|Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York|
Sixty-second General Assembly
17th Meeting (AM & PM)
GENERAL ASSEMBLY OPENS TWO-DAY HIGH-LEVEL DIALOGUE ON INTERRELIGIOUS,
INTERCULTURAL UNDERSTANDING, COOPERATION FOR PEACE
Assembly President Says, in Era of Globalization, World Community
Has Unrivalled Opportunity to Replace Intolerance with Understanding
Opening the United Nations first ever High-Level Dialogue on interfaith and intercultural understanding, top officials from the world body today challenged Member States to embrace rather than reject what seemed “different” in members of other ethnic, religious or social groups, and to recognize that living together in a globalized world implied a commitment to promoting “unity in diversity” and to the free and honest exchange of ideas and knowledge.
“In this era of globalization, we have the unrivalled opportunity and responsibility to replace intolerance and discrimination with understanding and mutual acceptance,” said General Assembly President Srgjan Kerim, who urged all nations to work harder at eliminating the distorted notions that “deepen barriers and widen divides”. An open and sustained dialogue, respect for freedom of expression and religion or belief was fundamental to that endeavour. By hosting the event, the Assembly was taking an important stand to reaffirm the values enshrined in the Charter and, “more importantly, we are taking concrete steps to advance these values around the world”.
Stressing the United Nations “crucial role” in promoting talks and advancing the “fundamental freedom that we must all respect others’ religions and beliefs”, he underscored that, in doing so, “we should also recognize that a crime committed in the name of religion is the greatest crime against religion; and that religion should not be used as a pretext for war”. He also said that Governments could do their part by adopting educational curricula that instilled the values of peace and tolerance. “Children are not born with prejudice, it is learned,” he said.
“To make peace, some people believe that you need to forget. From my own experience, I would suggest that reconciliation is a fair compromise between remembering and forgetting,” said Mr. Kerim, who is from the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. The only means to achieve that was through intensive dialogue, at the political, cultural and social level. “Going forward then, let us each respect the uniqueness of each other’s perspective, so that, together, we can honour the rich diversity of humanity,” he said.
Mr. Kerim convened the two-day High Level Dialogue on Interreligious and Intercultural Understanding and Cooperation for Peace, following up the Assembly’s adoption last year of a resolution that encouraged Member States, the United Nations system and civil society to carry out a range of initiatives in an effort to promote tolerance and respect for diversity of religion, culture and language. Government ministers and senior diplomats from over 70 countries are slated to address the meeting, which also features two informal panel discussions with leading academics and religious leaders.
Sharing his experience, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that, during his travels as United Nations chief, he had all too often found that people were longing for peace, but suffering from similar prejudices. “They all fear that which is different from them: the other ethnicity, the other skin colour, the other cultural or linguistic tradition and, above all, the other religion.”
Moreover, the reality of increased world travel and lighting-fast satellite transmissions was feeding intercultural and interreligious tensions, as well as a growing alienation among vast segments of the world population. There was an urgent need to address that worrying trend. “We need to build bridges and engage in sustained and constructive intercultural dialogue, one that stresses shared values and shared aspirations,” he said.
“It is time to promote the idea that diversity is a virtue, not a threat,” he said, adding that it was also time to stress that our common humanity was greater -– far greater –- than our outward differences. “In short, it is time -– indeed, it is past time -– for a constructive and committed dialogue; a dialogue amongst individuals, amongst communities and between nations.”
Mr. Ban noted that today’s gathering came at a particularly auspicious time, as Jews marked the celebration of the Torah and Muslims approached the end of the holy month of Ramadan. “Such occasions remind us that men and women of faith around the world can be brought together, rather than separated, by their convictions and their belief in something greater than themselves.”
Among the high officials addressing the meeting, Tarek Mitri, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Emigrants of Lebanon, said that, during this time of interfaith division, his country faced several challenges. While recognizing the need to bring about unity, some inside Lebanon felt that diversity might threaten their sense of belonging. At the same time, he believed that dialogue implied accepting differences and, while it could not eliminate rivalry, it could provide a way to bring together various factions.
