Interfaith Peacebuilding


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Interfaith Programs

K. Feldmar: The Feasibility of an Interreligious Council at the UN

Since the creation of the United Nations, there have been extensive institutional adaptations with regards to the changing circumstances. Changes since 1945, regarding issues such as gender equality, HIV/AIDS and global warming, were not on the international agenda at first[1]. However, these alterations were crucial not only to combat current confrontations but also to keep the UN agile in order to fulfill its purposes as set forth in the Charter[2].

One of the most current changes has been the acceptance of NGOs on the international level. NGOs often have the great ability to push for new policies and to mobilize public opinion and thus have become central to the analysis of multilateralism[3].

As the current United Nations is often seen as an organization with no power, many scholars have called for further alteration of the United Nations. There have been numerous proposals, such as the closure of the Trusteeship Council and replacement by an environmental council or the call for redefining national interests[4].

Although these aspects are of fundamental importance, there is an enormous deficit within the United Nations which is easily overseen and sometimes even regarded as insignificant. However, I will show that it is the cause and the cure of our main problems and thus must be addressed. It is the significant role of religions on a national and international basis.

Necessity of an interreligious council

Although the United Nations is a secular organization, religious views have been an active part of the organization since its inception[5]. Nevertheless, over the past decade there has been an enormous increase of religious impact within the United Nations. There seems to be an inexhaustible list of proposals, resolutions, and bodies which have examined religions as a core issue of our time[6].

It is for this reason that there has been a nearly unnoticed large increase of NGOs that are concerned with religions in order to promote peace. Likewise there are not only numerous NGOs such as the Universal Peace Federation, Religions for Peace, and the Centre for World Religions[7] that are engaged with religions but also coalitions such as the Committee of Religious NGOs at the UN, which has over 100 members[8]. There are various reasons for this development.

Influence of religion

The first reason for religion playing a relevant role in promoting peace is the major impact of religion in developing countries. The everyday life of billions of people is influenced by their religion, from the moment they wake up until they go to sleep again. It is present wherever humans are, whether at home with the family or at work with colleagues. Furthermore, religion often plays a fundamental role within a nation and its constitution. As an example for the major influence of religion on the decision-makers of a country, consider the constitution of Iraq. Article two states:

Islam is the official religion of the State and it is a fundamental source of legislation:

No law that contradicts the established provisions of Islam may be established.
No law that contradicts the principles of democracy may be established.
No law that contradicts the rights and basic freedoms stipulated in this constitution may be established[9].

    This article perfectly illustrates the importance of religion within a country. Not only does religion embody moral values and hence establishes the basis for the fulfillment of such rights, but it is often also embedded within the constitution.

    Scope of religion

    Another reason for the importance of religion is that religion can reach out to the remotest areas of a country and have a positive impact on its population.

    One example of the impact of religion can be seen in Africa. It is the Christian secondary schools in Africa that are helping to achieve one of the major Millennium Development Goals, that of universal education[10]. However this is not the only positive influence such institutions have. This brings us to the main reason for the increase of religious-based NGOs.

    Interreligious dialogue

    It is the urgent need for interreligious dialogue. Over the past decade there have been many violent conflicts — Kashmir, Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Kosovo, Chechenya, Darfur, and Iraq — which included interreligious conflicts. In addition, numerous terrorist attacks such as in New York, Bali, Colombo, Madrid, London, Istanbul, Moscow, Mumbai, and many others were executed by organizations that claim religious motivations. These examples show the power and influence of religion in our time.

    The question remains how to accurately tackle such threats to achieve sustainable peace.

    It is often unintentionally forgotten that religion is helpful in solving and preventing conflicts. The resources for resolving conflicts lie within the fundamental basis of each religion. Although a distinction between the different beliefs can be drawn, the fundamental similarities and analogies are evidence of the harmony among religious perspectives.

