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Interfaith Programs

Consultation in Vienna on a Proposed Interreligious Council at the UN

Vienna, Austria - A conference on Interfaith, the United Nations and Peace in the 21st Century took place on Dec. 8, 2010, in Vienna with a selected group of 50 participants.

There was animated discussion about the purpose, nature, and basis for interreligious dialogue.

As an introduction, Peter Haider read excerpts from Rev. Dr. Sun Myung Moon’s speech delivered in the UN building in New York in August 2000, where the establishment of an interreligious council at the UN was proposed for the first time. A recently released video illustrated developments in this effort and the involvement of Ambassadors for Peace in its unfolding.

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The initial speaker of the first session of the conference was Ambassador Dr. Walther Lichem, a former Austrian Ambassador to Canada and several other countries. Throughout his career as a diplomat, he was involved with UN projects as well. He was one of a few participants in a conference initiated by the former Iranian president Khatami which gave birth to the Alliance of Civilizations at the UN. This was created as a response by concerned world leaders to the “Clash of Civilizations.” This organization is especially supported by Turkey and Spain, which became a leading party after the experience of the Madrid train bombings in March 2004.

Dr. Lichem also spoke about the challenge of the people in the 21st century to live in a society of neighbors with multiple identities. He further emphasized the importance of respect for every culture and the necessity of an open and interested mindset while living together in a peaceful, harmonious, and hopefully happy setting despite experiencing otherness when we look at the religious or cultural traditions of people around us today.

The second speaker was Fr. Richard Reinisch, a Benedictine monk from the famous monastery of Goettweig, located on a mountain overlooking the river Danube. Before Fr. Reinisch joined the monastery he worked as an engineer in China and in Africa for several years. In Africa he experienced how people of different religions lived together in harmony: Hindus, Catholics, Protestants, and Muslims. He further emphasized that we have to offer respect and dignity to people of other religions. Furthermore, religion should not be separated from social initiatives. As good examples, he mentioned Mother Theresa and Ute Bock, an Austrian Ambassador for Peace who invests herself completely in helping asylum seekers.

The common base for interreligious dialogue Fr. Reinisch sees as accepting God as our parent, because then we can be brothers and sisters, we can be one family. Also, we need to trust in the goodness of the other person as a prerequisite for dialogue. Fr. Reinisch recently published two books: Christianity in China and Humor in Religions.

The third speaker was Alexej Klutschewsky, a Russian anthropologist whose topic was “How might the Orthodox world deal with an interreligious council at the UN?” Mr. Klutschewsky explained that in Russia there are four privileged religions: The Orthodox Church, Sunni Islam, Lamaistic Buddhism, and Judaism. Smaller churches or new religions are not very welcomed. Immigration from the Central Asian Muslim countries to Russia is causing ethnic tensions and ordinary Russian people feel threatened by such developments today. The political leaders try to balance these tensions.

Then Dr. Herbert Rauch, a sociologist and social philosopher who has participated in international UPF conferences, made his statement. First he praised the atmosphere of generosity and hospitality created by UPF. He can clearly see that the agenda of UPF – promoting an interreligious council at the UN – is the right idea at the right time, because the global problems are increasing and they need to be resolved! He emphasized three topics on which there should be global agreement:

1. The dignity of human beings
2. The right for all people to live, which can be achieved if wealth is equally shared
3. The ecological footprint: we need to take steps to use less and leave more for future generations! We need to give “reason” a more prominent place in our interreligious discussions again!

After Dr. Rauch’s contribution, there was a coffee break with refreshments. The first speaker of the second session was Prof. Dr. Elsayed Elshahed, director of the Institute of Intercultural Islamic Research at the central mosque near the UN headquarters in Vienna and a professor at the German department of Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt. The topic of his speech was: “Does society need religion and if yes, how much religion is needed?” In his opinion, secularism is the answer to theocracy, as it existed in the Middle Ages in Europe. But in some cases, secularism has become a kind of religion itself! However, secular societies are shallow and drained. We need God and we need religious values. Dr. Elshahed thinks that religions will play a more important role in the post-modern world.

One of Prof. Elshahed’s great achievements was organizing a Conference on a Global Ethic in Saudi Arabia, where he was a professor in the 1990s. Despite many obstacles, he managed to get Professor Dr. Hans Küng, the founder of Global Ethic invited as a professor of Christian theology there. Prof. Küng left Saudi Arabia with hopeful impressions. He had met Muslim religious leaders and scientists there with whom he had fruitful discussions! Also, Prof. Elshahed could get the Saudi Arabian government to participate in the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago in 1993, which was a big step forward as well. “If we want a dialogue between religions, we need to be ready to look at the problems as well, not only emphasize the common points,” Dr. Elshahed added. And, according to him, we need to be ready to accept criticism from within and also from outside our religious circles.

The opportunity to practice readiness for criticism opened right away when the next speaker unfolded his ideas. Mag. Christian Zeitz, secretary general of the Austrian Academic Society, a rather conservative Christian federation, first gave an enthusiastic report on the August 2000 Conference in New York, which he was fortunate to participate in ten years ago, when Father Moon introduced the idea of an interreligious council at the UN for the first time. Mag. Zeitz had a unique opportunity meet so many important people there.

Mr. Zeitz posed three questions for the interreligious dialogue:

1. What is interreligious dialogue? Quoting Plato, he stated that is has to be a learning process for both parties.
2. What is the purpose of interreligious dialogue? Quoting Plato again, it is to find a common base. Every religion claims the absolute truth. Is there a third perspective which can make a connection between the two parties? Can we find a basic agreement?
3. Who are the partners in the dialogue: religious leaders or politicians? Are they qualified, and do they represent their communities?

Another problem Mr. Zeitz sees is that while we are engaged in dialogue, there are things going on in the world which nullify the efforts of the dialogue. Also, according to Mr. Zeitz, the question of religious freedom has to be separated from juridical or social questions, which have to be dealt with by the legal system and through political representation.

After Mr. Zeitz’ speech, which included some criticism of developments within the Muslim community in Austria and internationally, such as the persecution of Christians in the Arab world, tensions between him and Prof. Elshahed became quite apparent, and it was clear to all participants that as UPF we have to make an ongoing investment in interreligious dialogue. As a last lecture Mr. Heinrich Krcek, a Unificationist who had been a Benedictine monk before, introduced the book World Scripture: An Anthology of Sacred Texts, which introduces sacred texts of the world’s religions. Mr. Krcek mentioned that we are on our way to a world culture and no religion can stand by itself. More and more theologians are calling for a world-level theology.

After Mr. Krcek’s speech there were questions from the audience to the speakers. As a final highlight of the conference Mr. Warren Rosenzweig, founder of the Jewish theater in Vienna who attended a Middle East Peace Initiative conference in Jerusalem last August, called the attention of all those present to the fact that this year December 8 was the final day of the Jewish celebration of Hanukkah. He lit all the candles of his Jewish eight-branched candelabra, and all remained silent while listening to the story of the flask of oil that miraculously burned for eight days in the temple during the uprising under Judah Maccabee against the Greeks in 161 B.C.E. The light of the candles created an atmosphere of peace and unity at the end of sometimes heated interreligious discussions. A small buffet dinner with many individual discussions concluded this very meaningful conference.

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