He said that dialogue also helped liberalize “relations of force”, and sometimes led to resolving them. Lebanon’s experience had taught it that dialogue could help extinguish the “fires that had been lit in various conflicts”. True dialogue remained the alternative to the “clash of ignorance”, and the United Nations understood what was at stake. Indeed, the world body should help his country defend its freedom and stability.
Worried that many people were beginning to mistake “freedom of religion” with “freedom from religion”, Karen Hughes, United States Under-Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, said the debate must not be left to those who sought to pervert religions to pursue certain agendas. Addressing two misperceptions, she said the first was Muslim nations’ concern that the “war on terror” was directed at them. That was not the case. Many Americans had roots in the Arab world, and Islam was worshiped freely in the United States.
Second, she addressed complaints among Americans that Muslims had not spoken out against violence. She understood that that also was not the case, as several world leaders had voiced objection, notably Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai, who had condemned suicide bombings as “contrary to Islam”. She urged all faiths to state that the killing of oneself in order to kill others was wrong, as nothing could justify the murder of innocents. The United States was encouraging interfaith dialogue through a “citizen dialogue” programme, exchange visits among international clerics and expansion of education programmes in other countries.
Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Foreign Minister Sven Alkalaj said religious groups and religious leaders around the world had a very important duty to talk and work with each other –- whether an imam in a mosque, a rabbi in a synagogue or a priest in a church -– to convey a common message of tolerance, respect and mutual understanding. Religious communities, equally, held enormous potential to become a positive force for peace by making it clear that an attack against one’s faith constituted an attack against all faiths.
He also said that education and upbringing from the youngest years was a “must”, creating a new spirit that accepted and respected diversity and included rather than excluded –- that seemed to be the ultimate challenge. People in the world, he concluded, must not only respect differences, but also learn how to make use of them. “But teaching our children will mean nothing if we don’t lead by example,” he said, stressing that the time had come to move beyond just tolerance and engage in diversity, every day.
Pakistan’s Ambassador Munir Akram said that “misunderstanding and friction between cultures and civilizations are not the result of religious differences”. They arose from divergent political perspectives on some important issues, such as the crises in the Middle East. He said that there were perceptions in the West about Islam, which was seen as a faith propagating terrorism and extremism, and bent upon striking at Western values. “Islam is not a threat to the Western civilization. Rather, it is a religion of peace and submission,” he said.
Overall, it was necessary to promote better understanding among different faiths, he said. National efforts should promote conscious action to counter extremism within societies. Countries also should adopt appropriate reforms in educational curricula, initiate dialogue among their own peoples and adopt conscious policies to protect religious minorities. At the global level, he called for, among other things, efforts to resolve major “international disputes”, and to promote equitable economic development, as well as confidence-building measures in societies where migration had created a mix of faiths and culture.
João Gomes Cravinho, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs and Cooperation of Portugal, speaking on behalf of the European Union, said mutual understanding did not entail imposing one’s values or culture or faith on others. It involved the respect of different values and beliefs, based on the awareness of common political, economic and social goals and challenges. Beyond those attitudes and intercultural competences, world leaders needed to focus on concrete cooperation and common actions.
Today’s European identity was a multiple one, reflecting manifold and pluralist influences, including those of migration and globalization, he said. Europe faced the challenge of continuously developing and strengthening the dialogue within its various communities, ethnic minorities and numerous religious communities, including the European Muslims. Europe remained a strong supporter of the Alliance of Civilizations initiative, which intended to galvanize collective action across diverse societies to combat extremism and reduce the tensions and polarization between societies of different religious and cultural values.
During the civil society panel on “Challenges of Interreligious and Intercultural Cooperation Today”, speakers, who included religious leaders and journalists, touched on a range of topics, such as the manipulation of faith and religious doctrine by extremist groups to justify violence, and the need to combat that trend; the importance of balancing respect and preservation of local cultures and beliefs with strategies towards modernization and development; and advocacy efforts to promote cultures of peace and tolerance over war and hatred. Among the many suggestions for moving the dialogue forward, participants stressed the need to establish an interreligious advisory council to mediate religiously motivated conflicts worldwide and to teach children to respect people of different faiths.
