World religious leaders hold 'first' summit

Leaders from all major faiths gather today at the UN to play a part in world peacemaking.

More than 2,000 top religious leaders from all major faiths are gathering today at the United Nations for a first ever, four-day Millennium World Peace Summit.

Recognizing that in the past decade, more than 100 new conflicts have erupted where religious identity has often played a prominent part, UN and faith leaders say that practical collaborations for peacemaking are needed among faiths and with political leaders.

"There are limits to what political leaders can do to quell some of the passions," says Dena Merriam, vice-chairman of the summit's executive council. "Religious leaders with their moral authority can play a greater role in easing tensions."

While a number of these leaders have taken on such roles in places like Northern Ireland, South Africa, Cambodia, and Bosnia, this is the first time they've gathered under the UN imprimatur to define their roles in resolving conflict.

This is "first and foremost the encounter of broad civilizational groupings - Islam and Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism, along with other faiths," says William Vendley, secretary general of the World Conference on Religion and Peace, which works with interreligious councils in several conflict areas.

They have "a growing awareness of their need to encounter one another constructively, map out areas of shared concern, and even find ways in which they can mobilize their capacities for action," he adds.

The Islamic world, for example, has strong representation at the summit, with leaders from many countries in Europe, Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and the United States. Russian delegates include Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, and Muslim leaders. The chief rabbi of Israel, the grand mufti of Syria, and the Muslim and Christian leaders from Nigeria are present.

The summit sessions focus on four areas: "conflict transformation," how religious representatives can work with negotiators and others in bringing an end to war; "reconciliation and forgiveness," how, once war is over, they can help reduce violence and build trust; ways to jointly address underlying causes of conflict by working to eliminate poverty; and how to address common concerns for environmental degradation.

To rise to the opportunity offered by the summit, the leaders need to "go beyond concern for their own communities to find a new spirit of public responsibility and accountability," says David Little, professor of religion, ethnicity, and international conflict at Harvard Divinity School. Dr. Little says key issues to be confronted include treatment of minorities, conflicting interpretations of religious freedom, and the role of religious expression in public life.

The ravages of war and its aftermath have placed new, often uncomfortable burdens on the shoulders of religious leaders. But they have some strong models and experiences to draw on.

In Cambodia in 1993, for example, as the UN was trying to set up the first free democratic elections and the Khmer Rouge were threatening to disrupt them, Buddhist leader Samdech Preah Maha Ghosananda led a long peace walk through dangerous territory to assure people it was safe to vote. Thousands joined the march (they became annual events), and a stunning 90 percent turned out at the polls.

R. Scott Appleby, a professor of history at the University of Notre Dame who has studied religious leadership in conflict situations, says that in addition to the highly visible "prophetic leader" such as Mr. Ghosananda, local clergy are getting directly involved in conflict resolution; working with nongovernmental organizations in humanitarian assistance and leadership training; and seeking, even in scholarly circles, to build bridges to other communities. He cites the example of a scholar of Islamic ethics of war and peace who is carrying on a dialogue with Christian and secular ethicists as well as working to strengthen the group within Islam that is dealing with nonviolence theory.

A new interreligious council just formed in Indonesia with President Abdurrahman Wahid's blessing will soon travel to the violence-torn province of Aceh and the Maluku islands (formerly Spice Islands) to meet with local religious leaders. They are drawing on leaders in the same traditions outside Indonesia to help them.

"A big part of religious peacemaking is networking," Appleby says. "The best outcome of the summit will probably be the relationships formed and the potential for smaller meetings in different locations."

In fact, some follow-up sessions in zones of tension and conflict are already being considered. There may be an initiative on Sudan, Ms. Merriam says. And "we've been asked to do a peace summit in South Korea that we hope will start in the South and end in the North." That summit is planned for next spring.

While the meeting is funded largely by foundations - it's not an official UN event -a prime aim is a partnership with the UN, including creation of an international advisory council to work with the secretary-general. A Declaration on World Peace is expected, which includes condemnation of violence in the name of religion and an unprecedented public acceptance of diversity.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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