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Interfaith Harmony Week Observed at the UN International Center in Vienna

Vienna, Austria - UPF-Austria organized a World Interfaith Harmony Week event at the International Center in Vienna on February 8 on the theme of Cooperating among Religions for a Culture of Peace.

World Interfaith Harmony Week 2013 VIC - UN Vienna

This age of globalization needs enlightened people in each faith who can examine their sacred writings and traditions and identify the aspects that can benefit all humanity as well as those that preserve each religion's identity. The UN designated the first week of February every year as World Interfaith Harmony Week. UPF and its network of Ambassadors for Peace celebrate this week each year, in a way that encourages understanding, respect, and cooperation among people of all faiths for the well-being of our communities and peace in the world.

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150 people gathered on February 8, 2013 at the Vienna International Center (UN Headquarters in Vienna) to commemorate the World Interfaith Harmony week 2013. The half-day conference entitled “Cooperation among Religions for a Culture of Peace” was hosted by the Austrian Chapter of the Universal Peace Federation (UPF) and the Liaison office of the Academic Council on the UN System (ACUNS) as well as the Women’s Federation for World Peace (WFWP) and the Earth Society Foundation.

Mr. Peter Haider, UPF Austria Secretary General, opened the commemorative event with remarks, welcoming the audience coming from diverse backgrounds such as diplomacy, media, religious communities, and other areas of civil society.

He highlighted that “today’s conference should contribute to exploring the role religious communities and cooperation between religions can play in creating a culture of peace.” Elder Ruben Silverbird, a long-standing Ambassador for Peace, opened the conference with a Native American flute blessing, asking those present the say a prayer for peace in their heart.

The prayer was followed by the video “Creating a Family of Faith” introducing UPF’s interfaith vision. Mrs. Zena Eggough, Vice-President of UPF Austria, read the Message of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on the occasion of the UN Interfaith Harmony Week.

The first speaker, Dr. Walter Lichem, gave a detailed insight in the start and the institutional development of the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations, where his diverse positions in the UN and the Austrian Foreign Ministry allowed him close insights. He encouraged the UPF in its attempt to promote an interreligious council within the UN framework and advised UPF to learn from the informal path the Alliance of Civilizations has taken in its development. The Alliance was initiated by the governments of Spain and Turkey in response to the terrorist attacks of March 11, 2004 in Madrid. The former Ambassador emphasized the importance of words and concept, pointing out the Alliance of Civilizations approach, which puts emphasis on the “citizen”, “societal,” and “the capacity to engage with otherness.”

Dr. Shantu Watt, active member of the UN’s Women’s Guild, strongly urged people of faith to make sure that religions build a peaceful platform for people. Watt started out with sharing from her personal background growing up in Kenya with Indian background and with the strong awareness “that we are part of nature with its physical and spiritual dimensions and its cycles of giving and receiving.” She spoke about her inner conflicts with some of the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita and spoke out against an over-simplified understanding of karmic cycle, seemingly backing injustice in society. Dr. Watt described how she could find her peace of mind in Gandhi’s way of non-violence and standing up against injustice. She then elaborated on the work of interfaith councils in the United Kingdom, which also provide locally peaceful platforms in time of tension.

Dr. Michael Stöger, a trained physicist and now a filmmaker, said that “understanding and dealing with conflicts within oneself helps to understand conflicts ‘outside,’ in society.” In the work of creating documentaries, he had the chance to listen to many people of different cultures and religions. In this process Dr. Stöger could discover "a common heritage and destiny connecting humanity." He elaborated on a Native American prophecy expressing the need of different cultures for each other and shared impressive pictures of the Ganges River, where at the moment the Kumbh Mela, one if the world's largest religious gatherings, was taking place. The filmmaker closed by explaining his understanding that life is not going to only an external but also an inner evolution of consciousness, pointing out that he sees that humanity has arrived at a crucial point of decision.

