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J. de Venecia: The Need for an Interfaith Council in the UN System

Address to the World Summit on Peace
New York, USA, January 29 – February 1, 2009

The idea of interfaith dialogue is gaining ground

The idea of interfaith dialogue that the Universal Peace Federation espouses — that of bringing together the world’s moderates and hence isolating the radicals who would use religion for political ends — is rapidly gaining ground in the world.

Interfaith dialogues have now come to engage international and regional leaders of the greatest religions and the most influential states. Among the most prominent of these statesmen are Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero of Spain and Prime Minister Recep Tayyif Erdogan of Turkey.

Potentially decisive is the personal interest that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has taken in initiating these dialogues.

As Custodian of the two Holy Mosques — those of Makkah (Mecca) and Al Madinah (Medina) — King Abdullah holds one of the most prestigious political offices in the world of Islam. So his initiatives are certain to become landmarks in the history of these dialogues.

Already the Saudi Arabian monarch has started off potentially far-reaching dialogues with Sunni Islam’s estranged Shiite brethren, by meeting in Makkah with a Shiite leader, Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, who is also ex-President of Iran.  

King Abdullah has also dialogued with Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican — and sponsored Muslim-Christian conversations in Madrid, together with Catholic Spain’s King Juan Carlos I.

A broader concept of dialogue also gaining ground

Meanwhile, a broader concept of interfaith dialogue is also gaining ground. This is the concept of dialogue not only between religions but also between entire cultures and civilizations.

In 2006, for instance, the General Assembly approved a Philippine proposal to organize a ‘focal unit’ for ‘Inter-Faith,’ ‘Inter-Cultural,’  and ‘Inter-Civilizational’ Dialogue — either in ECOSOC — the Economic and Social Council — or in the Office of the Secretary-General.

Not only would this concept widen the field of global discourse. It would also give all of us a greater and deeper understanding of what is truly at stake in the world’s campaign against fanatic terrorism in our technological era.

Changing US attitudes toward intercultural talks

Still another welcome element in our concerted effort to stimulate interfaith dialogue is the new Obama Administration’s projected emphasis on America’s ‘soft power’ in its dealings with the rest of the world.

As enunciated by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, America’s soft power refers to its ability to realize the foreign-policy outcomes it prefers by attraction rather than by force, coercion, or bribery.

America is in fact the ideal meeting ground — and Americans the ideal apostles — of interfaith dialogue, since America is the world’s greatest ‘melting pot’ of peoples.

In a speech before the politically-influential Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC, last December 2, I had the privilege of proposing that America adopt this concept of dialogue between faiths, cultures, and civilizations as a key element of its foreign relations.

Not only are all the world’s religions represented significantly in this continental country. The extended family of America’s new president itself reflects America’s amazing cultural variety.

The family that produced President Obama and his wife, Michelle, is black and white and Asian: Christian, Muslim and Jewish. Its members speak English, Indonesian, French, Chinese, German, Hebrew as well as at least three African languages.

For President Obama and Secretary Clinton to host interfaith dialogues among their national constituencies should be a good beginning for their effort to regain for America the high moral ground in global affairs.

Interfaith dialogue in the United Nations' system

To my mind, the time has also come to deepen the United Nations' commitment to these dialogues by installing a Council for Inter-Faith, Inter-Civilizational, and Inter-Cultural Dialogue in the United Nations' system.

Such a Council would initiate, facilitate and manage dialogues between religions, cultures and civilizations wherever they are called for by circumstances — at the global, regional, national or local levels.

And this the General Assembly could do — simply and without appropriating new money — by replacing with this new Council the obsolete Trusteeship Council — whose mandate has expired, as the last UN trust territories have been restored to self-government. (Since 2005, the Secretary-General has in fact been asking the General Assembly to abolish the Trusteeship Council.)

Alternatively, the General Assembly could write an Inter-Faith mandate in Chapters XII and XIII of the UN Charter, which deal with the work of the General Assembly’s Fourth Committee. This step, too, the Assembly could carry out using existing resources of the UN system.

Our Delegation will consult with other UN Missions — as well as with global civil society’s representatives active in this Assembly — to facilitate the establishment of this Inter-Faith Council in the UN system.

Anti-terrorist coalition's duty to end poverty

Pope John Paul II preached that injustices existing in the world could never be used to excuse acts of terrorism. But he insisted also that the anti-terrorist coalition is duty-bound to alleviate the oppression and marginalization of peoples that facilitate terrorist recruitment.

I do not think it irrelevant to refer in this context to the global financial crisis that Wall Street’s meltdown has set off — and to the plight of the ‘emerging’ economies that are liable to become its greatest casualties.

Well-funded ‘bail-out packages’ and stimulus programs have been arranged for the great multinational banks and rich-country financial markets.

But no rescue plans are forthcoming for the 100-odd debtor countries — although the crisis will wipe out most of what they have gained over these last eight years in their arduous struggle to halve poverty incidence between 2001 and 2015, under the Millennium Development Goals of the United Nations.

The Philippines is fairly representative of these debtor-states. Almost 90% of our budget is eaten away by the costs of servicing nearly $56 billion in national debt. Yet we should be able to lift millions of Filipinos out of extreme want if only we could redirect — say, half of the money we dedicate to paying principal and interest on debt to antipoverty programs.

This is why we have drawn up a debt-for-equity proposal that may be the only salvation of poor-country economies caught up in the global financial crisis.

The Philippine debt-for-equity proposal

Under our debt-for-new-equity proposal, the creditor-countries would authorize their debtor-countries to invest as much as half of their debt-service payments in potentially profitable ventures in which the creditors would have both equity and oversight supervision.

These ventures would include toll highways, mass-transit systems, piers and airports, massive reforestation programs and alternative energy sources, as well as irrigation and food production.

The infrastructure projects would generate tolls and user fees. Reforestation would earn carbon credits under the Kyoto Protocol. Food production would ease mass poverty. And all these new investments would generate jobs and pump-prime debtor-country economies until export markets recover in the rich countries.

The General Assembly, then Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the governments of Germany, Italy, and the G-77 countries and China have all endorsed our debt-for-equity proposal.

The World Bank, the IMF and the Paris Club have all examined our debt-for-equity proposal thoroughly. I now believe that the global recession makes it extremely vital — since no other proposal for stimulating poor country economies have been made public so far.

Appeal for the Peace Federation's endorsement

I regard the Universal Peace Federation’s support for our debt-for-equity proposal as a veritable life-and-death issue for the debtor-states. And I seek your help — singly and in concert — for our effort to ‘sell’ our concept to the rich countries and to the lending institutions in the international community.