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Interfaith Programs

Canadians Discuss a Role for Religion at the UN

Canada-2009-05-07-Canadians Discuss a Role for Religion at the UN

Ottawa, Canada - “What is called for in the 21st century is unprecedented cooperation between religions and cultures,” said Dr. Ian Prattis, Professor Emeritus at Carlton University, as he opened a wide-ranging discussion about the Universal Peace Federation's proposal for an interreligious council at the UN and how it might function. “Don’t be imprisoned by your identities. Let us reach out our hands to people of other traditions and walk through our century hand in hand.”

The setting was a seminar on Religions Cooperating for Peace held May 7, 2009, at St. Paul University in Ottawa, Canada. Hosted by the National Capital Peace Council, the seminar was part of UPF-Canada’s Educating for Peace series. Representatives of four religions engaged in passionate and yet respectful dialogue, showing by example that such interactions can address sensitive issues, generate new insights, and lead to proposals for effective action.

“We need to address the dark side of religion,” Dr. Prattis stated. He referred to news accounts of pedophile priests and religious extremism and called on people of faith to deepen their understanding not only of other religions but even their own. “We need to challenge the bastions of hate in all religions. We have to make our faith traditions relevant to the 21st century. We can only transform religious traditions from the inside, not outside.” As a Buddhist, he said he dialogues with senior Buddhist teachers from around the world, and “they all wince when they see me coming, because I challenge them to make Buddhism relevant.”

While the founding of the UN was not overtly religious, Dr. Hans-Martin Jaeger, Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Carleton University, noted that there is a spiritual foundation to the UN, such as Point 8 of the Atlantic Charter of 1941. “The preamble of the UNESCO Charter talks about the hearts and minds of people, and religion deals with that sphere. The charter was envisioned as a kind of secular creed. It was more a syncretic approach.” He noted with appreciation that UPF's proposal for an interreligious council acknowledges differences and does not focus only on what religions have in common.

Why bring such a proposal to the UN? “The UN is the only environment where countries speak to each other,” stated Rev. Darryl Gray, pastor of the Imani Family and Full Gospel Church in Montreal. The United Nations is key because of its founding mission.” He acknowledged the challenges of changing any institution such as the UN, which he described as “the last bastion of political dominance.”

How an interreligious council might fit into the UN system

Various suggestions were made about how such a council might fit into the UN system. Speakers commented that Canadians would be comfortable with a potential bicameral structure at the UN, because Canada has an elected House of Commons and an appointed Senate, which advises the House of Commons. “In Canada, the Senate reflects on legislation and gives guidance,” said Daniel Stringer, founding chair of the National Capital Peace Council. “Thus, in the UN, an interreligious council could act as a conscience of the UN. It would offer a distillation of concepts that people of all religions could agree on and transmit as guidance to the General Assembly.”

However, Dr. Jaeger doesn’t see any political consensus for establishing an interreligious council on par with the Security Council, because this would require an amendment of the charter since even minor amendments are almost impossible to achieve. Another possibility is for an interreligious council to take the place of the Trusteeship Council, which is no longer needed now that all the trusteeships have achieved independence.

He can envision such a council in a consultative role along the lines of existing proposals: “There has been a long-standing initiative for democratization and establishing a people’s assembly as a second chamber, parallel to the General Assembly. There has also been a proposal for a civil-society forum.” He also referred to the World Conference of Religions for Peace, founded by a Unitarian Universalist minister, which has held several conferences over the years.

A feasible way to begin would be for an interreligious council to function as a civil society initiative. Dr. Safwat Ayoub, Executive Director of the South-North Roundtable and former Egyptian Ambassador to UNESCO, suggested initiating such a council in a consultative status under ECOSOC in order to evaluate how it could contribute to the UN.


Dr. Jaeger identified some practical concerns regarding the make-up of such a council: Who would designate the representatives? What would be the appropriate principle and proportionality of representation? Would non-religious people be represented?

Dr. Ayoub, a Coptic Christian from Egypt, expressed concern about how the voices of small groups might be heard. For example, “What would happen if a small church, such as the Coptic Church with 12 million people, is absorbed by the Roman Catholic Church with its 1 billion people?”

It was pointed out that Canadians of various faiths represent Canada at the UN, and Imam Dr. Zijad Delic, Executive Director of the Canadian Islamic Congress, envisions that they could do the same at an interreligious council. To ensure that a broad range of voices are heard, he proposed that each nation send a different representative to the council each year. He raised an additional question of who would moderate such a council.

Potential agenda issues

Canadians envision a positive and comprehensive role for such a council because there are local interreligious councils across Canada that are making valuable contributions to their communities. “There is no social problem that doesn’t have a solution,” Imam Delic pointed out. "We are not talking about unity; we are different. We are talking about cooperation. It’s important to cooperate with each other on issues that are important to all of us. We want to work together.” He suggested agenda topics of rights, ethics, and the environment.