    At its core, each religion strives for peace and urges people to live in harmony with their neighbors. Thus, the love of one's neighbor that in Christianity is called the Golden Rule of moral conduct — “ Always treat others as you would like them to treat you; that is the meaning of the Law and the Prophets”[11] — is also part of the doctrinal legacy of other great religions such as Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and African Traditional Religions.

    There are numerous examples of religious leaders using these as a basis for resolving or preventing conflicts through interreligious dialogue. Among these, I will only mention a few initiatives:

    • The Christian secondary schools in Africa, as mentioned above, have a positive outcome beyond education. Although Africa is divided into a vast diversity of different religions and beliefs, most Africans adhere to either Christianity or Islam. Thus, many Christian secondary schools in Africa have Muslim students. In some Christian schools the Muslim pupils form up to 90 percent of the class[12]. Such institutions are not exceptions and can also be seen in Iraq and Morocco[13].
    • The unique “Bishop Ulama Forum” in the Philippines is a further example of the positive impact of interreligious dialogue. As stated by Lilian M. Curaming, “it is a dialogue forum consisting of Catholic Mindanao bishops, Muslim religious leaders (Ulama), and Protestant bishops who in the spirit of interreligious dialogue affirm their common commitments to peace and mutual understanding among their religious communities.”[14]

    Because of the positive impact, scope, and great achievements of religion through dialogue, and the series of resolutions proposing the formation of such a council, an interreligious council on an international basis is not only possible but inevitable. It can be one of the most effective mediums of our time to promote peace.

    Nevertheless, there are pragmatic issues which need to be addressed in turn.

    Admission criteria

    As the vision of an interreligious council is to promote peace through dialogue, it will strive to end the misuse of religion by organizations that claim religious motives for causing the death of innocent civilians. Therefore, it is of crucial importance to differentiate between people who misuse religion for counter-religious purposes, such as the Taliban in Afghanistan, and those with true religious beliefs praised by the highest religious authorities, such as Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the highest authority for Shi'a Muslims[18].

    This is one of the reasons for admission requirements to the council for religious leaders promoting interreligious dialogue. These admission requirements should be set forth in a charter to be ratified by all members. There are various aspects of such a charter to be considered, and these must be in accordance with the UN Charter[19]:

    • Acceptance: One of the first aspects to be addressed is mutual acceptance of the religions represented in the council. This does not mean that a religious leader must believe in the others' beliefs; it means accepting the existence of other religions. Without this, dialogue is impossible.
    • Respect: Dialogue among different religions will only be possible if members practice respect for other religions.
    • Equality: The body should be based on the principle of equality of all its members.
    • Belief in peace: The belief that humankind is “one family under God”[20] — that although people follow varied traditions they have a common origin and a common destiny — underlies a dialogue that can lead to sustainable peace. Thus, all the members must be peace-loving.
    • Non-violence: Using their power as religious leaders, each leader should not only preach dialogue but also denounce any form of violent attacks against other religions, since violence is not to be preached by the religions.
    • Record of dialogue: It has been suggested that each member have a record of interest and participation in interreligious dialogue. Thus in order to be a member, each applicant must show previous work that included dialogue among religions.
    • Members: The charter should give some guidance as to which religions can participate. I will give a non-exhaustive list as an example. The question of membership raises further questions which will be addressed below.

    Some practical recommendations: Accompanying the charter there should be a brief presentation about each religion and its beliefs. This will give all members a better understanding of the other religions and help to reduce prejudice. At the end of a presentation, each participant should receive a booklet with the most important facts of all religions in order to reiterate the points of the presentation.

    Definition of religion

    Which religions should be eligible for membership in an interreligious council? Many scholars have tried to give a universal definition of religion, but no generally accepted definition exists. Religions are accepted by one party but rejected by another.

