SAN FRANCISCO — In the city that gave birth to the United Nations more than a half-century ago, leaders of religious faiths from around the globe recently met to consider creating a United Religions.
The idea is to establish an organization to promote understanding among religions and to be a resource for helping world governments tackle global problems such as third-world poverty, environmental degradation, and ethnic and religious conflict.
Existing organizations, such as the UN and the international financial institutions, are already recognizing the importance of spiritual values in dealing with these issues. But backers of the United Religions concept say the time has come for religious leaders to have a more permanent forum for contributing to global problem-solving.
The idea of starting a United Religions was born during the UN's anniversary celebration last year of the signing of its charter in San Francisco 50 years ago.
"It was clear the nations had struggled for global good for 50 years, while religions of the world had not spoken to each other for 50 years," recalls the Rt. Rev. William Swing, the Episcopal bishop of California. "I was hoping that in the next 50 years the religions might have the courage the nations have had to come together on a permanent daily basis and take on earnestly the hard issues of the world."
Supporters of this movement are the first to admit that religions must create peace among themselves to effectively play such a role. "My concern is that most of the conflicts are of a religious and ethnic nature," says Robert Muller, chancellor for the University of Peace in Costa Rica and former assistant secretary-general of the UN.
"Bosnia-Herzogovina points out to us that it is enormously difficult for people of different religions to live beside each other and make it as a community," says Bishop Swing, who sits at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. By promoting understanding between themselves, religions might then be able to offer avenues of reconciliation and negotiation, he suggests.
Swing undertook a three-month world tour this spring to meet with religious leaders and test support for the idea. He met with the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa, and numerous Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Jewish, and Buddhist leaders, among others. He found interest everywhere. "When I talked with Muslim leaders I was amazed, even among radical fundamentalists, how many people were ready," Swing reports.
The idea builds upon the experience of interfaith dialogue, both on a national and international basis, promoted by organizations such as the World Conference on Religion and Peace. But the organizers argue that such approaches have a fleeting effect. A permanent organization, says Dr. Muller, will more effectively deepen the dialogue, as the UN does among nations.
"It is important for the religions of the world to unite in order to have a unified voice of values which can be taken to the negotiating table in the major international organizations we have," says the World Bank's Richard Barrett.
But United Religions' supporters acknowledge they have yet to get backing from key groups such as the Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox Christians, or senior Islamic leaders. Some are cautious because it is difficult to sort out legitimate faiths from pseudo-religious cults, says Ven. Chung Ok Lee, main representative of the Korean Won Buddhist movement to the UN and head of the committee of religious nongovernmental organizations accredited to the world body. "All kinds of crazy things are done in the name of religion," she says. "They want to see a clear concept first before they join in the United Religions."
About 60 backers of the idea met here last month to discuss plans for a June 1997 summit in San Francisco to draft a United Religions charter. Sponsors hope to realize the dream by 2000, with San Francisco as a possible site for the new organization.