The panel on “Best Practices and Strategies for Interreligious and Intercultural Cooperation Going Forward” examined examples of successful interreligious and intercultural cooperation at various levels, and considered possible ways of strengthening such cooperation in the future. Also addressed during the debate was the question of how to better coordinate the interaction between different programmes and initiatives within the framework of the United Nations system. As characterized by one respondent, the panel emphasized “common humanity and shared values, providing inspiring examples of social responsibility and peacemaking”.
Also participating in the plenary debate was the Vice-President of the Philippines, as well as the Foreign Ministers of San Marino, Armenia and Thailand.
Senior Ministers from Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal took the floor, as did the Deputy Ministers for Foreign Affairs from Belarus, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria.
Advisers for Foreign Affairs from Bangladesh and Nicaragua, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Head of the State Committee on Relations with Religious Organizations from Azerbaijan addressed the meeting, as did a Senator from Australia.
The Assembly will reconvene at 10 a.m., 5 October, to continue the High-Level Dialogue.
The General Assembly today convened its first ever High-Level Dialogue on Interrelegious and Intercultural Understanding and Cooperation for Peace. The meeting will feature a traditional plenary –- which will run through tomorrow -- and informal hearings with civil society built around two panel discussions this afternoon, respectively, on “Challenges of Interreligious and Intercultural Cooperation Today”, and “Best Practices and Strategies on Interreligious and Intercultural Cooperation: Going Forward”.
Opening Statement by General Assembly President
“By convening this event, the General Assembly has taken an important stand,” said Assembly President SRGJAN KERIM, of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, who declared that today Member States were reaffirming the values enshrined in the Charter, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. “But more importantly, we are taking concrete steps to advance these values around the world.”
He said that these were unprecedented times, with cultures and religions being pulled ever closer together by a web of telecommunication and economic links. While contributing to the richness of human experience, those encounters also revealed deep rooted misunderstandings. “However, in this era of globalization, we have the unrivalled opportunity and responsibility to replace intolerance and discrimination with understanding and mutual acceptance,” he said, stressing that open and sustained dialogue, respect for freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief was fundamental to this endeavour.
The United Nations had a crucial role in promoting such a dialogue, and advancing the fundamental freedom of respect for other religions and beliefs. “In doing so, we should also recognize that a crime committed in the name of religion is the greatest crime against religion; and that religion should not be used as a pretext for war,” he declared.
Here, he noted that several recommendations emerged from the Assembly’s thematic debate on “Civilizations and the Challenge for Peace”, held earlier this year, including: that the legitimate rights of others to assert their identity must be acknowledged in order to have a meaningful dialogue; that religious leaders had a duty, drawing on the principles of their own faith, to promote mutual understanding and tolerance in their communities; and, that there were already many helpful tools available to promote positive encounters among people of different cultures.
“To this end, we should all become instruments of peace. We must begin a global dialogue, using public campaigns and all forms of media, to spread greater awareness of the issues,” he said, adding that Governments can play an additional role by adopting educational curricula that instil values of peace and tolerance. “Children are not born with prejudice, it is learned,” he said.
Together, it was humankind’s common challenge to eliminate all distorted notions that deepen barriers and widen divides: for they all originated in the discriminatory practices of the mind. That could be achieved through a multifaceted dialogue that promoted unity in diversity, and replaced misunderstanding with mutual understanding and acceptance, he said.
The success of the global dialogue also rested on the active involvement of the media, private sector, civil society, faith groups and non-governmental organizations. Their insights and outreach would be instrumental in helping the international community to achieve its goal. That was why he was delighted that later today, the Assembly would hold an interactive hearing with those important stakeholders.
He went on to say that next year marked the sixtieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. At the same time, many people still felt that their rights were not respected; that their dignity had been violated; that internationally agreed principles and values were not equally applicable to all. Those issues cut to the core of the perceived lack of justice and the political instability in the world today.