    Individual countries have given legal definitions what is accepted as a religion[21]. Evaluating these approaches as a basis for a list of generally-acknowledged religions, the following religions should certainly be considered: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Sikhism. However, it is important to consider other religions such as Jainism, Shinto, the Baha’i Faith, Confucianism, and Taoism[22]. Although these are generally not mentioned in lists of world religions, they play an important role within our society. Worldwide, these five religions comprise around 565 million people. It is for this reason that I would also include these religions within the council[23]. Thus, the council would include 11 religions.

    Although this seems to be a reasonable list of the world religions, it is vital to consider the role of indigenous groups[24] and atheists. Together these comprise an estimated population of 1.4 billion people. It is therefore important to include the ethical systems and tribal religions in places such as Africa in the dialogue, as well as atheists. Although the latter do not believe in the existence of God at all, all peace-loving people in this world agree with the core principles which are similar in all religions, such as striving for peace and loving one's neighbor. Thus, I believe that primal-indigenous groups and atheists should not be excluded.

    The challenge is how to select representatives for such masses of people. With regards to primal-indigenous people, I believe that the interreligious council should appoint representatives. The council should appoint three representatives from three ethical systems or primal-indigenous religions to represent their faith within the council, if they wish to do so.

    With regards to atheists, I believe the same mechanism would be correct. As it will be impossible to find representatives for all atheists, the best solution would lie within the given atheist clubs and societies, which exist over the world. Thus, the interreligious council would appoint one club or society to represent the atheists from their community. Furthermore, these appointed representatives also need to comply with the charter of the interreligious council, which includes accepting and respecting other religions although they do not personally believe in God.

    Thus, the council would consist of 15 groups, the core council representing the 11 religions, three seats for primal-indigenous representatives, and one for atheist representatives. The latter should be appointed by the representatives of the eleven religions.


    The composition of the body can be structured in various ways. However the final question often seems to regard the confrontation of democratic and efficiency factors. Hence I will consider the most satisfiable possibilities in turn.

    Federal council

    In a federal republic such as Germany, each state, known in Germany as Länder (singular: Land), is partially self-governing and also united by a central government. These Länder are furthermore represented in the German Bundesrat (the federal council) at the federal level. Adopting this idea, one could envision an interreligious council as a kind of federal council. Thus, the supporters of each religion, through their representatives would have the possibility to be heard at the federal level of the United Nations[25].

    A main characteristic of the federal council is its democratic representation. Thus, in Germany, each Land has a certain number of votes based on the number of the inhabitants.

    One could, therefore, envision the following distribution of votes within an interreligious council: since there are approximately 2.1 billion Christians, 1.5 billion Muslims, 900 million Hindus, 376 million Buddhists, 14 million Jews, and so on, representatives of the Christians should have 7 votes, Muslims 6, Hindus 5, Buddhists 4, Jews 3, and so on.

    Although this seems to be a very democratic approach, it may not seem to be a legitimate approach with regards to religious beliefs. It is hard to see why one religion should have more votes than another, since each should be accorded the same value without differentiation based on the number of its religious supporters.

    On the other hand, one could counter argue that if each vote has the same value[26] then the religious supporters of a minority religion would have more value than the supporters of a major religion[27].

    However, this argumentation seems unacceptable not only if one compares it to the distribution of votes within the UN General Assembly but also because the core idea of an interreligious council is that all religions should be considered to be equal members within the council in order to build sustainable peace.

    Since there are major difficulties attached to this approach, one should consider a different approach.

    Interreligious council of nations

    A more accurate approach might be a proposal by Rev. Sun Myung Moon. His core idea is the establishment of an interreligious council within each nation. Thus, the religions in a nation would be represented in a national interreligious council.

    From these national councils, every three years one representative would be elected and sent to the interreligious council of the United Nations in order to meet with other religious leaders. This would establish a new council of 192 members within the United Nations as well as 192 national councils.