The main concern is not the location of a council but how the conversation is handled, in the opinion of Joanne St. Lewis, Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Law at the University of Ottawa. “Faith for me is about spirituality, liberation, and engagement. The question is the context of spirituality, liberation from what, and engagement with whom?” She said that issues of human rights, customary laws, values, and culture have always been areas of tension, especially for women, and she would consider it unfortunate if an interreligious council addressed only the commonalities of faith but not how faith relates to human rights.

“If you can’t engage on fundamental human rights issues, you run the risk of being marginalized,” she stated, adding that the Human Rights Council at the UN is suffering from a “poverty of spirituality.” She wants to see an interreligious council take into account the general impoverishment of spirituality, different understandings of gender and race, exploitation of resources, and environmental concerns.

For Imam Delic, faith is not just a noun, but a verb. “I have to live my faith in action,” he stated. He doesn’t see the cause of conflict as being religion but rather human weakness, and he stated that inner peace is the foundation for peacebuilding work: "If I am not secure within myself, I cannot understand you. The more I understand my own faith, the more open I can be to you.” Quoting from Qur’an 49:13, where God said he divided humankind into nations and tribes so that we might recognize and know one another, Imam Delic explained that openness is a metaphor used in all religions. Therefore, “We have to have open hands, an open heart, and an open face." 

The attention that the UN has given to religion so far has been rather narrow, focusing mainly on individual human rights, Dr. Jaeger pointed out. “The UN needs to address the issue of religion more broadly as a human right for larger collectives. The notion of collective security was at the heart of the discussion of UN reform in 2005, but religion was left out.” In light of this, he asked whether an interreligious council would have an active role, for example sending teams of religious mediators to places where religion is a dimension of the conflict, or just a deliberative role, advising the General Assembly or Security Council on areas where religion is a dimension.

Marshalling support

The Philippine ambassador to Canada, H.E. Jose S. Brillantes, described his country’s work in spearheading the proposal for an interreligious council at the UN. It has borne fruit thus far in the December 2007 General Assembly Resolution to establish a focal unit for interreligious dialogue and a high-level meeting on interfaith dialogue that was held at the UN in November 2008. He looks forward to expanding this work. “Interfaith dialogue needs to engage states and civil society,” he said, and in addition, dialogue needs to be followed by action.

The ambassador described the Philippines as a pluralistic society, with Islam deeply rooted in the south and indigenous beliefs widespread. There has been conflict among the different groups, especially in the island of Mindanao, but the ambassador explained, “We are building strong bridges of tolerance and understanding.”

Father Ariel Dumaran, priest at Saint Simon the Apostle Anglican Church in Toronto, said that Canada has a history of spearheading cooperation internationally. The World Council of Churches was initiated by a Canadian man who was living in the United States, and it became the largest Christian body in the world. “Some people say that Canada is still in the making,” he added. “I think religion is still in the making. We must be prophetic. Being prophetic means we must be ahead of our time. Bringing together religions in a higher level of conversation to engage politicians is the key to evoking the politics of compassion and a sense of self-transformation.”

The idea of interfaith dialogue is gaining momentum. Rev. Gray expressed appreciation for the resolutions spearheaded by the Philippines and for the interreligious initiative promoted by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, where the two most holy places of Islam are situated. “If they support it, why not Canada?” Rev. Gray challenged the audience.

He described his upbringing in the Black Baptist church in the US, a bastion of male dominance, where the ministry was not open to women. “But it has changed, and I have changed,” he added. “We are not proposing uniformity but unity. Not fusion but respect.”

Any proposal for change at the UN involves consideration of power brokers. Rev. Gray referred to the traditional role of the US. “But there’s a new US marshall,” he said, “and he coined the phrase ‘soft power.’ We need to let folks know that there is a new attitude even relating to an interfaith council." He described this time as a golden opportunity that will only bear fruit "when faith leads it to happen, when the good take leadership.”

The seminar also featured a panel discussion on Peace in the Holy Land: The Contribution of the Abrahamic Faith Communities, moderated by Mrs. Daniele de Lorimier. Rev. Gray participated, along with fellow Montreal religious leaders Rabbi Dr. Reuven P. Bulka of Congregation Machzikei Hadas and Co-President of the Canadian Jewish Congress and Imam Salam Elmenyawi, President of the Muslim Council of Montreal and Muslim Chaplain at McGill University.

Text of presentation by Dr. Hans-Martin Jaeger.
Text of presentation at June 3, 2010 conference by Hon. David Kilgour.
For background materials on a proposal for an interreligious council at the UN, click here.

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