For those who welcomed in the year 2000 watching the richly diverse celebrations across the globe, the underlying message was clear: We share one small world, whatever our differences.
Many religious leaders are getting the same message. While religion is a divisive element in many countries, clergy are reaching out to other faiths locally and internationally to find common ground, and to work together on the serious challenges facing their societies.
Several hundred leaders from 15 faiths gathered in Amman, Jordan, in late 1999 at an assembly of the World Conference on Religion and Peace (WCRP) to consider the role of religion in resolving conflicts, healing intolerance, and more effectively raising the moral issues pertinent to economic and social change.
"Can religious leaders do what political leaders haven't done?" was the challenge posed by Jordan's Prince Hassan, head of the Royal Institute of Interfaith Studies, who chaired the conference.
With frontiers and sovereignty eroding, many were sensitive to two new realities: the diminished powers of political bodies and the growing expectation that nongovernmental groups will play crucial roles in peacebuilding and human development; and the fact that religions bring to the table moral and institutional assets unequaled elsewhere. Those assets include, says WCRP Secretary-General William Vendley, "the world's most extensive infrastructure," from the smallest village to international institutional centers.
Some situations cry out for concerted action. Kosovo remains a tinderbox. And Bosnia "still has no stable peace and institutions are not functioning in healthy ways," says Vinko Cardinal Puljic, archbishop of Sarajevo.
WCRP has helped local clergy develop an interreligious council in Bosnia to work on bridging differences, and work has begun in Kosovo. During the assembly, 40 Orthodox, Muslim, Roman Catholic, Jewish, and Protestant clergy from throughout the Balkans met together for the first time to grapple with their responsibilities for the region's future. They issued a statement on their concerns and commitments for action.
President Abdurrahman Wahid, the Muslim cleric who leads Indonesia's new democracy, met with other Indonesian religious leaders on developing a multi-faith initiative to help quell strife in their troubled country. A proponent of religious tolerance, President Wahid has taken courageous stands that put him at odds with some fellow Muslims. The challenge is twofold, he says - "continuing dialogue with fellow religionists and with members of other faiths."
In Africa, interreligious groups are active in South Africa, Sierra Leone, Malawi, Cameroon, Tanzania, and Liberia, and are developing in several other of the continent's most pluralist countries.
Founded in 1970 during the cold war to mobilize world faiths "to cooperate against threats to humanity," WCRP now has members in more than 100 countries. Commissions work on issues of conflict transformation and reconciliation, peace education, development, the needs of children, human rights, and disarmament and security.
In support of local and regional groups, WCRP helps leaders develop "a second language" beyond their sectarian language that helps them articulate shared core values and enter the public square more effectively.
Economic issues are a prime concern, with many societies shaken by globalization and rapid technological change, and the failure of global development policies. Acknowledging that failure, the heads of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund are engaging with religious leaders, headed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, in the World Faith and Development Dialogue.
Moving beyond a strictly economic concept of development is central to the discussion. "What is the true meaning of development can't be answered without asking what is the meaning and purpose of life," says Nichiko Niwano, president of Rissho Kosei-Kai, an international lay Buddhist organization. Several voices spoke to the issue of humanizing the global economy, challenging the prevailing mind-set that "wants to do everything only economically."
While responding to demand for a religious role in new venues, clergy were also aware that religion has to put its own house in order. Members of the conflict transformation commission, from virtually every continent, proposed proactive steps religious groups could take to counter intolerance and reduce religious tensions.
They recommended that leaders of each faith community start by examining themselves, their internal ethos and how they view others; then build trust with leaders of other communities, developing a code of conduct and respect; and develop accurate knowledge about other faiths within their own communities. To alleviate religious persecution, they recommended that WCRP encourage religious leaders from countries where their faith is in the majority to spend time in countries where they are a minority, to help them understand what it means to be a minority faith.
Intolerance comes from fear and the pain of past negative experience, said Rabbi David Rosen, head of the Anti-Defamation League in Israel. "The challenge is overcoming our own sense of pain and alienation so that we may see the other as the divine image and likeness.... Religious leaders need to help others transcend that pain."
Above all, religious leaders have the responsibility to act: The assembly theme was "action for common living."
"Actions matter," says Deepak Naik, of the National Council of Hindu Temples in the United Kindgdom. "It's only when values are put into action that you can see what the values are."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society