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December 2019
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Peace Education

Arriving as Strangers, Leaving as Friends

Seoul, Korea - “Bishop Alaban is going to give a different speech this afternoon,” Amala McLackland announced as the final day of the UPF International Leadership Conference in Seoul, Korea, got underway on February 9. Secretary General of UPF-Asia, she was diligently tracking down bios and texts of the speakers at the session she would be moderating.

We printed out the bishop’s text calling for religions to focus less on rites, doctrines, and prophets and more on joining hands to work for peace. We reviewed the English translation of Sheikh Ali Saad Al-Shahrani’s description of his king’s initiatives for interreligious dialogue. His text included quotes from the Qur’an stating, for example, that God “made us into tribes and nations so that we might know one another.”

The conference at the Renaissance Hotel featured speakers from 30 nations, and we were immersed in the process of getting to know one another.

The double doors by the hotel’s Wedding Planner’s office opened into the conference’s nerve center, a striking contrast to the chandeliered banquet and conference halls. Young Koreans seated elbow to elbow were arranging room accommodations and travel arrangements on the left side, under the watchful eye of Frank LaGrotteria, head of conference services. Ushers and techies flanked the coffee fixings and pastries on the right.  Beyond them were the participant services staff, checking guest lists, making placards for speakers, and arranging side events.

In the midst of all of this, Dr. Michael Balcomb and I, the UPF International communications team, tried to filter out the ambient noise and sort through bios, presentation materials, and texts for upcoming sessions.

Dr. Ahmad Kanaan’s text contained the rhetorical question: “The qualities of honesty, sincerity, chastity, integrity, kindness, cooperation, compassion, respecting the rights of others, promoting virtue, and preventing vice: does anyone disagree that these are qualities promoted by religions?” This gave us a sense of what an Assistant Judge at the Higher Sunni Islamic Court in Lebanon looks for.

A Jewish leader from the UK who doesn’t speak from prepared texts, Edwin Shuker, Trustee of Sephardic Voices, recited a prophetic call to “walk together towards the mountain of the Lord, side-by-side, hand in hand, bound by a covenant of faith that turns strangers into friends.”

Michael Murray, a retired Roman Catholic priest, described in delightful Irish brogue how he commandeered an unused building in Dublin to set up a place where immigrant communities from around the world could hold religious services and cultural events. His description of himself as “subversively creative” might inspire who-knows-what kinds of creativity among future peacemakers.

Some, such as Rev. Darryl Gray from Montreal, Canada, had already celebrated World Interfaith Harmony Week in their nation. Others were returning home to events such as the Interfaith Open House announced by Tan Sri Devaki Ayathurai Krishan, an elder stateswoman from Malaysia.

Konstantin Krylov, the Russian supervisor of simultaneous translations into Russian, French, Turkish, Korean, Japanese, and English, stopped by every few hours to check on the availability of advance texts for the upcoming sessions. His team wanted a sense of the issues to be addressed and a chance to look up the meaning of technical terms. When Konstantin is not running interference for translators, the Assistant Secretary General of UPF-Eurasia is known more affectionately as Kostya.

Some speakers referred to timeless themes they had described at previous International Leadership Conferences. To a new audience, Mrs. Ida Betty Odinga, wife of Kenya Prime Minister Raila Odinga, described the tourists who come to Kenya’s wildlife preserves to appreciate the diversity of its lions, elephants and alligators. The endless fascination of that diversity is echoed in the diversity of humanity's races, cultures, and religions. Akiko Yamanaka and other Japanese with government expertise explained their nation’s commitment to be a regional leader in preventive diplomacy.

Translators appreciated the advance texts with insights from leaders whose homelands have suffered bitter conflicts. Speakers from Cambodia, Kosovo, and Nepal had poignant stories. Hon. Damry Ouk, a member of Parliament from Cambodia, whose images of “killing fields” are seared in global memories, described two decades of reconciliation work in his southeast Asian nation. “A large-hearted approach based on inclusion, generosity, and taking all on board,” he said, “has ensured a process where there are no losers and all are victors.” Former president Dr. Fatmir Sejdiu referred to the Kosovo wars of 1998 and 1999 and the current government’s commitment to cultivating “a rich heritage of cultural and religious values” in their part of the Balkan peninsula. In Nepal, people are awaiting the drafting of a constitution that will end conflict and address widespread grievances. Dr. Jiwan Shrestha, former President of the Nepal Family Party, said the peacebuilding process needs to be “complemented by long-term political, social, and economic reforms.”

Conference staff from many walks in life poured out their heart into preparing the environment in faith that the spirit of God would touch hearts, and the speakers offered the best of their learning and life experiences. An occasional latte from the Starbucks across the street kept the physical energy up.

Strangers sharing a hotel room formed friendships and set out on further adventures together. Professor Rouchy Saleh from Egypt and Mohammed Jodeh, a Palestinian from Jerusalem now living the US, helped refine the English text of the Saudi sheikh’s remarks. The first Soviet veteran of the Korean War to visit the South was warmly embraced by a South Korean veteran of the same war. Strangers did indeed find a resonance of heart.

Bishop Lucrecio Aranete Alaban from Mindanao had prepared a text outlining concrete steps for confidence building among the warring Christian, Muslim, and indigenous people of his island in the southern Philippines. Inspired perhaps by the World Interfaith Harmony Week ceremony at the Cheon Bok Gung sanctuary in Seoul earlier in the conference, this was part of the new text he submitted:

“We should say to people of all religions: don't compare your religion and our religion, your rites and our rites, your doctrines and our doctrines, your prophets and our prophets, your priests and our priests, the pious among you and the pious among us. All these are of no avail to save mankind. Let us stop converting each other.”

His words were interrupted with applause, and people in the banquet room of the hotel were drawn to a common vision.

“We are here together to show something that we have seen and to tell you something we have heard,” he continued; “that in the midst of a very divided world there has come an interfaith era that manifests the way to universal peace.”

Among us were people organizing transportation to and from airports, setting up sound systems, translating from Russian to English, and seated at tables taking notes. Bishop Alaban expressed a conviction transcending nation and tribe that “peace is the infinite passion of every human being.”

It turned “strangers into friends,” to quote a Jewish speaker, and echoing the words of the Qur’an, people of different nations did come to “know one another.”

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