Summit of religious leaders at the UN takes interfaith dialogue to a new level

31 August 2000

UNITED NATIONS — The images, broadcast around the globe by CNN and other major news networks, were compelling in their pageantry: some 1,000 religious leaders, representing every major world religion and resplendent in an array of saffron robes, purple vestments, white turbans and black cassocks, were gathered together in the stately General Assembly building of the United Nations.

Yet more significant than the imagery of the Millennium World Peace Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders, held 28-31 August 2000 at the UN and at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, was the substance of what was said -- and the great symbolism of having the opportunity to say it at the United Nations.

"This is very different than any interfaith meeting that has happened before," said Professor Lawrence Sullivan, director of the Harvard University Center for the Study of World Religions, who attended the Summit as an observer. "If you hold an ecumenical meeting in a church or synagogue or a mosque, that is not common ground. But the United Nations is a global common ground. It changes the nature of the conversation."

And the essence of the conversation was this: that it is time for the world's religious communities to stop fighting and arguing amongst themselves and, in an atmosphere of mutual respect and understanding, to begin working together -- in cooperation with secular leaders at the United Nations and elsewhere -- for peace, justice, the eradication of poverty, the protection of the environment, and social harmony.

"Humanity stands at a critical juncture in history, one that calls for strong moral and spiritual leadership to help set a new direction for society," states the preamble of a declaration issued by the Summit. "We, as religious and spiritual leaders recognize our special responsibility for the well-being of the human family and peace on earth." Among other things, the declaration condemned all violence in the name of religion, urged religious communities to respect the right to freedom of religion, and recognized "that men and women are equal partners in all aspects of life."

A "Galaxy of Leaders"

The Summit was organized by a wide range of interfaith groups, non-governmental organizations, and private foundations, including Ted Turner's UN Foundation / Better World Fund, which gave US$600,000 to the event. It drew, in the words of former UN Under Secretary General Maurice Strong, a veritable "galaxy of leaders" from all of the world's major religions, including the Baha'i Faith, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Jainism, Judaism, Islam, Shintoism, Sikhism, and Zoroastrianism, as well as indigenous religions from nearly every continent.

"This summit of religious and spiritual leaders is without doubt one of the most inspiring gatherings ever held here," said UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, in an address to the Summit. "Whatever your past, whatever your calling, and whatever the differences among you, your presence here at the United Nations signifies your commitment to our global mission of tolerance, development and peace."

Among the leaders in attendance were Francis Cardinal Arinze, President of the Pontifical Council on Interreligious Dialogue; Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel; Abdullah al-Obaid, Secretary General of the World Muslim League; Konrad Raiser, Secretary General of the World Council of Churches; Metropolitan Pitrim of the Russian Orthodox Church; Eshin Watanabe, Patriarch of Tendai Buddhism; Hindu spiritual leader Sri Mata Amritanandamayi Devi; Firoze Kotwal, High Priest of Zoroastrianism; and Albert Lincoln, Secretary General of the Baha'i International Community.

In all, some 50 "preeminent leaders," as Summit organizers termed them, were present. Together with hundreds of other delegates and representatives, many came from regions of significant religious conflict, including the Middle East, East Asia, the Indian sub-continent, and Eastern Europe. As well, a good number of the Summit's participants have not been significantly involved in interfaith events previously, according to Summit organizers.

"I've gone to many, many global interfaith gatherings, and what is unique about this gathering is many of the leaders are meeting face-to-face for the first time," said Bawa Jain, Secretary General of the Summit. "This is going to have a major domino effect. They are already reaching out to their own communities. I think you will see the global interfaith movement really evolving from this Summit."

Theme of Unity in Diversity

Dr. Lincoln of the Baha'i Community called on the gathering to work for a "global community based on unity in diversity." That could be done, said Dr. Lincoln, by working to identify the "core values that are common to all religious and spiritual traditions."

This theme -- that the world's religions can work together if they respect their diversity while understanding their essential commonalities -- was echoed by many during the Summit.

"The spirit loves diversity," said Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, a Hindu leader. "The time has come to love each other's religions as one's own."

Rev. Nichiko Niwano, President of Rissho Kosei Kai in Japan, said: "We are members of one family. Our lives are sustained by one great light."

Even secular leaders who addressed the Summit made similar points. "We are all one race, and there is only one God who manifests himself in different ways," said Ted Turner, the founder of CNN, who was the Summit's honorary chairman. "So maybe what we ought to do – what we have to do now is we have to work together."

The opening day of the Summit began with several hours of prayers by the leaders, one aim being to prepare the hall for next week's scheduled meeting of heads of state and government at the Millennium Summit.

"Above and beyond a remarkable maturation in inter-religious dialogue, this meeting of spiritual leaders in the Chamber of the United Nations General Assembly, on the eve of the Millennium Summit of the world's Heads of State and Government, marks an historic and vital step forward in creating the necessary mutual respect and cooperation between religious and political leadership, conditions without which world peace and the prosperity of humankind are probably unattainable," said Dr. Lincoln of the Baha'i Community.

"Our disordered world is in desperate need of a moral compass that is above passing fashion and untainted by the pervasive materialism of the modern era," said Dr. Lincoln. "The convening of this summit suggests that the world has become aware of this need and of the capacity latent in the world’s religious traditions."

For many participants, the level of dialogue, combined with the high level of representation, made for an historic event -- especially in view of the conflicts that have often broken out between religious communities.

"The significance of this Summit is that we have just completed a millennium -- a thousand years -- in which people too often killed other people in the name of God, a millennium that for my people begins with the first Crusade in 1096 and culminated in the Holocaust," said Rabbi Johnathon Sacks, Chief Rabbi of England.

"In my view this meeting was one in which we crossed a threshold, and we can never again go back to where we were," said Rabbi Sacks, "because the leaders of 70 different faiths have come together in public assembly at the United Nations to commit themselves with their faith communities to an agenda of mutual respect and peace."

"This is no quick fix," Rabbi Sacks added. "Hatreds that have been inculcated for centuries are not going to evaporate overnight. But the commitment of religious leaders to religious pluralism here has been a momentous event that will send a signal of hope to the world."