    Although this is a very democratic approach, it could have a very undemocratic outcome if small religious groups that do not represent most of the people within a state come to power. On the other hand this may not be a problem because of the core principles embedded in the interreligious council's charter and the requirement that each religion be peace-based and strive for the same goal. It could, therefore, have a positive impact if small religious groups can not only speak up but also enhance the peace process.

    Nevertheless, the argument that all member religions strive for the same goal could raise difficulties. For example, there may be different approaches to achieving the goal, as in the expression that there are many paths which lead to Rome.

    One should also not lose sight of the monetary aspects of such a council, with its 193 council members and their associated expenses. It is questionable whether this approach is practicable[28].

    Interreligious council

    The third approach is a composite of the Federalist and the interreligious council of nations. I will simply call it “the interreligious council.” This concept has its core idea within the division of the world into its cultural civilization, as discussed by Samuel P. Huntington[29].

    One should, therefore, use the idea without practically remaking the world order. This means that the world can be divided into its several religious believers. As previously proposed, there would be a total number of 11 religions and the representation of atheists and indigenous peoples in which the world should theoretically be divided. Within these religions a further subdivision must be made with regards to the different groups within a religion.

    Thus, within each religious sphere and also within the atheist sphere, a religious council could be formed in which all the sects of the particular religions are represented[30].

    Again, these must fulfill the needed admission criteria and furthermore have the support of at least 10 percent of the people within that religion.

    This would have the following groups:

    1. Christianity

    Eastern Orthodox
    Oriental Orthodox

      2. Judaism

      Orthodox Judaism
      Hassidic Judaism
      Modern Orthodox Judaism
      Reform Judaism
      Conservative Judaism

        3. Islam


          4. Buddhism


            5. Hinduism[31]


              6. Sikhism[32]

              Akhand Kirtani Jatha
              Sikh Dharma of the Western Hemisphere

                7. Jainism

                Svetambara (Sthanakvasi, Terapanthii, Deravasi)
                Digambara (Bisapantha)

                  8. Shinto

                  9. Baha’i Faith

                  10. Chinese religions[33]

                  Chinese folk religionists

                    11. Primal-Indigenous

                    This includes thousands of distinct religious traditions and should thus be consolidated into the major 20 religious groups. Nevertheless, there could be representatives for the other religions which are not included within these 20 major groupings.

                    12. Atheists

                    One should consider 20 representatives of the largest atheist clubs and societies of the world.

                    There are two different ways to incorporate the groups within a religion in an interreligious council:

                    The first possibility is that from these 12 religious councils, every three years two religious leaders would be elected to represent that religion in the interreligious council. It is vital that there are always two religious leaders representing each religion, because this offers a check and balance system within the religion and enhances the focus on the core principles of all religions. This would result in an interreligious council with 24 members.

                    The second possibility is that all religious groups would be represented on the international level at all times, and they would all meet as an interreligious council as often as necessary[34]. This would result in an interreligious council consisting of 37 members[35]. However, it is crucial to note that all religions would have the same voting power within the interreligious council, and all the combined groups within a religion would have the same voting power as those of every other religion. Although this possible structure of an interreligious council seems to be the most complex, it offers for this reason the most democratic and practical solution.


                    The reorganization of a long-established body has never been an easy task. It might, therefore, be questionable how much power this newly created body should receive. As there has never been an interreligious council within the United Nations, it should prove its capability before receiving independent decision-making power. In order to prove itself, it should have the capability to reach decisions and to pass resolutions; nevertheless, these should be affirmed by the General Assembly before they come into effect.

                    As the past decade has shown us the inevitability of an interreligious council, many notable men and women have agreed and proposed for such a forum[36].

                    Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan called for greater involvement of NGOs with the United Nations, as these are the foot soldiers in the war against disease, poverty, malnutrition, etc. For his effort he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace along with the UN in 2001, and his highly acknowledged and venerable input has been proven correct.

                    In order for the UN to keep pace with the changes of our time and to revitalize the belief of people in the United Nations, the time has arrived for an interreligious council.

