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Speeches

T. Hamad: World Interfaith Harmony Week

 Presentation at a conference on “Religion and Peace in the Middle East: the Significance of Interfaith Cooperation”
Jerusalem, Israel - August 26-28, 2012
Published in UPF's interfaith journal Dialogue & Alliance, Vol. 26, No. 2, Fall 2012
Theme: Religion and Peace in the Middle East


The United Nations was established in 1945 after World War II to replace the League of Nations. Its essential purpose was to stop wars between countries and to provide a platform for dialogue and cooperation. It was to do this through a variety of methods, such as promoting social progress, better living standards, and human rights. The founding Charter provided for two main bodies, the General Assembly and the Security Council. However, several other entities were also created, such as the Economic and Social Council, the Secretariat, to deal with the many social, economic, health, and human rights issues that are so common today.

At the time that the UN was created, the kind of religious conflicts that are going on today did not exist, at least not visibly. For this reason, there was no provision in the UN Charter to deal with these issues, and none of the other organs in the UN were created with a mandate to promote interfaith harmony or interreligious dialogue. Religion had no place in the UN, because it was seen at that time either as irrelevant to the issues and problems that caused World War II or something that very few people could deal with. 

The UN now realizes, at least on some levels, that world peace and social justice cannot come about unless it addresses the issues dealing with religious intolerance and religious conflicts, since these issues are at the heart of many of today’s problems throughout the world.

This is not to say that the UN's work is irrelevant, but that there is a growing awareness that unless the UN also deals with the problems related to religious issues, it will not be able to achieve true world peace and harmony.

Also, as this awareness is becoming more and more known worldwide, the potential contributions of religion and spirituality in promoting a culture of world peace began to be considered on a worldwide level, first outside of the United Nations and then at the United Nations. There is now a growing recognition that one of the main factors contributing to the emergence of many of the ongoing conflicts in the world is the deep-rooted disharmony that exists within and among the world’s religions.

I will venture to review the development of the interfaith movement at the United Nations, with some reference to interfaith programs outside of the UN which may have had a great influence in getting the UN to begin the interfaith work leading to the establishment of World Interfaith Harmony Week in 2010.

On August, 18, 2000, Rev. Sun Myung Moon gave a significant speech at the UN in which he said that the roots of human problems are not only social or political but also spiritual. Therefore, social and political approaches to solving these problems are of limited effectiveness. He further stated that secular authorities rule most human societies, but religion lies at the heart of most national and cultural identities, and that religious faith and devotion have far greater importance in most people’s hearts than do political loyalties. He called for the renewal of the UN by establishing an interreligious council at the UN.

From August 28 to 31, 2000, more than 2000 delegates and observers representing the Vatican, Islamic nations, Protestant and Orthodox Christians, Hindus, Jews, Buddhists, and other spiritual traditions met at the General Assembly Hall in the United Nations to open the Millennium World Peace Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders.

The purpose of the four-day summit was to identify ways that the world’s religious and spiritual communities could work together with the United Nations on specific peace and other initiatives. The Summit opened with an address by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. The Summit leaders continued their work at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, where religious and spiritual leaders engaged in working group sessions to devise ongoing initiatives to address regional conflicts, poverty, and environmental problems.

The World Peace Summit was not a UN event. Funding was provided by the UN Foundation/Better World Fund (founded by Ted Turner), the Ford Foundation, Ruder Finn, Inc., the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Carnegie Foundation, the Modi Foundation, and the Greenville Foundation, among others. A number of religious groups provided financial support by sponsoring meals and in-kind contributions.

The Summit was headed by Secretary-General Bawa Jain, who was appointed by Ted Turner. It represented the first time in history that religious and spiritual leaders of the world’s diverse faith traditions could come together to discuss forging a partnership of peace to work with the United Nations, and identifying ways that the diverse communities could work together on specific peace, poverty, and environmental initiatives.

The Summit produced an 11-point Commitment to Global Peace, which addresses issues of conflict, poverty, and the environment. It outlined key areas in which religious leaders could play an active role in reducing conflict and addressing the critical needs of humankind. In addition to signing the Commitment to Global Peace, the delegates agreed to create a World Council of Religious Leaders which would make itself available as a resource to the UN and governments in preventing and resolving conflicts. This sounds similar to Rev. Moon’s proposal, which was introduced ten days earlier.