“To make peace, some people believe that you need to forget. From my own experience, I would suggest that reconciliation is a fair compromise between remembering and forgetting,” he said. The only means to achieve that was through intensive dialogue: at both the political, as well as the cultural and social levels. Promoting human dignity, and equal access to rights and opportunities, constituted the cornerstone of that conversation. “Going forward then, let us each respect the uniqueness of each others perspective, so that together we can honour the rich diversity of humanity,” he said.
Opening Remarks by Secretary-General
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that in the nine months he had been in office, he had travelled to all corners of the world, from Kinshasa to Kabul, from Brussels to Beirut. Everywhere he visited, and among all the different people he had met, he had encountered one common sentiment -– a universal longing for peace, and an aspiration for prosperity.
“But, all too often, I have discovered that people who aspire to the same things also suffer from the same prejudices,” he said, adding, “They all fear that which is different from them: the other ethnicity, the other skin colour, the other cultural or linguistic tradition and, above all, the other religion.”
And yet, in today's era of global travel and instant satellite transmissions people everywhere were encountering less of the familiar, and more of “the other”. That reality had fed rising intercultural and interreligious tensions, as well as growing alienation among vast segments of the world population. “Today, there is an urgent need to address this worrying trend. We need to rebuild bridges and engage in a sustained and constructive intercultural dialogue, one that stresses shared values and shared aspirations,” he said
Moreover, it was time to promote the idea that diversity was a virtue, not a threat. It was time to explain that different religions, belief systems and cultural backgrounds were essential to the richness of the human experience. “And it is time to stress that our common humanity is greater -– far greater –- than our outward differences,” he declared, adding, “In short, it is time -– indeed, it is past time -– for a constructive and committed dialogue; a dialogue amongst individuals, amongst communities, and between nations.”
He went on to say that the General Assembly was a unique forum for such an exchange. Indeed, by bringing together representatives of all countries under one roof, this Assembly provided a universal platform to reach out to different nations and cultures.
Today's gathering also came at a particularly auspicious time, as Jews marked the celebration of the Torah and Muslims approached the end of the Holy month of Ramadan. “Such occasions remind us that men and women of faith around the world can be brought together, rather than separated, by their convictions and their belief in something greater than themselves,” he said.
He recalled that last week, there had also been a ministerial meeting of the Alliance of Civilizations, the United Nations initiative to help build bridges and promote dialogue between cultures and religions. He had been delighted to see how membership of the Alliance had nearly doubled since the inaugural meeting a year ago. That reflected the valuable work being performed by the Alliance under the leadership of Jorge Sampaio, former President of Portugal, and High Representative for the Alliance of Civilizations. “But it also represents a growing resolve among nations to work together to heal divides in our world,” he said.
“I draw strength from that resolve, at a time when so many of the challenges we face are aggravated by distrust and hostility,” he said, adding that he also drew strength from gatherings such as this. “Looking around this chamber today, I feel that we are all united: we are united in our choice of dialogue before confrontation; united in our pursuit of engagement before alienation; united in our embrace of harmony and understanding.”
MANUEL DE CASTRO JR., Vice-President of the Philippines, said the promotion of interreligious and intercultural dialogue and cooperation had become a cornerstone of Philippine policy for peace and development. Among his country’s efforts, he said, the 2006-2010 plan of action on interfaith dialogue and cooperation strengthened Government and civil society partnership, particularly in the areas of education, media advocacy and women’s empowerment, among other issues. Congress had also passed the Indigenous People’s Rights Act, among the world’s strongest State-promulgated laws for such issues. Interfaith and intercultural dialogue had also helped to heal social wounds in conflict-affected communities in the southern Philippines. It was also essential for translating shared values of respect into action at the grass-roots level.
Among international efforts, his country co-sponsored the Third Asia-Pacific Interfaith Dialogue in New Zealand, he continued. Going forward, he called on States to institutionalize interfaith initiatives through policy; uphold freedom of religion; adopt a common plan of action; adopt programmes to promote indigenous peoples’ rights and implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples; encourage interfaith centres in schools and strengthen the focal unit on interreligious and intercultural matters to ensure that all efforts were sustained.
