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Interfaith Programs

National Conference on Interreligious Harmony Held in India

Panaji, Goa, India - UPF-India held its first National Conference on Interreligious Peace and Harmony on November 5 at the International Centre Goa in Panaji, the capital of Goa state.

Governor Bharat Vir Wanchoo inaugurated the conference by stating that religious fanaticism and ignorance about other religions lead to violence. "Religions have not become outdated or extinct," he said. "They teach us to live for the sake of others; to become other-centered, not self-centered. The spirit of all religions is one and the same—human happiness and unity. India’s contribution to global peace can and must be its rich spiritual tradition of religious harmony."

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UPF-India honors the potential of all religions to promote global peace and stability, recognizing that all religions have common principles that can be used to promote harmony and unity among people. "One of the focuses of UPF is interreligious dialogue," said Hon. Eduardo Faleiro, Chairman of UPF-India, in welcoming the participants. "UPF’s motto, 'One Family Under God,' is a concept I deeply believe in and it resonates with Indian traditions." He commented that the religious leaders who would be speaking were not just preaching religion but practicing their belief in interreligious harmony on a daily basis.

Three things made this conference unique and successful: 1) the highest level of religious leaders attending and—equally important—their longtime personal relationships running over decades; 2) the support from the Indian government at its highest level with messages received from the President and Prime Minister, the Minister of Defense, and a leading opposition figure; and 3) the statements from the representatives of Islam and Christianity, which have a history of focusing on conversion in India, were genuinely interreligious in nature.

The conference was addressed by eminent religious leaders of the Christian, Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh faiths and moderated by Krishna Adhikari, Secretary General of UPF-India. Excerpts of their statements follow:

Acharya Srivatsa Goswami, Acharya of Sri Radharaman Mandir: "We must not only work for interreligious dialogue and harmony, but also work with governments and civil society. Religions can become respectful partners for human development. If interreligious dialogue is not coupled with interfaith action then pluralism is bane. True interreligious dialogue and cooperation are the essence of religious pluralism’s great strength."

Advocate Irfan A. Engineer, Chairman of the Centre for the Study of Society and Secularism in Mumbai: "Religions have core values and rituals. The rituals will always be different and unique. We must go beyond the rituals. We must find the core spiritual values in our faith tradition which are in other faiths too. The highest value in religion is love."

Imam Umer Ahmed Ilyasi, Chief Imam of the All India Imam Organisation of Mosques: "India is the heartland of religious diversity. … The concept of tolerance leaves room for a negative element to be there. But respect is only positive. We must respect the faiths and values of all religions. Respect the diversity of all religions."

Shivamurthi Shivacharya Mahaswamiji, seer of Taralabalu Jagadguru Brihannath in Sirigere, Bangalore: "Nation-states have well defined boundary lines. But the boundaries between religions can be even stronger. Therefore, religious leaders need to ask themselves this question, ‘Is our preaching prejudiced to favor our own religion, or are we preaching in order to teach people higher spiritual values?’"

Fr. Sebastian Painadath, Society of Jesus, founder and director of the Sameeksha Centre for Indian Spirituality: "Religious pluralism in the Catholic Church accelerated after the Second Vatican Council, which acknowledged and sought to promote good social and cultural values in all societies. No two leaves on a tree are the same, even though the roots and sap are one. Respect for all religions comes naturally to Indians, we are born with it."

Singh Sahib Manjit Singh, Chairman of the Sikh Institute of Spiritual Studies and former jathedar of the Akal Takht Sahib: "Religious harmony is like a bouquet of flowers. Each flower has its own color, its own fragrance and its own shape. Nonetheless, when they are put together in a bouquet then the individual beauty is enhanced even more. The best way to live our religion is by practicing true love."

Messages of support

Messages of support were received from President Pranab Mukherjee, Vice President Hamid Ansari, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Defense Minister A.K. Antony, and senior BJP leader L.K. Advani.

"Peace, non-violence, truth and brotherhood are the underlying principles of every religion. Religions need to unite and strengthen the bond of brotherhood within. Religious leaders must strive to make efforts to usher in unity and harmony and help strengthen the secular social and cultural fabric of our society." - A.K. Anthony, Minister of Defense

"Communal harmony and the co-existence of all the great religions of the world are the building blocks of our civilization. Those who promote divisive agendas of communalism and casteism threaten to disrupt the unity and integrity of our country. Harmony between humans and nature, between communities and peoples is the very basis of civilized existence." - Pankaj Pachauri, Communications Adviser, Prime Minister's Office

See also coverage of the proceedings in the Times of India on Nov. 6 and 7.

Conference declaration

At the end, speakers signed the conference declaration:

IT WAS REALISED:

That India is home to all major faith traditions in the world, and the only home to some;

That in a country like India, having its secular polity, life is nonetheless largely shaped and guided by religion;

That religious processes, together with the civil society, should act responsibly for the universal good;

That in this interreligious environment there is a need for better understanding of each other;

That religious leaders should take the initiative of dialoguing with each other in order to achieve peace and harmony;

And, taking a cue from and in support of the United Nations World Interfaith Harmony Week 2012 commemorated for the first time at the UN General Assembly Hall under the theme, “Common Ground for the Common Good,”

WE, THE UNDERSIGNED, AFFIRM:

1. That in a country like India, which celebrates diversity, faith traditions need to: a) dialogue with each other, b) work with the government, and c) inspire civil society to create constructive dialogical pluralism;

2. That peace and harmony must be based on a set of common spiritual values that can strengthen our own faith tradition and at the same time can be celebrated wholeheartedly in others;

3. That followers of different religions should go beyond mere tolerance and see themselves as brothers and sisters of one global family;

4. That based upon these values leaders must commit itself to social justice and environmental protection;

5. That while each faith should have freedom of practice, it should also not infringe on the faiths of others; and

6.  That there should be a series of such fruitful consultations and grassroots intervention in different regions of the country at times of strife.

Note: Goa, on India's west coast, is its smallest state. The International Centre Goa was founded in 1987 to offer a forum to bring together scholars, activists, business people, and creative people from India and around the world. It has become a hub of social and cultural activities, political dialogue, and economic debate. The government of India is secular, and there is no official religion.

IT WAS REALISED:

§  That India is home to all major faith traditions in the world, and the only home to some,

§  That in a country like India, having its secular polity, life is nonetheless largely shaped and guided by religion,

§  That religious processes, together with the civil society, should act responsibly for the universal good.

§  That in this inter-religious environment there is a need for better understanding of each other.

§  That the religious leadership should take the initiative of dialoguing with each other in order to achieve peace and harmony

And, taking a cue from and in support of the United Nations’ World Interfaith Harmony Week 2012 held for the first time at the UN General Assembly Hall under the theme, “Common Ground for the Common Good,”

WE, THE UNDERSIGNED, AFFIRM:

1. That in a country like India, which celebrates diversity, faith traditions need to: a) dialogue with each other, b) work with the government, and c) inspire civil society to create constructive dialogical pluralism;

2. That peace and harmony must be based on a set of common spiritual values that can strengthen our own faith tradition and at the same time can be celebrated wholeheartedly in others;

3. That followers of different religions should go beyond mere tolerance and see themselves as brothers and sisters of one global family;

4. That based upon these values leadership must commit itself to social justice and environmental protection;

5. That while each faith should have freedom of practice, it should also not infringe on the faiths of others, and;

6.  That there should be a series of such fruitful consultations and grassroots intervention in different regions of the country at times of strife.

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