World Interfaith Harmony Week Observed in UN General Assembly Hall
Written by Dr. Michael Balcomb, Director of Communications, UPF International
Tuesday, February 7, 2012
The 2012 World Interfaith Harmony Week came to a dramatic and moving conclusion on February 7 with a program at the United Nations General Assembly hosted by the President, H.E. Mr. Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser, and attended by high-level representatives of the United Nations Secretariat, Member States, religious leaders, and the United Nations NGO community, including the Universal Peace Federation.
“We recognize and celebrate the values that are shared across religious traditions,” said Mr. Al-Nasser. “These common principles form a common ground that unites us in our rich diversity.” The General Assembly President went on to note that the United Nations was itself established in pursuit of universal values such as peace, freedom, human rights, dignity, and the oneness of humanity, which are also espoused by many of the world’s religions.
Deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro urged the interfaith community to speak out against extremism, advance tolerance, and stand firm for social justice, dignity, and mutual understanding. “Although faith is the glue that often bonds communities and cultures around the world, it is too often used as an excuse to emphasize differences and deepen divisions,” she said. “Only by finding common cause in mutual respect for shared spiritual and moral values can we hope for harmony among nations and peoples.”
The Search for Common Ground
The first group of speakers addressed the theme of the event, the search for “Common Ground for the Common Good.” H.E. Archbishop Francis Assisi Chullikatt, the Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations, said that the Pope and Church leaders had repeatedly called on all believers to reject religiously-motivated violence. Yet the solution is not, as some would advocate, the rejection of religion itself, since "the denial of God has led to much cruelty and a degree of violence that knows no bounds."
Monica Willard, President of the Committee of Religious NGOs at the United Nations, said that interfaith dialogue was already playing an important role in bringing peace. “Interfaith harmony is alive and well. It is carried out daily by people of faith throughout the world,” she said. But it isn’t publicized widely. "We need to have institutional ways to share the fine work that is being done.”
Dr. Marc Scheuer, Director, Secretariat of the UN Alliance of Civilizations, and Dr. William F. Vendley, Secretary General of Religions for Peace, both stressed the value of diversity and inclusiveness. “The world’s religions are different. These differences are profoundly defining,” said Vendley. However, he identified a basis for multi-religious cooperation: the shared conviction that "honoring the Divine is directly linked to honoring and protecting the inviolable dignity of every person." He applauded United Nations agencies that are engaged in concrete projects with religious communities.
Philippe Kridelka, Director of the UNESCO Liaison Office in New York, agreed. “The imperative of dialogue has never been more important than it is today,” he said “We know what happens when dialogue breaks down. The fabric of society is quickly torn but not easily mended.”
Acharya Shri Shrivatsa Goswami from India commented that Hinduism’s pride is that it celebrates diversity, which makes dialogue possible. At the same time, there is less division between the religious and secular spheres of life. “There is no department of life that can be divorced from religion,” he said, quoting Mahatma Gandhi.
The first session was brought to a close by a moving performance of “The Hope of All Ages,” written and conducted by David Eaton and performed by the New York City Symphony Chamber Ensemble.
Following this, the delegates turned to the contributions that religions could make to advancing four key areas of focus identified by the President of the General Assembly: Mediation of Conflict, Disaster Prevention and Response, Revitalization of the United Nations, and Sustainable Development.
H.E. Mrs. U. Joy Ogwu, Permanent Representative of Nigeria to the United Nations, said that the misuse of religion is at the heart of the problem. “If we promote mutual dialogue and respect, there will be greater harmony among religions and also among nations. We need to educate our young people to be a new generation of peace. In this respect, women have a most important role to play.”
Dr. Prof. M. Din Syamsuddin, Muhammadiyah and Indonesia Ulama Council, stated that it was very important that religions should not be misused and abused to justify violence. Rabbi David Rosen, American Jewish Committee Department for Interreligious Affairs, agreed, saying that religious leaders "have the capacity either to make the situation all the more intractable, or to make it all the more soluble by creating a context of greater mutual respect." Ignoring religion encourages extremist elements to take center stage. Therefore, we must empower the "religiously responsible voices.”