MUNIR AKRAM, ( Pakistan), said history had proven that the major monotheistic religions shared a common heritage. The basic tenets of all religions were fundamentally similar in promoting peace, dignity, and tolerance, among other values. Any confrontations between faiths were motivated by competing political interests, rather than incompatibility among basic precepts. There were perceptions in the West that Islam was a faith that propagated terrorism. Islam, however, was not a threat to Western civilization. Rather, it was a religion of peace and submission. It was necessary to promote better understanding among different faiths. National efforts should promote conscious action to counter extremism. Countries also should adopt appropriate reforms in educational curricula, initiate dialogue among their own peoples and adopt conscious policies to protect religious minorities.
On an international level, he urged sincere efforts to: resolve major international disputes; promote equitable socioeconomic development; promote multicultural education -– perhaps by establishing a “common school” for diplomats from countries with different faiths; and promote greater interreligious exchanges among Member States, as well as confidence-building measures in societies where migration had created a mix of faiths and culture.
FIORENZO STOLFI, Minister of Foreign and Political Affairs and Economic Planning with Functions of Prime Minister of San Marino, said that stronger dialogue among cultures and religions must be supported within societies. To achieve that goal, a commitment from competent institutions and civil society would be needed. That was the sine qua non to overcome divisions and mistrust, to build confidence, and to strengthen cooperation between States and peoples, in order to achieve the Millennium Development Goals. San Marino, as chairman of the Council of Europe, had organized a European conference on the religious dimension of intercultural dialogue, where the representative of the Secretary-General had underlined the urgent need to build bridges. A white paper on intercultural dialogue was presented, to be published by the Council of Europe in 2008. In the Human Rights Council, meanwhile, San Marino had co-sponsored a European Union draft resolution on eliminating all forms of intolerance and discrimination based on religion and belief; it would do likewise, as always, in the Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) of the General Assembly this year.
Dialogue might decisively help people overcome their fears, rejection, and cultural or religious discrimination, radicalisms and violence, he said. It might help people respect the integrity of individuals; though dialogue, civil and social contexts could be strengthened. In such a process, the work of non-governmental organizations, the private sector and the media were particularly important. The Minister concluded by describing a small cave on Mount Titano, in San Marino, devoted to meditation and prayer, open to all, regardless of their beliefs. A small, rocky cave reflected the light of the universal message emanating from the Assembly, which in turn inspired him to express the hope that the international community could overcome barriers of hostility and allow space for open-mindedness, meeting and dialogue.
VARTAN OSKANIAN, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Armenia, said his country had been a perennial buffer between empires, having witnessed the benefits of dialogue between cultures. Armenia was among the greatest promoters of dialogue, as geography had compelled it to seek “bridges” among cultures. Its experience had compelled it to search for non-traditional ways to live in peace in a pluralist neighbourhood. Genocide survivors had been happily integrated into the fabric of the Arab Middle East, and Armenia’s diaspora had become both the means and beneficiary of international dialogue. Given their experience, he said religious and linguistic differences need not translate into enmity.
To build peace without pain, he said it was clear that solutions could be found through genuine acceptance of collective human rights, which included the right to determine one’s destiny. The struggle in Ngorno Karabakh was exactly that: a struggle for the right to live freely. It was not a struggle against anyone’s religion or culture. Everyone deserved to live freely. Countries must rely on the moral and political benefits of tolerance and cooperation. The frustrations and hostilities of victims of racism should not be dismissed, as the security implications of such hopelessness could not be exaggerated. Religion had been used to tear people apart; the contradiction was, however, that faith and humanity actually bound people together.
IFTEKHAR AHMED CHOWDHURY, Adviser of Foreign Affairs for Bangladesh, said while globalization posed many challenges, it also opened up opportunities to promote cultural diversity. Although mistrust, suspicion and the misperception of “other” groups persisted, the United Nations could play the role of catalyst to promote the message of “universal respect for cultures and religions by all and for all”.