                    For more background materials on a proposal for an interreligious council at the UN, click here.


                    [1] Thomas G. Weiss, What’s Wrong with the UN and How to Fix It , 2009, p. 3
                    [2] Maintain international peace and security; and develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples.
                    [3] Thomas G. Weiss, Tatiana Carayannis, and Richard Jolly, “The Third UN;” Global Governance 14, no. I (forthcoming, 2009)
                    [4] Thomas G. Weiss, What’s Wrong with the UN and How to Fix It , 2009, p. 127 ff.
                    [5] The UN Secretary-General and moral authority, Kent J. Kille, 2007. Furthermore, for example, see John S. Nurser’s account of the role played by religious actors in “Preparing for San Francisco” and “The Charter of the United Nations Organization,” in For All Peoples and All Nations: The Ecumenical Church and Human Rights (Washington D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2005), 93-125.
                    [6] As an example with regards to resolutions: 56/6 of 9 November 2001, on the Global Agenda for Dialogue among Civilizations, 57/6 of 4 November 2002, concerning the promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, 57/337 of 3 July 2003, on the prevention of armed conflict, 58/128 of 19 December 2003, on the promotion of religious and cultural understanding, harmony and cooperation, 59/23 of 11 November 2004, on the promotion of interreligious dialogue, 59/143 of 15 December 2004, on the International Decade for a Culture of Peace and Non-Violence for the Children of the World, 2001–2010, 63/22 on 16 December 2008, Promotion of interreligious and intercultural dialogue, understanding and cooperation for peace.
                    [7] Further NGOs that are concerned with interreligious work are Al Hakim Foundation, Interfaith International, The New Seminary and many more.
                    [8] List of its current members;
                    [11] Matthew 7:12.
                    [12] Stated at the Interreligious and Intercultural meeting (in the ECOSOC Chamber) on 4 March 2009.
                    [16] An NGO in Special Consultative Status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations,
                    [17] Such as the Philippines, England, Brazil, Korea, Kenya and many more.
                    [19] Thus one should also use the UN Charter as a support in drawing up the Charter of the interreligious council.
                    [21] Such as most of the countries within Europe, as for instance Austria and Germany.
                    [22] The latter two are also known as the Chinese Traditional Religions.
                    [23] It is worth noting the following link with regards to religion and its numbers of supporters:
                    [24] broad classification for ethical and tribal religions in Africa.
                    [25] Art. 51 para. 2 Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany (also known as Grundgesetz).
                    [26] As, for instance, in the General Assembly.
                    [27] Exempli gratia with regards to the General Assembly: The Republic of Palau has almost 20,000 inhabitants whereas the People's Republic of China has an estimated population of 1.3 billion. Thus, one inhabitant from Palau is worth as much as 650,000 Chinese.
                    [28] Although it is worth noting that there are already a few interreligious councils, such as the European Council of Religious Leaders; therefore, these would minimize the costs in total.
                    [29] Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations: Remaking of the World Order.
                    [30]The atheists grouping would consist of the the various  existing atheists clubs and societies.
                    [34] One can compare this with nations,  each nation having a parliament and representatives within the United Nations. Moreover, a religious council could also exist within each religious sphere in order to address issues within the religion. One can compare this with nations, each nation having a parliament and representatives within the United Nations.
                    [35]With regards to the Primal Indigenous there should be 5 representatives and with regards to the atheists there should be 2 representatives.
                    [36] Reverend Sun Myung Moon; H.E. Hamid Al Bayati, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Iraq to the United Nations; Jose de Venecia, Jr., Speaker, House of  Representatives, the Philippines (1992-1998, 2001-2008); Zia Rivzi, Director General, Independent Bureau for Humanitarian Issues, Pakistan; Richard William Prebble, Member of New Zealand Parliament; Layla Al-khafaji, Member of the Iraqi parliament

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