Prayers for peace in new millennium circle the globe

Interfaith group organizes '72 hours of peace building' everywhere from

William lives in a tough neighborhood and doesn't have a lot of choices for how to spend New Year's eve. But he's come up with something a little different.

He and 17 fellow inmates on death row at San Quentin Prison in northern California will spend the 72 hours spanning the end of the old year and the beginning of a new one in the simple act of prayer. Each one will take 90 minutes a day, creating an unbroken chain of spiritual meditation.

In addition to the prayers for peace, William and the others will "seek reconciliation with at least one person we consider not our friend" and "provide something of our own to someone else who is in obvious need," he wrote from his cell recently.

Millennium experts say one of the most distinguishing features of these times is mankind's intensifying spiritual yearning, evident in everything from opinion surveys to book sales.

In order to give voice to that, one fledgling interfaith group called the United Religions Initiative has spent the last couple of years organizing what it calls "72 hours of peace building," centered on the days around Jan. 1, 2000. The results are an impressive array of activities around the globe, reaching from death row in San Quentin to the road between Khyber and Karachi in Pakistan, which thousands of Muslims and Christians plan to traverse in a "walk for peace."

"We think there is an enormous upwelling of people who want to begin 2000 in a new spirit. People want the time to mean something beyond Y2K worries and wild partying," says Paul Andrews director of URI's 72-hour project.

URI is four years old and built on the premise that religious differences are the root of the vast majority of the world's conflicts, whether between Arab and Jew in the Middle East or Protestant and Catholic in Northern Ireland.

The United Religions Initiative is dedicated to building world peace through the efforts of the world's religious and spiritual leaders, according to founder William Swing, an Episcopal bishop.

The URI's call for spiritually based peace activities has generated 160 projects in some 40 countries. Every activity must involve more than one religion or faith so it is a demonstration in and of itself of interreligious cooperation.

Initially, the URI intended to call for a 72-hour cease-fire in all world conflicts. That's still part of the initiative, but it has been broadened to include other activities as well.

In the Great Lakes region of Africa, the focus is on peace efforts in Rwanda and Burundi. "The aim is to start the 21st century by eradicating the ethnic conflict and war present throughout" the area, wrote Rene Kahukula, chair of a local group, in correspondence with URI.

In Japan, the Oomoto Foundation is organizing prayer sessions at more than 650 sites throughout Japan and expects to draw 30,000 people.

In South Korea, people from various denominations will gather near the security zone with North Korea for an interreligious prayer for peaceful reunification.

Brazilians in the Viva Rio organization have gathered more than 1.5 million signatures for a petition calling for the city to disarm. Those behind the effort are seeking a 72-hour cease-fire, especially in the 600 slums where violence is common.

The global focus of these activities is what makes the URI different. There are a number of interfaith organizations around the world, but none have the singular goal of world peace and interreligious understanding as the central tactic.

URI's initiative found its way into San Quentin via the mother of a murder victim.

Aba Gayle visited an interfaith chapel in San Francisco's Presidio recently and found a brochure about the 72-hour peace project. She forwarded it to inmates she had met on death row. From there, the convicts formulated their own response.

Four years ago, URI's ambition was so grandiose it seemed almost unattainable. But executive director Charles Gibbs says the fact that URI was invited to last month's Parliament of the World's Religions in Cape Town, South Africa, is proof the group is gaining stature. Much of the past year has been spent generating the 72-hour project and finalizing the groups charter, which will be signed in June.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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