Bangladesh fully supported the Interfaith Dialogue and Cooperation for Peace, he said, pointing out that his country, among other actions, had the honour to steer the adoption of the Declaration and the Programme of Action on the Culture of Peace in 1999, had associated itself with the Group of Friends of the Alliance of Civilizations, and had been closely involved with the global agenda for the Dialogue among Civilizations of the General Assembly. The Constitution of Bangladesh guaranteed equality before the law, provided affirmative action for disadvantaged groups, and prohibited discrimination against religion, race, caste, gender or place of birth. “We have a long tradition of harmony and tolerance,” he said. He added that Bangladesh’s commitment to United Nations peacekeeping as a troop contributor remained unwavering, and that promoting tolerance and cultural diversity could reduce conflict and crime. “We also underscore the importance of inclusion of the ‘culture of peace’ in the operational activities of the Peacebuilding Commission,” he said.
SAMPSON K. BOAFO, Minister for Chieftaincy and Culture of Ghana, said that modern pluralistic societies could not afford to pay the price of cultural and religious fundamentalism, and that the universal nature of certain values and principles formed the basis of social cohesion. Dialogue on the importance of shared values must also foster respect for the other, and acknowledge and uphold diversity. The Constitution of Ghana recognized the key issue of human rights, which were also important to consider in situations of major social and economic transformations, such as those caused by globalization.
Expressing the country’s support for the High-Level Dialogue on Interreligious and Intercultural Understanding and Cooperation for Peace, he said Ghana had created a sense of peaceful coexistence with its diverse culture. Ghana’s diverse culture had roots in the country’s chieftaincy institution, which promoted the traditional values of sustaining and protecting the environment, among others. “We enjoy a lot of traditional music, drumming and dancing in our churches which are mostly of the Western tradition,” he said. “Culture and religion have blended so well that it is difficult to identify the line of division.” He hoped all countries that had challenges on interreligious and intercultural issues would come to Ghana “to find lasting solutions”.
TAREK MITRI, Minister of Culture and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Emigrants of Lebanon, said today’s initiative was extremely important, particularly in light of the differences in relations between nations and the dangers caused by ignorance. Extremist policies had pushed States into hostility. The international community’s interest in dialogue had intensified against a backdrop of violence and disinformation, problems that required urgent treatment. Attempts to deal with extremism and to reach peaceful solutions to conflicts had been made and it was important for States to reflect on the realism of their promises. He called on States to be more specific in defining the aims of dialogue, and agree on the rules for engaging in it. In Lebanon, dialogue was part of the national conscience and his Government attached great importance to it, even if it had not always managed to increase confidence.
During this time of interfaith division, Lebanon faced several challenges, he continued. While recognizing the need to bring about unity, he said some in Lebanon felt that diversity might threaten their sense of belonging. However, dialogue required accepting difference. It could not eliminate rivalry, but it could provide a way to bring together various factions. Dialogue helped liberalize “relations of force”, and sometimes led to resolving them. Lebanon’s experience had taught it that dialogue could help extinguish the “fires that had been lit in various conflicts”. True dialogue remained the alternative to the “shock clash of ignorance”, and the United Nations understood what was at stake. In choosing dialogue, States could respect United Nations principles. The United Nations should help his country defend its freedom and stability.
NITYA PIBULSONGGRAM, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Thailand, said in this era, the United Nations, founded to promote respect for the diversity among nations, faced a great challenge, one posed by a rising culture of intolerance and extremism, of disrespect and violence. Many times, it was the very few propagating the intolerance, to misguide the many and bring harm to all. For some, it involved portraying a problem as a religious conflict, where in fact there was none. Such intolerance, from whatever the cause, if not addressed would lead to distrust, disagreement, even dispute. “This we cannot let happen,” he said.
The question of how to move from noble ideas into concrete action was before the United Nations today, he continued. Countries needed to take the first step on their own, by organizing interfaith dialogue and identifying their own best means to promote tolerance and respect for diversity –- it could not be imposed, least of all by the United Nations. Identifying critical target groups to determine the critical instruments in creating a culture of peace and tolerance was the second step. The key target group was youth and the key instrument was education. Finally, the United Nations needed to coordinate and consolidate various efforts at the global level to promote respect for diversity and tolerance. No peace amongst mankind could endure if cultural fault lines continued to form and deepen. It was thus up to the Member States of the United Nations to foster goodwill among peoples and concerted action to surmount the challenge posed by extremism and intolerance. “In this important task we cannot afford to fail,” he said.