A decade of progress unfolded as follows:

  • 2000: Vision for an interfaith council outlined in an address by Rev. Moon
  • 2004: The UN General Assembly passed a resolution for the Promotion of Interreligious Dialogue (GA Resolution 59/23)
  • 2006: Formation of the Tripartite Forum on Interfaith Cooperation for Peace (Partnership among Member States, UN bodies, and NGOs)
  • 2007: Establishment of a Focal Unit in the Department of Economic and Social Affairs at the UN (GA Resolution 61/221)
  • 2010: Proposal for a UN Decade of Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue, Understanding and Cooperation for Peace
  • 2010: World Interfaith Harmony Week established by the General Assembly

Other major interfaith events related to Islam were happening worldwide, especially because of the war on terrorism and extremism. On October 13, 2006, 38 Islamic authorities and scholars from all parts of the world, representing all branches and schools of thought, joined together to deliver a letter to Pope Benedict XVI in response to his lecture at the University of Regensburg in Germany in September of 2006 in which he addressed such topics as holy war, forced conversions, and the need for dialogue and respect between Christians and Muslims. In their “Open Letter to the Pope,” Muslim scholars spoke as one voice about the true teachings of Islam.

One year later, on October 13, 2007, 138 Muslims scholars, clerics, and intellectuals wrote again, not just to the Pope, but to all Christian leaders of all the world’s churches. In “A Common Word Between Us and You,” they set forth a common ground between Christianity and Islam. As in the “Open Letter,” the signatories to this message came from every branch and school of thought in Islam. Every major Islamic country or region in the world was represented in this message.

The final form of the letter was presented at a conference in late 2007 held under the theme of “Love in the Quran,” by the Royal Academy of the Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought in Jordan, under the sponsorship of King Abdullah II. The conference was convent on the theme that the most fundamental common ground between Islam and Christianity, and the best basis for future dialogue and understanding, is the love of God and the love of the neighbor.

On December 2, 2008, Ambassador Anwarul Chowdhury, currently serving as a Senior Advisor to the President of the United Nations General Assembly, who was also a former Under-Secretary-General and High Representative for the Least Developed Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries and Small Island Developing States, and a former Permanent Representative of Bangladesh, said: “Interfaith dialogue is absolutely essential, relevant, and necessary. ... If 2009 is to truly be the Year of Interfaith Cooperation, the UN urgently needs to appoint an interfaith representative at a senior level in the Secretariat.”

Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah convened a three-day gathering in the holy city of Mecca on June 5, 2008, to create a unified Muslim voice, especially between Shiite and Sunni Muslims. The conference’s larger aim was to create a dialogue between Muslims, Christians, and Jews. Although this was not a United Nations event, it was the first attempt by a major world leader to address the issue of Islamic extremism.

On September 23, 2010, King Abdullah II of Jordan addressed the 65th United Nations General Assembly and proposed the idea for a “World Interfaith Harmony Week” in which all people of all beliefs, not just Muslims and Christians, could meet inside and outside of the UN to promote religious harmony.” A few weeks later, Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad of Jordan presented the proposal to the UN General Assembly, where it was adopted unanimously as a UN observance.

The resolution calls for events during the first week of February each year to promote interfaith dialogue, in order to reaffirm that “mutual understanding and inter-religious dialogue constitute important dimensions of a culture of peace.” The three goals of World Interfaith Harmony Week are to coordinate efforts of positive and peaceful work, to use places of worship to foster peace, and to encourage religious clergy to declare support for peace.

Thus, the first week of February every year is marked as World Interfaith Harmony Week, devoted to spreading the message of interfaith harmony and goodwill in activities around the world, such as interfaith breakfasts, film screenings, and talks featuring active participation of civil society, UN entities, and other intergovernmental organizations.