The panel closed with Rev. Fr. Kodom Patrick Kofi, SVD, who serves as immigrants and refugees pastor of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Vienna. He stressed that when talking about interfaith harmony and a culture of peace it is important to talk about the migration and the millions of people who are forced to leave their homes or decide to migrate in order to seek a better life for themselves and their children. The reverend shared from his work with refugees and how defining religion often is for their identity. “When someone after 7-8 years as an asylum seeker in Austria has to return to the country he fled from and is brought to a deportation camp, there is nothing you can tell such a person, but you just have to listen.” He explained the situation he often finds himself in and went on to share moving stories of humanity among those deported, despite coming from very different backgrounds. Rev. Kofi concluded by emphasizing that “peace is not something that is simply given, but something we have to achieve.”

As the first speaker of the second panel, Mag. Franz Nahrada, a sociologist and writer, started his speech by explaining about the Earth Day, which is held every year exactly at the spring equinox in the Northern hemisphere. Its founder was John McConnell. As a sociologist and environmental activist, he quoted Douglas Engelbart: “We are not able to invent something meaningful as long as we’re not able to create social innovation.”

Next, he explained shortly about the Global Village, where people would live in small villages, interconnected through Telematik (Telecommunication + Informatics), as a new form of environmental friendly living.

His main point was the topic “Monasteries of the Future”: his vision is that people will use monasteries to retreat and also do study and research work together. He stated: “Any major revolution in the world looks back to retrieval. The monasteries of the 21st century will be places of cohabitation of culture and nature.” He invited everybody to attend a conference which he will organize on this topic in May in the famous monastery of Melk.

Then Dr. Ulrike Kraus, a lawyer and sinologist, spoke about “Religions in Modern China.” She has always been fascinated by Chinese culture, which is why she studied Chinese language. Through her studies and many excursions to China she has become an expert on Chinese culture. She stated: “The Cultural Revolution was a big cut in Chinese culture: so many temples, statues, books and other cultural items have been destroyed. It was a complete cut for them!” Now, as the Chinese people are somehow free again to practice religion, they had to learn religious behavior again. That’s why they pray to different gods and symbols. They became less conservative.

Among today’s 55 different nationalities in China, there are people believing in Daoism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and local cults, in addition to Muslims and Christians. Especially Confucianism was been rediscovered in the 1980s. At the same time, the ideas of communism lost their significance. Many Confucian institutes have been established worldwide. Confucianism became a symbol for moral behavior again. Also, the Chinese understood that for Western people Confucianism is something they can relate to. The main thought in Confucianism is “Harmony.” Modern China adopted this idea and is promoting it.

The next speaker was Mr. Fahat Al Rawi, from the Islamic Community of Faith in Austria. There are 500,000 Muslims in Austria. Concerning their legal status, there is a unique situation in Austria, because since 1912 (the time of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) they have been legally accepted and have the same rights as major Christian denominations. In Islam, peace is a very important concept. The word “Islam” has the same root as “peace.”

Mr. Fahat Al Rawi is a member of the Islamic Youth Organization. In Vienna the young Muslims engage in various social activities, such as cleaning the city in spring, cooking for the homeless, or visiting children in hospitals, cheering them up by dressing up as clowns. Also, they visited a refugee camp and brought them winter clothes. One of their main projects is “Don’t give poverty a chance!" They cooperate with the NGO “Wiener Tafel,” which collects food from supermarkets and re-distributes it to poor people. Another important activity of the Islamic youth is their engagement in interreligious and intercultural dialogue, which gives them a chance to speak against radicalism.

The last speaker of the conference was Dr. Jaan Karl Klasmann, who represented Universal Sufism. He explained that originally the Sufi schools used to accept people from all religions. The International Sufi Order offers a variety of rituals by which they celebrate the underlying unity of all religions.

Guests appreciated the variety of the views and approaches to religion presented in a very personal and authentic manner. As a conclusion of the program everybody was invited to listen to the “Te Deum” by the Austrian composer Anton Bruckner, a powerful conclusion of the event.

See also photos of other World Interfaith Harmony Week 2013 events.

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