bring to the conscience of all, regardless of any disagreements and apparent divergence of interest, a level of reflection that recognizes humanity's common origin and, fundamentally, common faith," said. Dr. Grayzel.
Also addressing the conference were representatives of various United Nations agencies and offices, including UNESCO, UNFPA, UNDP and the UN-NGLS.
Radhika Coomaraswamy, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, said there is a growing body of evidence that ethnic violence is considerably less likely to erupt in cities where interfaith organizations are present.
"The notion of partnership is absolutely integral if we are to ever find world peace," said Ms. Coomaraswamy, saying that religious groups can play an important role in issues such as the recruitment of child soldiers or by intervening at the outbreak of war.
For the future, said Mr. Huffines, the Forum hopes to see the UN General Assembly pass a resolution promoting further steps to promote interfaith dialogue and peace sponsored by the United Nations, including the holding of a one-day, informational interactive hearing with civil society on interfaith cooperation and peace.