The first World Interfaith Harmony Week was observed in 2011 and included a broad range of activities at the United Nations and around the world to promote mutual respect and understanding between followers of different faiths and beliefs. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a message: “These partners play an indispensable role in supporting United Nations’ efforts for peace.” The first World Interfaith Harmony Week had over 300 Letters of Support as well as 200 registered events in over 40 countries.

On February 7, 2012, the office of the President of 66th Session of the General Assembly of the UN hosted an observance of the second annual World Interfaith Harmony Week. In cooperation with the NGO community at the UN, a well-attended program of speakers and musical performances was organized in the United Nations General Assembly Hall. The President of the General Assembly, Mr. Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser, began the observance with a keynote address that highlighted the “social and moral significance” of religion in the global society and reminded the General Assembly that the United Nations itself was founded on “the quest for the common values of peace, freedom, and the oneness of humanity.” He also stated that the recently-concluded Fourth Doha Forum on the Alliance of Civilizations inspired him to appeal to the international community to promote respect for diversity and pluralism regardless of religion, race, or ethnicity, believing that this spirit of mutual respect will afford a firm building block in the establishment of a global culture of peace, a climate of hope and healing. 

UN Deputy Secretary-General H.E. Dr. Asha-Rose Migiro also expressed support and encouraged the General Assembly to continue cooperating in a spirit of unity. Various other members of the UN community also addressed the theme, “Common Ground for the Common Good,” and the need for interfaith dialogue and understanding within and among different respective traditions.

Speakers included various UN ambassadors, the Permanent Observer of the Holy See, and representatives of religious and interreligious NGOs. Representatives of several world religions including Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism, Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism highlighted the work of religious communities in five specific areas: finding common ground, the mediation of conflict, disaster prevention and response, the revitalization of the UN, and sustainable development.

An overriding theme was the need to give religious leaders roles in mediation of conflict. “Ignoring religion,” according to Rabbi David Rosen, “encourages extremist elements to take center stage….If one does not want religion to be ‘part of the problem,’ then one must empower the religiously responsible voices and ensure that religion is part of the solution.”

Conclusion

The annual budget for the United Nations for 2012 was approximately $5.12 billion. In terms of the overall activities of the UN, interfaith programs at the UN utilize only a very small portion of it annual budget. Because of the serious conflicts that exist in today’s world due to religious conflicts, religious intolerance, including the intolerance that exists in several countries in the Middle East, the United Nations should encourage ongoing interfaith work, especially in the area of education.

We observed little progress in solving the fundamental problems of society by the various interfaith forums and conferences. There are still wars and conflicts raging in the Middle East, which threaten to escalate into a very deadly confrontation. There are still fundamental social and economic issues that cannot be solved by the work of the United Nations, despite its best intentions. However, on a positive note, there is hope for real change if such religious and spiritual forums can take place on a regular basis, guided by courageous people and religious leaders willing to say what needs to be said and given more recognition for what they are saying. Such interreligious institutions and gatherings should contribute the wisdom of their religions to solving conflicts and promoting harmony and peace.

Today, many of the basic social, economic, and political problems are intertwined with religious and spiritual beliefs. Therefore, partnerships between the religious/spiritual spheres of life and the secular world are essential. The secular approach to solving global problems has reached its limit, and a new approach based on our spiritual connection to God is required. In the final analysis, however, if the religious and spiritual leaders of the world are to be effective, they must go beyond their own faith and the interests of their own particular religion for the sake of world peace and harmony.

We need to adapt a new belief, that the center of life is heart, not our heart, but God’s heart, who loves and cares for everyone as parents care for their children. Of course, not everyone has a religious or spiritual view of life, so we must also recognize the rights of these people and work in harmony with them to the extent it does not violate basic principles of God. That is why we must also motivate and encourage people to develop the spiritual side of their essence, in order to be truly human.

Mr. Taj Hamad is the Secretary General of UPF International. He also serves as Secretary General of the World Association of Non-Governmental Organizations (WANGO). Mr. Hamad has also served as Secretary of the Executive Committee of DPI-NGOs at the United Nations, Executive Director of the Interreligious Leadership Seminar, and Executive Director for the Interdenominational Christians for Unity and Social Action. He also serves as Chair of the Middle East Alliance for World Peace.