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Interfaith Programs

Interreligious Council Proposal Discussed in Washington DC

USA-2010-11-04-Interreligious Council Proposal Discussed in Washington DC

Washington, DC, USA - The evening’s violent storm didn’t deter the intimate gathering of ambassadors, embassy personnel, professionals and educators on November 4. Following a delicious meal, MC Tomiko Duggan, Director of UPF International's office in Washington D.C., introduced the special guest who traveled from New York just for this program. Mrs. Genie Kagawa, Deputy Director of UN Relations at the Universal Peace Federation, presented the UFP vision and history of development of its proposal for an interreligious council at the United Nations, originally presented by the Rev. Dr. Sun Myung Moon at the UN on August 18, 2000.

Mrs. Kagawa began with the history and original goals of the UN, its high ideals, and the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, spearheaded by former US First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. UPF acknowledges that sustained progress in fulfilling these ideals has been slow and fragile, and there are many more conflicts in the world now than when the UN was originally established. Many voices have called for renewal and reform of the United Nations.

Recently, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has expressed deep concern about the impact of the global economic and financial crisis, which has reversed development gains and threatens to undermine the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals by 2015. Mrs. Kagawa also noted significant impediments to reducing poverty, inequality, discrimination, and poor governance, as well as the ongoing need for environmental sustainability and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Despite the shortcomings in the efforts of the United Nations, it has done much to improve the lives of people around the world and plays a crucial role in raising the standard of living. At the same time, there are growing trends of nationalism, secularization, and anti-religious and anti-family bias. She noted that the undermining of the family structure and sexualization of children have the potential to impede the wholesome development patterns that the UN advocates.

The original founding spirit of the UN was to be spiritual – helping to advance global brotherhood. The original intention was to include spiritual, moral, and ethical values in its charter. However, after much debate, the UN became a secular institution which excludes religious or spiritual viewpoints from civil affairs.

The founder of the Universal Peace Federation, Rev. Dr. Sun Myung Moon, spoke in depth about UN renewal in his speech in August 2000 entitled “Renewal of the United Nations to Build Lasting Peace.” He believes it is “critically important" for religions to come together, dialogue with one another, and learn to embrace one another. "World peace can be fully accomplished," he says, "only when the wisdom and efforts of the world’s religious leaders, who represent the internal concerns of the mind and conscience, work cooperatively and respectfully with national leaders who have much practical wisdom and worldly experience about the external reality.” He believes that the UN will succeed when such cooperation can be facilitated through a council dedicated to spiritual values.

The struggles to end the more than 340 conflicts in the world would be aided by the wisdom and cooperation of the members of such a religious council acting as advisers and mediators to the nation state representatives. Mrs. Kagawa suggested that its members should be “big-minded people who have proven their willingness to work in an ecumenical, interfaith way, people whose thinking transcends borders and reflects a global perspective.”

Mrs. Kagawa then presented the history of the efforts toward the establishment of this council. In early 2002, Hon. Jose de Venecia, former Speaker of the House of Representatives of the Philippines, discussed this proposal with President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who led the Cabinet to adopt this recommendation for an interreligious council as a foreign policy priority. In 2004, 30 nations officially agreed to promote interfaith dialogue and understanding as an important element in peacebuilding discussions within the United Nations system.

UNESCO and the Alliance of Civilizations lent support to this initiative as an important element of a Culture of Peace, inching the proposal towards further acceptance. In 2006, a UN resolution requested the Secretary-General to coordinate “interreligious, intercultural and intercivilizational dialogue through the designation of a focal unit in the UN Secretariat.” In October 2010, the UN established the annual celebration of World Interfaith Harmony Week during the first week of February.

By what principles would an interreligious council be guided? By universal principles that go beyond denominations, faith, or religion and affirm the sacred value and rights of individuals regardless of race, religion, nationality, and ethnicity. How would it be helpful? “We need a body at the UN that can represent the voice of the religious or spiritual leaders in the daily workings of the UN—not just religious leaders but experts in ecumenism, spirituality, and interdenominational, inter-religious and global-minded efforts to bring peace,” she explained.

Conflicts often arise between different religious groups. This council could help resolve the differences and prevent loss of life. Many models of cooperation can be utilized. World-renowned peacemakers could play useful roles. Spiritual principles have the potential to transform the hearts of the people and improve relations between people and between nations. She concluded by mentioning a number of challenges to the creation of such a council, including how to ensure that all faith groups are represented and that religious leaders respect the boundaries of the position of the political leaders.

