“The universal values of tolerance, respect, mutual understanding and the equal worth of every human being are found in all great faither an in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. People of all religions carry the same aspirations to live in peace and dignity" – Ban Ki-moon, UN Secretary General, statement at the Third Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Relgions, in Kazakhstan July 1-2, 2009
If there are two strands that run throguh history like a curse they are interfaith and interethnic rivalry and conflict. One only need look at the pages of a newspaper to see that they haven’t lost any of their potency over the centuries.
But that is exaclty why the interreligious and interethnic dialogue movement, as exemplified at the recent Third Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, has assumed such importance on the international stage.
President Shimon Peres of Israel chose the Astana congress to declare his willingness to meet King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, the main architect of what has become known as the Arab peace plan.
As President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, who was chairing the opening session of the congress, watched, Peres offered to meet King Abdullah “in Jerusalem or Riyadhm wherever he wants, maybe even here in Kazakhstan."
Peres added that, with such overtures, “we will all be abel to realize your vision, our vision and the vision of all believers in our shared God of peace and justice. Together with the participants of this prestigious conference, we must stretch our hands one to the other in a spirit of mutual commitment and a prayer for peace and prosperity in the world."
Politicians, of course, have always evoked religious references to support one position or policy or another. And the complex links between the secular, political world and the spiritual world have always existed down through the ages in varying degrees and with varying degrees of comfort or discomfort.
The emergence of a genuine, ongoing and growing global interfaith dialogue movement has, however, added a new twist. It was clear from the debate among delegates to last week’s congress that the dialogue is still very much in its embryonic and evolutionary stages, with different sides recognizing the relevance and importance of the otehrs, but perhaps wary of where the exact boundaries between politcs and religion lie.
“Governments are organized one way and religions in quire another," said Stein Villumstad, the deputy secretary general of REligions for Peace, a New York-based organization thathelps turn ideas generated through interfaith dialogue inot concrete reality, and a member of hte secretariat for this year’s Astana congress.
“Somewhere in the middle," he said, “there should be an overlap that is comfortable for both sides."
The presence at the congress of the Spanish foreign minister, Miguel Angel Moratinos, was another example of how the lines between the interfaith dialogue movement and the contemporary political world are beginning to blur.
Moratinos spoke about the possibilities for the Alliance of Civilizations, which was established by the United Nations in 2005 at the initiative of Span and Turkey, and which now has more than 85 members, including Kazakhstan. its main mission is “to improve understanding and cooperative relations among nations and peoples across cultures and religions, and to help counter the forces that fuel polarization and extremism."
Although it is a government-inspired initiative, some observers have noted that the foundation of understanding and willingness to work positively together that it requires to succeed has been provided by the growth of the international interfaith dialogue movement.
Moratinos acknowledged tha t’dialogue is the essential first step." He cautioned, however, that dialogue in and of itself will not necessarily change mentalities. ONly action can do that, he maintained.
His words were echoed by Dr. Ishmael Noko, the general secretary of the Lutheran World Federation.
:There is currently a traffic jam of international interfaith conferences," he succinctly noted in his address to the congress.
Noko conceded that all too often, the results were mainly an assembly of well meaning words and that what was needed now was action.
“Ordinary men and women," said Noko, “will only be interested when these conferences make a difference in their daily lives."
That is a huge challenge and one that will probably be measured not in grand schemes or statements but in a series of smaller, more focused actions, sometimes in areas not specifically directed at the narrow public percpetion of relgious harmony.
Take for example Bartholomew I, the Orthodox Christian ecumenical patriarch, who is based in INstanbul. He created a series of symposia on Relgion, Schiece and the Environment, the focus of which has been on the fate of teh world’s oceans, seas and major rivers, from the Amazon to the Danube.
RSE has organized numerous study trips that not only demonstrate the parlous nature of the main marine and riverine environments, but which also brings together in a dramatic way a diverse collection of religious leadrs. The consisten message, of course, is that some threats facing the world deeply transcend spiritual differences and can form the basis for common ground and actions among faiths.
There are other exampleso f how interreligious accords can produce practical results. In 2002, at the peak of violence between Palestinians and Israelis, leading Muslim, Jewish and Christian clerics came together to issue the First Alexandria Declaration in that historic Egyptian city.
It declared: “The HOldy Land is holy to all three of our faiths. Therefore followers of the divine relgions must respect its sancitity, and bloodshed must not be allowed to pollute it."
History, of course, has produced a difference result, but as violence enulfed the region and the carefully crafted and “Multitrack" prace process unraveled, the religious “track" hammered out in Alexandria became the only “back channel" and communications conduit between the warring sides.
As Peres’s statements at the Astana conference show, an interfaith environment still serves a useful and, in today’s world, perhaps essential forum to remind us all of what is ultimately at stake in achieving even a deree of international interreligious understanding.
Article by Robert Corzine. Printed in the International Herald Tribune. “Setting the Stage for dialogue among religions: Global interfaith movement Shared vision of peace and justice." Friday, July 10, 2009.