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Issue Date:  September 3, 2004

Diverse faiths seek common goals

Dialogue, addressing global problems agenda of parliament of religions


Even though religion is seen as a driving force behind much of the modern world’s turmoil and wars, 8,000 religious adherents from diverse faiths across the globe assembled in Barcelona, Spain, in July for the fourth Parliament of the World’s Religions.

Disagreements and conflicts aside, the chance to discuss issues with the broader religious world remains an attractive, if too little practiced, proposition. The parliament is not about the unity of world religions, but about points of convergence in their beliefs and values, said the Rev. William Lesher, chairman of the board of trustees for the parliament’s governing body.

“An encounter with the stranger is an encounter with the Divine,” said British author and former Catholic nun Karen Armstrong on the eve of the weeklong gathering. Armstrong was among several international presenters at the gathering.

Since the events of 9/11 she has been a frequent panelist and media guest on both sides of the Atlantic, bringing her scholarship on Islam and fundamentalism as well as her work on Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism to an ever-wider audience. Although hostility toward Islam has grown in some sectors of society, Armstrong noted that the case for interfaith dialogue has moved from optional to essential in the new global age.

The concept of toleration is insufficient -- it “sounds grudging and half-hearted,” she said. It is time to advance and to appreciate the scriptures and traditions of other people and their religion. The author urged believers to return to the duty of compassion and respect for the sacred rights of others as envisioned by sages, prophets and mystics of old.

In recognition of his work for interfaith understanding, Fr. Hans Küng received the seventh Juliet Hollister Award given by the Temple of Understanding, a New York-based organization dedicated to interfaith education and peace. The award noted Küng’s 50 years of loyalty to the church as a Catholic priest, scholar and reformer.

Barcelona was Küng’s third parliament. At the second parliament, held in Chicago in 1993, the Swiss theologian drafted the “Declaration Toward a Global Ethic.” The document has become the charter of the Germany- and Switzerland-based Global Ethic Foundation, of which Küng is president. The Hollister award came with a $5,000 grant to the Global Ethic Foundation.

The award came just as Küng’s latest book, Islam, is being published, the last of a trilogy that includes Judaism (1991) and Christianity: Its Essence and History (1994). The parliament was a chance for Küng to showcase some of his research on Islam and to conduct a public dialogue with Muslim cleric Tareq Ramadan. Ramadan is the grandson of Hasan-al-Banna, an Egyptian thinker who founded the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928 as a call to return to the Quran and to Muslim purity. Ramadan will begin teaching at the University of Notre Dame in the autumn.

Küng opposes the notion that a clash of civilizations is inevitable, given the tensions between modernity and tradition and the long enmities sown between differing creeds. He believes peace among civilizations is possible if religions can live side by side.

In Barcelona he had harsh words for both the Bush administration and for Israeli expansionists. Küng urged the world’s religious leaders to put the conflicts in the Middle East and their global effects at the top of their agendas.

In an interview with the news agency Swissinfo, he pointed to “powerful political interests at work in the Israeli and Iraqi conflicts. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his supporters want to occupy all the available land,” Küng said. “It is clear that oil is more important than Islam for the Americans. It gives the U.S. a power base for its Middle East policy and helps maintain its position as the world’s only superpower.”

Küng said he hopes that more Islamic leaders will call for dialogue among the religions. He cited Prince Hassan of Jordan as one who has supported the parliament’s goals.

In an opinion piece carried on the parliament’s Web site before the meeting, Küng asked religious and spiritual leaders at Barcelona to focus on the specific task of making peace with one another rather than letting their concerns dissipate into “hundreds of monologues.”

To achieve peace among the faiths requires that religious leaders clarify misunderstandings, work through traumatic memories, dissolve hostile stereotypes, overcome guilt complexes, demolish hatred and destructiveness, reflect on things held in common and take steps toward reconciliation, he said. Küng advised them to use the media and other available resources in taking these steps.

Küng discussed some of these issues with Nobel Peace Laureate Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian human rights lawyer who presented the keynote speech.

Not everyone came to Barcelona to dialogue. The forum drew thousands who were attracted by its call for commitments to help solve the issues of religious violence, access to safe water, the burden of external debt and the plight of refugees.

Dirk Ficca, executive director of the parliament’s council, wanted faith groups to return home with a “litany of simple and profound acts” that would address these global problems. At the end of the parliament, Ficca, a U.S. Presbyterian leader, said religious bodies had responded to the four concerns with firm endeavors, which he said he believed would be achieved before the fifth parliament convenes in 2009.

To help faith groups reach their goals, the parliament announced that it had set up a network of interreligious movements in partner cities around the world. It has also developed a means of monitoring and supporting the Barcelona commitments through a Web site, manuals and proposed links with organizations in the United Nations, the World Bank and elsewhere that are already working in the four areas.

A number of Catholic organizations outlined commitments. Among them was the Center for Religious Dialogue, a group in Bosnia and Herzegovina that plans to bring Israelis and Palestinians to a Catholic monastery in Bosnia to build understanding among the three Abrahamic faiths. A Catholic environmental group in Catalonia pledged to engage Mediterranean people in efforts to protect the region’s mountains as a source of water, natural resources and spiritual values.

Auxiliary Bishop Francis Kane of Chicago promised to engage the archdiocesan Office for Ethnic Ministry in lobbying the Illinois legislature to grant driver’s licenses for those who do not have legal papers and to refugees.

Many of the suggestions unveiled at Barcelona are already areas that most faiths are working on and that are priorities of diocesan justice and peace desks, of Catholic Relief Services and of the U.S. Catholic bishops, said Don Mitchell, a philosophy professor at Purdue University in Indiana. He said the parliament has no mechanism yet for delivering a “litany of good works,” and said he thought the purpose of the exercise was to inspire religious leaders to continue to give attention to these issues.

Mitchell has taken part in several Catholic-Buddhist and Catholic-Muslim dialogues. He is a consultant for the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue and for the U.S. bishops.

The parliament offered him an opportunity to network, support and learn from those committed to interfaith relations, he told NCR in a telephone interview. Mitchell expressed delight in observing some of the dialogues going on in other parts of the world, especially that between Jews and Muslims in Israel.

At a workshop on Muslim-Catholic relations, he heard a U.S. Evangelical Christian ask why Catholics could relate easily with those of other faiths and yet not have made much progress in talks with fellow Christians. “Her call to reinvigorate the ecumenical movement was one of the most important things I heard in Barcelona,” Mitchell said.

Patricia Lefevere is a freelance writer living in New Jersey and a longtime contributor to NCR.

Catholic News Service and Religion News Service contributed to this report.

National Catholic Reporter, September 3, 2004

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