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Interfaith Programs

Landmark Interfaith Conference Goes beyond Tolerance

Switzerland-2008-09-02-Landmark Interfaith Conference Goes beyond Tolerance

Geneva, Switzerland - The “Geneva Conference on Interfaith Cooperation and the Protection of Human Rights and Dignity” Sept. 1-2, 2008, in Geneva, Switzerland, brought together nearly 280 religious and other civil society leaders, diplomats, and United Nations representatives to address the contribution of faiths to peace and human dignity, focusing on the potential role of an interfaith advisory council within the United Nations.

Marking the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Permanent Missions of the Republic of Indonesia and the Philippines to the United Nations, together with the Universal Peace Federation and the Geneva Interfaith Intercultural Alliance, invited 16 youth representatives of ten religions to sit as delegates to a hypothetical “Interreligious Council” while Ambassador Makarim Wibisono, former president of the UN Human Rights Commission and the Economic and Social Council, presided over the deliberations.

Echoing the opening message by Frederico Mayor, the youth discussed the beneficial role that religion and spiritual values could and should play in supporting the global governing framework's quest for peace. Representing their communities but in an individual capacity, the youth insisted on the need to go beyond mere tolerance and even mutual acceptance. “Creating a human family demands much more. We need to know and understand each others' dreams and sufferings,” explained one delegate.

As the Islamic community had just begun their Ramadan fast, the chair of the opening session, Heiner Handschin, UPF Secretary General for Europe Region 2, reminded the participants that families share and empathize deeply with the sacrifice of other family members. Taking this to heart, some of the youth representatives chose to share the experience by fasting with their Muslim brothers and sisters.

Ambassador Erlinda Basilio, permanent representative of the Philippines Mission to the UN in Geneva, delivered the opening remarks, followed by a session on “Vision for an Interreligious Council at the United Nations” that led into the youth segment. Ambassador Wibisono stated that politics and religion should relate like two sides of the same coin, each reinforcing the other. The following speaker, Rev. Dr. William McComish, former dean of the main Protestant cathedral in Geneva, confirmed his trust in his partner in interfaith, Mr. Hafid Ouardiri, the spokesman for nearly 30 years for the Islamic community and mosque in Geneva, when he said that he had once asked Mr. Ouardiri to replace him at the cathedral pulpit when he was unable to give the sermon himself. Mr Ouardiri, another panelist who works tirelessly with youth in interfaith educational projects, expressed his profound joy in being there with some of his young students for this experience that seemed like a dream come true.

Mahaupasika Dr. Bongkot Sittipol, founder of the Daen Mahanongkol Meditation Center, gave a warm message about “ordaining the heart for world peace.” The final speaker of that session, Dr. Thomas Walsh, Secretary General of the Universal Peace Federation, explained the vision and practical guidelines that Rev. Dr. Sun Myung Moon expressed when he first announced the idea of an interreligious council within the United Nations in 2000 while addressing the ECOSOC assembly, during which time Ambassador Wibisono was the president.

In the style of a Model UN, the next two sessions simulated the way an “Interreligious Council” might function. Minister Jesus Domingo of the Philippines Mission and Carolyn Handschin, Coordinator of the UPF Office for United Nations Relations in Geneva, served as the Council Bureau and facilitated the preparatory sessions that were held the previous week. The representatives of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, and Unificationism were role-played by youth representatives of these faiths who had been selected in many cases by their religious leaders, who assisted as observers for the council sessions. The combination made for a very serious, enthusiastic, and emotional atmosphere in the chambers. In supplementary sessions held parallel to the main conference, delegates drafted a Declaration on Interreligious Cooperation that was presented during the closing session. All participants signed the document, which will be forwarded to relevant UN bodies and other organizations.

Eminent religious leaders, experts on human rights and interfaith relations, theologians and other religious scholars, as well as remarkable interfaith practitioners participated in five round-table sessions on such topics as “The United Nations, Religion, and Peace” and “The Role of Faith in the Protection of Human Rights and Dignity." Here youth delegates and other participants had the opportunity to listen and comment on the wisdom and experience of their elders. It was a notably rare day at a UN venue with so little disagreement and so much hopeful determination among those with the capacity to implement decisions.

The remarkable message that resounded throughout the conference was the depth of commitment to nothing less than interfaith cooperation and the change of mindset and lifestyle that accompanied it. Rabbi Joseph Abbitan and Imam Othmane Aissauoi from France offered but one of many examples of a depth of commitment to their interfaith engagement that was witnessed by many in the spontaneity and warmth of the embrace that they shared upon meeting each other again. For the youth delegates, the embrace was “worth a thousand words.”

This conference and the first “Interfaith Council” were an inaugural project of the Geneva Interfaith Intercultural Alliance (GIIA), a network of civil society organizations, governments, and international organizations that will have its international headquarters in Geneva and be linked to the Universal Peace Federation’s International Leadership Conference and Ambassadors for Peace network as a founding organization. The GIIA will reinforce understanding and appreciation of the diversity among communities of faiths and cultures through educational and training programs including the interreligious youth councils that involve practical learning by experience about other faiths and building deep and trusting familial bonds among people from diverse religious and cultural communities.

Text of the Geneva Declaration on interreligious Cooperation

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