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In Seoul, UPF Conference Celebrates the UN Week of Interfaith Harmony

Seoul, Korea - As events in Egypt moved toward their climax half a world away, UPF convened an International Leadership Conference in Seoul in honor of the first United Nations week of interfaith harmony. The program considered models of peaceful transitions to democracy, with a special emphasis on the often-neglected responsibilities of religious and spiritual leaders to defuse long-standing tensions between different ethnic and minority groups in the days and months following abrupt political change. [For the conference schedule and links to presentations, click here.]

At the opening plenary, Mufti Mustafa Jusufspahic from Belgrade, Serbia, and six other faith leaders offer prayers for peace.

The opening plenary, chaired by UPF President Dr. Thomas Walsh, took place at the Cheon Bok Goong sanctuary in Seoul and began with interfaith prayers from the Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Confucian, Shinto, Buddhist and Sikh traditions. Each of the religious representatives shared a reading from their scriptures, lit a candle and offered a prayer for peace, while colorful banners and decorations proclaimed the vision of the week of interfaith harmony.

Following the prayers, the Grand Mufti of Korea, Dr. Abdul Wahab Zahid Haq, spoke on the “brotherhood of all humanity,” and of the great moral imperatives of all faiths to love one another. Dr. Edwin Shuker, a leading member of the Jewish community in Great Britain, spoke of his own awakening to the presence of God, and quoted the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, Lord Jonathan Sacks in calling for peace, “bound by a covenant of faith that turns strangers into friends. In an age of fear, let us be agents of hope, let us be a blessing to the world.”

Ida Odinga, wife of Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga, together with UPF International Chairman Hyung Jin Moon Some of the faith leaders who came to celebrate the  United Nations Week of Interfaith Harmony

Two political leaders also spoke to the importance of shared values and cooperation. “Success in this task cannot be achieved in isolation but calls for all countries to work together,” said the Hon. Evgeny Nikulishev, a special representative of the Russian Senate. “We are working to cultivate the values of tolerance and understanding. Mrs. Ida Betty Odinga, wife of the Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga, spoke of the beauty inherent in differences and diversity. “Just as a safari park would be boring with only one type of animal,” she said, “our society is all the richer for its diversity.”

Rev. Hyung Jin Moon, the International Chairman of the Universal Peace Federation, spoke about how God reveals himself in many ways, not only through the teachings of the world’s great religions but also through the mysteries and wonders of the natural world, and through the simple elegance of mathematical and physical laws. “We are all made in the image of God, whose nature it is to give and to love,” he said, “and we must strive to do the same.”

Following the opening plenary, the conference moved on to consider case studies and models of conflict resolution. Many among the more than 150 diplomats, congressmen and women, former heads of state, academics, clerics, and community leaders were in a position to share first-hand reports of dramatic social changes from the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 right up to the demonstrations that began on January 25 in Tahrir Square in Cairo. Dr. Rouchy Saleh, professor from Tanta University (halfway between Cairo and Alexandria), was welcomed with warm applause when he successfully predicted a peaceful and rapid transition in his homeland.

“We have decided to be a free country,” he said, citing also evidence of new cooperation among people of different faiths in the quest for freedom: “They tried to create separation between the Copts and Muslims, but the Christians and Muslims are more united now than before.”

Edwin Shuker, UK; Evgeny Nikulishev, Russia; Abdul Zahid Haq, Korea; and Rouchdy Saleh, Egypt Robert Vandemeulebroucke, Belgium; Jiwan Shresta, Nepal; Olfat El Mallakh, USA; and Ali Alshahrani Saudi Arabia

Dr. Robert Vandemeulebroucke, a Belgian diplomat, spoke of his first-hand experience during the 1989 revolution in Benin, West Africa. After 20 years of failed Marxist philosophy and practice, Benin president Mathieu Kérékou called for free elections, no doubt hoping that the people would reelect him in appreciation for vision for change. But instead, the population voted overwhelmingly for the challenger, M. Nicéphore Soglo.

“It was a politically decisive but also very sensitive moment,” recalled Vandemeulebroucke. “What would the incumbent do? Send his army into the streets, arrest the opposition, send it to jail, and grasp power? Let himself be declared president for life? This hypothesis was not imaginary: it had happened in neighboring Togo and in not-so-distant Zaïre, to mention just those two countries.” History shows that Kerekou chose the high road and welcomed his successor into the presidential palace, concluded the Belgian Ambassador, “setting in train a new history for Benin, which has since become a beacon of order and prosperity in a region where democracy is still very fragile.”

Dr. Fatmir Sejdiu, Kosovo's founding president, spoke movingly of his country's struggle for independence, and of the new nation's determination that all religious and ethnic minority groups would be fairly represented and that their voices would be heard. "I have no doubt that faith in a better world, with tolerance and religious and cultural pluralism, is the only alternative to all of us. Our world is big and rich enough to work together all around the globe for peace, mutual understanding, and tolerance."

Newly appointed Ambassadors for Peace with UPF secretariat and regional staff.

Vladimir Arsenkin, Russia

In all its leadership conferences, UPF aims to bring together people from former enemy nations to promote reconciliation and understanding. One emotional highlight of the conference came when Captain Vladimir Arsenkin, the first Soviet veteran of the Korean War to ever visit South Korea, recounted how he had been overwhelmed by the reception he had received in Seoul from the people who were once his and his nation’s enemies. “I am committed to spend the rest of my life supporting the UPF’s work for peace,” he said.

Other presenters on the topic of conflict resolution included Drs. Soewarto Moestadja, the Minister of Home Affairs, Suriname; Hon. Damry Ouk from the Commission of Legislation & Justice, Cambodia; the Hon. Lloyd Sandiford, Ambassador of Barbados to China; and the Hon. Ahmet Gokjan Saricam, Member of the Grand National Assembly, Turkey.

Some speakers referred to UFP’s proposal for an interreligious council at the UN, commenting on the insights they gained from the diverse speakers. One creative proposal was for a human security council. Prof. Akiko Yamanaka, a visiting professor at Cambridge University and former Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs in Japan, called attention to current discussions of human security and preventive diplomacy that seek to establish relations of trust among nations. Mr. Takahiro Ninomiya, retired Major General of Japan’s Air Self Defense Force, spoke of Japan’s post-war “Peace Constitution” that restricts its military roles to preventing conflict, peacekeeping operations, and offering humanitarian support.

On February 8, the participants were guests of honor at the birthday celebrations of Rev. and Mrs. Moon, held at the Cheongpyeong peace village in the mountains northeast of Seoul. Thanking the audience of more than 1000 for their well-wishes, Rev. Moon urged all present to remain optimistic about the cause of peace. “Never forget that you yourselves must be the embodiment of peace,” he said. Referring to a sermon he gave at the turn of the millennium on January 13, 2001, Dr. Moon again called for a fundamental commitment by the world’s leaders to the three basic principles of a strong personal and family ethics, including absolute fidelity in marriage; fairness and equity in interpersonal relationships, rejecting of all forms of political favoritism and nepotism; and finally full accountability and transparency with public money and public assets.

The ILC participants were guests of honor at the birthday celebrations of Rev. and Mrs. Moon

The UPF delegation from Azerbaijan greeting the UPF founders on their birthday

 See also a behind-the-scenes report: Arriving as Strangers, Leaving as Friends.


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