One of the founding principles of World Interfaith Harmony Week is that religious leaders should take the time to teach their communities about the ways in which God is present in faiths other than their own. In this spirit, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, founder of the Cordoba Initiative, quoted not from the Qur’an but from the Bible: “As Jesus taught, all the commandments of God are enfolded into the two major commandments, love God and love the neighbor,” he said. “The real battle front is not between religions but between all the moderates of all faiths and all the extremists in all faith traditions.”
Bhai Mohinder Singh, a Sikh who made the long trip from Birmingham in the United Kingdom to attend the event, said although global issues require global solutions and structures to implement them, the role of compassion and forgiveness cannot be overlooked. “As religious and secular extremism becomes more sophisticated, exercising increasing compassion becomes a vital necessity,” he said. “Where there is forgiveness, there is God himself.”
Disaster Prevention and Response
“Why should the UN engage with faith communities?” asked Dr. Azza Karam of the United Nations Population Fund. “The fact is that 40 percent of basic health care is provided by faith-based communities, and in conflict zones it is as high as 70 percent. Although the UN and faith-based organizations are not the same, we need to be sensitive to the impact of religion.”
Bill Canny, Catholic Relief Services, also testified to the vast scope of faith-based contributions to disaster response, health and education, noting that although disaster response is in no way tied to acceptance of any religious belief, it is important to recognize the existence and importance of spiritual and psychological needs following crises.“The spiritual dimension must be recognized,” he said. “We ask the UN and other organizations to give us space to minister to these spiritual needs.”
This latter point was endorsed by Yuka Saionji, Byakko Shinko Kai and the Goi Peace Foundation, who spoke with deep emotion about the impact of the help that Japan received following the earthquake and tsunami last year. “Religious organizations played a key role,” she said. “Churches and temples alike became evacuation centers and have continued on as community centers.”
Renewal of the United Nations
One of the highlights of the program was a moving performance by the Children’s Theater Company. One by one, bright young children—the youngest only five years old—confidently recited “Peacemaker’s quotes,” drawn from the scriptures of all religions and from more recent sources such as Einstein, Gandhi, and King. Their finale song, “One,” brought the entire audience to its feet for a standing ovation for the power of youth.
“Faith can be a strong ally of the United Nations,” said Katherine Marshall of the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University, USA. “Although the United Nations is not a faith institution, it is nevertheless a product of all the world’s faiths and the universal human longing for peace.”
“We all need to update our mentality to meet the challenges of our time,” said Ven. Dr. Chung Ohun Lee, Won Buddhism International. “Interreligious understanding and cooperation may be the most effective instrument for world peace because religions are a vital agent for change." She referred to the Buddhist understanding that everyone and everything are interconnected. "Interfaith dialogue may help everyone to see the ties that connect us all.”
Rev. Michael Beckwith, who leads the Agape International Spiritual Center, a California megachurch, quoted from Hans Kung, saying “There will be no peace in the world without peace among religions; there will be no peace among religions without dialogue among religions.” Yet there are different levels of peace, he said. At its worst, peace is based on exclusivity and separation. “Peace at its best is meeting at the center of our being,” he said. “Science makes the world a neighborhood; but religion makes a brotherhood and sisterhood.”
H.E. Mrs. Maria Luiza Ribeiro Viotti, Permanent Representative of Brazil to the United Nations, invited all the participants to continue their investment and engagement, including an invitation to visit her country for the upcoming Rio+20 conference in June. “We need to balance material and human development with protection of the environment,” she said. “Civil society, including religious societies and institutions, have an important role to play. Let us strengthen and renew broader efforts for sustainability."
The program was brought to a close by an “interfaith tree of harmony ceremony” symbolizing the commitment of all faiths and traditions to the future of the planet and the work of the United Nations. One by one, representatives of eleven faith traditions poured water representing wisdom and healing onto the roots of a tree symbolizing the entire human family. The music of saxophonist Paul Winter interweaved the ceremony.
“What we have achieved here today is significant,” said President Al-Nasser in his concluding remarks. “Let each of us assume the task of interfaith harmony as our personal responsibility, for as was so clearly demonstrated here today the fruits of religious dialogue and understanding offer the hope of a new era of peace for all humanity.”
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