A lively discussion followed the presentation, with many guests sharing their enthusiasm for such an effort at the UN. Through the questions and comments, a greater understanding of the work needed for the success of this proposal became clear. The following are excerpts of the reflections of some participants:

Mr. Nihad Awad, Executive Director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, called the proposal a good idea. “But America needs to do its homework first. The US has much influence on public opinion. I wish to help the US develop a culture of peace.” His organization backs the proposal for establishing a US Department of Peace, which he said could help promote an interreligious council at the UN.

H.E. Machivenyika Mapuranga, Ambassador of Zimbabwe to the US, asked about the Focal Unit on interreligious dialogue in the Secretariat and its interaction with Member States. Member states might be sensitive about an interreligious council's role at the UN, he said, and political leaders might be apprehensive that an interreligious council would encroach on their power and influence in their countries. Therefore, work would need to be done to assuage these concerns. Mrs. Kagawa assured him that the role of a council at the United Nations would be advisory. If there is an official body at the UN, funds could be allocated to make the work of interfaith dialogue and understanding more effective throughout the globe. UPF is in the process of putting together a white paper to describe the role and functions of the proposed council. Furthermore, after the establishment of the Focal Unit, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia held a two-day conference at the UN on the topic of interfaith dialogue with high-level participants. This is evidence of the growing interest in this area.

Sister Claudette Mohammad, of the Nation of Islam, said that not everyone who is spiritual is necessarily religious and vice versa. These terms need to be defined. She said she prays that people on such a council will be able to remember the “little people.” The Nation of Islam, led by Minister Louis Farrakhan, has mosques in the US and other countries, and she believes that they would be willing to assist this effort. “We need to speak about spirituality," she said. "We must reach out to our congressmen who move as their constituencies desire, so we need to get down to the grassroots and mobilize the ‘little people.’”

Jan Du Plain, of Du Plain Enterprises and an Ambassador for Peace, said she liked the step-by-step process of the proposal's development and where it stands today. Since the US has not yet been involved in this effort, she suggested meeting congressmen to talk to them about this idea. She also recommended approaching the UN Foundation, the US Institute of Peace, the International Women’s Media Foundation, the NGO Vital Voices, and former US Ambassador to the UN Madeleine Albright. The proposal could be promoted through the the Internet and social media. She stressed emphasizing the importance of the UN and add that it needs a spiritual focus.

Ms. Assrat Woldelessie, an Ethiopian NGO leader and Ambassador for Peace who previously worked for UNICEF, said “Peace is the key word to help end hunger and other world problems. I will be working with the local UPF group toward this goal.”

Ms. Isabel Varela, from the Embassy of Cape Verde, asked about the process of informing Member States about this initiative. She said that her nation has a long history of peaceful relations among people of different religions and with other nations of West Africa.

Ms. Seraphine Manirambona, from the African Union Mission in Washington, DC, offered greetings from her Ambassador. She stated that 2010 is a special year for the African Union: the Year of Peace and Security in Africa. “We are already partnering with the UPF and will continue to do so,” she added.

H.E. Mahamoud Adam Bechir, Ambassador of Chad to the United States, said, "I learned a lot, especially concerning the shocking level of secularism at the UN and how passionately this UPF movement has worked against all odds. One day this could be the most important council at the UN.” He also inquired about how to communicate the message to the missions in New York.

Dr. Michael Jenkins, President of American Clergy Leadership Conference, led a discussion about Islamophobia and the controversy about building a mosque near Ground Zero in New York. He stated: “If we can’t solve the mosque controversy, world opinion of the US will decline. UN Member States may believe that the US is bigoted against other religions. How America handles this is very important.” He called Imam Faisal Rauf a great promoter of interfaith and an excellent spiritual leader. He mentioned the prospect of allies in Saudi Arabia and Jordan and referred to Saudi King Abdullah's 2008 conference on interreligious cooperation. “The fear-frenzy created by the media is filled with so many untruths. We need to work on this problem,” he added. He also mentioned prospects for gaining support for the proposal in Europe and the US.

Mr. Raymond Mas, from the International Coalition for Religious Freedom, asked about the involvement of the Alliance of Civilizations, a UN initiative jointly promoted by Spain and Turkey. It seeks to galvanize international action against extremism through international, intercultural. and interreligious dialogue and cooperation. In particular, it focuses on defusing tensions between the Western and Islamic worlds. Mrs. Kagawa responded that the Alliance of Civilizations focuses on youth and the media and has been very active with interfaith issues at the UN. UPF has been in dialogue with its Secretariat.

The evening closed with a moving rendition of the song, “This Is Where Peace Begins” and a promise to continue to discuss and move this timely proposal forward.

Susan Fefferman contributed to this report. For more information about the proposal, click here.

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