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Religious leaders sign peace declaration

Special Report Writer
New York

Almost half a century ago, U.N. Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold saw “no hope for permanent world peace … unless there is a spiritual awakening on the worldwide scale.” Late last month the almost 1,000 religious figures who gathered at the United Nations for The Millennium World Peace Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders tried to advance such a global spiritual awakening.

Like previous U.N. summits, this one did not lack for words or color. Archbishops and swamis, grand muftis and rabbis, Sufi masters and Buddhist abbots, indigenous holy men and women rubbed shoulders in U.N. corridors Aug. 28 and 29 and attended some 220 scheduled talks. Before returning to their 100 nations, the leaders signed a Declaration for World Peace. In it they pledged to work for eradication of poverty and hunger, custodial care of the environment and abolition of weapons, which have claimed 27 million lives in armed conflict during the past half century.

They began the task of forming an Advisory Council, that will “guide and partner” the U.N.’s peacemaking work, according to Bawa Jain, secretary general of the summit. Calling the United Nations the “House of Micah” (in a reference to Micah 6:8), Jain said that spiritual leaders had turned its General Assembly hall into a sanctuary. When world political leaders gather for the opening of the U.N. General Assembly in early September, prayers spoken at the religious summit will be there to guide them, he said.

A native of India who belongs to the Jain faith, Jain has spent the past two years traveling worldwide to invite religious leaders to the United Nations.

The U.N. summit grew out of a conversation three years ago between Secretary General Kofi Annan and media mogul Ted Turner, who suggested that religious leaders come to the United Nations.

Annan drew cheers when he told participants, “There must be no room in the 21st century for religious bigotry and intolerance.” Annan reaffirmed the fundamental human right to freedom of religion and worship, including writing, publishing and teaching, celebrating holidays, choosing one’s own religious leaders, maintaining places of worship and communicating with others at home and aboard. While such rights are enshrined in several landmark U.N. documents, the failure of governments and authorities to protect these freedoms “is at once an affront and a menace,” he said.

Cardinal Francis Arinze, president of the Pontifical Council on Interreligious Dialogue, read a message from Pope John Paul. The pope said that peace cannot be left solely to politicians, diplomats and lawyers, but that religious leaders can contribute moral truths. It’s time for them to affirm that “peace is possible, peace is our sacred duty; peace is the future willed by God.”

The World Council of Churches general secretary, the Rev. Konrad Raiser, also addressed the summit and later met with Annan. The U.N. gathering, he said, “has illustrated that the religious and spiritual dimension of our life cannot be separated from how we shape, mobilize and live our political life.”

But Raiser questioned why existing networks of interfaith dialogue were so little consulted for the summit, networks such as the World Council of Churches, the World Conference on Religion and Peace and the World Parliament of Religions.

Outside U.N. headquarters, Bishop Andrew Francis of Multan, Pakistan, said that the summit had helped him fulfill his dream that “through mutual respect, understanding and the power of prayer we can build up the world.” Four years ago Francis was shot at by enemies, whom he chose to call “non-Christian.” Both bullets missed him.

In an address prepared for the summit, Francis pleaded with “you men of the earth” to stop the “sexual, psychological and emotional abuse and worse … honor killings, as well as discriminatory laws and customs and degrading exploitation” of women and children. In an interview, he said the 200,000 Catholics in his diocese live in the most underdeveloped area of the Southern Punjab and are among the “despised and rejected” of the earth. He called on U.S. Catholics to be in solidarity through prayer and financial support. The bishop said he would welcome anyone who could come and work in his diocese.

Nobel laureate Betty Williams of Northern Ireland spoke for many when she told the men of the cloth not to “stand up and give platitudes.” The real work of peacemaking and nonviolence “is the hardest work you’ll ever have to do.” While starvation exists before their eyes, “religious leaders talk about sexual morality,” she said.

Williams recited, “Blessed is the fruit of your womb” from the Hail Mary, and urged women to “rage” against men going to war. “We women love men … but we say: ‘Move over.’ We’ll take the world and if we make it any worse than you, we’ll give it back.”

The absence of the Dalai Lama from a meeting of global spiritual leaders illustrated for many the ongoing tensions between religion and politics. Organizers bowed to objections from China and decided not to invite the world-revered leader of Tibetan Buddhism. More than 150 of his supporters protested across the street from the United Nations.

National Catholic Reporter, September 8, 2000