SVEN ALKALAJ, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Bosnia and Herzegovina, said dialogue, respect, and coexistence were the three key words that would lead to a better world and sustainable future. Dialogue among civilizations, cultures, and religions held great potential to prevent conflict by reducing misunderstandings and mistrust. The values of one’s own civilization and culture must not be taken as absolute. People from all over the world worked, lived, and learned together every day. It was such an environment that made tolerance important and diversity appreciated. His own country was one of those places -- a bridge between civilizations -- and Muslims, Christians and Jews have lived side by side and with one another for centuries. Because of that rich cultural heritage and diversity, children grew up aware of differences, but were taught tolerance and respect.
Religious groups and religious leaders around the world, he said, had a very important duty to talk and work with each other –- whether an imam in a mosque, a rabbi in a synagogue, or a priest in a church -– to convey a common message of tolerance, respect and mutual understanding. Religious communities equally held enormous potential to become a positive force for peace by making it clear that an attack against one’s faith constituted an attack against all faiths. Finally, education and upbringing from the youngest years was a “must”, creating a new spirit that accepted and respected diversity and included rather than excluded –- that seemed to be the ultimate challenge. People in the world, he concluded, must not only respect their differences, but also learn how to make use of them. The time had come to move beyond just tolerance and engage in diversity every day.
KOUADIO KOMOE AUGUSTIN, Minister of Culture and Francophonie of C ôte d’Ivoire, said that his country was a veritable ethnic mosaic, with more than 60 ethnic groups, speaking around 70 languages and practicing numerous world and traditional confessions. It could be a model for peaceful religious coexistence. Further, the Constitution emphasized respect for freedoms and civil society underpinned by democracy, he said. The country was rebuilding and overcoming its difficult socially compartmentalized history.
The country’s gradual emergence from its political-military conflict reaffirmed the importance of national, regional, and global solidarity, he said. The international community had stood with Ivorians throughout the crisis and prevented the consequences from being irremediable. The process of its resolution was an example of the importance of intercultural dialogue. The identity and economic aspects of cultural expression contributed to democratic conscience and social cohesion. Culture was the face of a country’s soul, reflecting the thought and broadest commonalities shared by its peoples. Côte d’Ivoire’s Government policy sought ways to acquaint individuals with the characteristics of their society and devise ways for its peoples to know one another better and find what they shared in common, in hopes of creating a unified national identity. Peace could only be achieved with the conscious participation of citizens. Peace was grounded in social justice. The purpose of humankind was to enshrine human fraternity.
CHEIKH TIDIANE SY, Minister of Justice of Senegal, said today’s debate was proof of the international community’s commitment to strengthening dialogue among cultures and religions. Recalling the Secretary-General’s report, he also welcomed relevant efforts taken by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). He said the main causes of crises were intolerance and extremism, and the usual victims were innocent people. Such actions ran counter to the precepts of every religion, and he called on States to eradicate that phenomenon. The time had come to launch an open dialogue without preconditions to move beyond clichés and stereotypes. The success of today’s dialogue would depend on whether States could attach themselves to common values, such as justice and equity.
In Senegal, where 95 per cent of the population was Muslim and 5 per cent was Christian, he said conviviality ran so deeply that it was not uncommon to find both religions in families that had expanded from mixed marriages. Despite that, Senegal continually invited people to attend interfaith meetings, as intolerance could separate peoples at any time. Freedom of expression and respect for human rights required moral authority. The international community must find the path for peaceful cohabitation; religious extremism was based on a misunderstanding of Holy Scriptures. Every man had a right to his religious beliefs, and that must be the basis for dialogue, he said.
D’ESCOTO BROCKMANN, Presidential Adviser on Foreign Affairs and Former Minister for Foreign Affairs of Nicaragua, congratulating the Philippines and Pakistan for today’s important initiative, said nothing was more urgent that freeing people from the “human addiction to violence”. A culture of peace was needed to counter the culture of war. The United Nations had been created specifically to end the cycle of war; however, it had not been effective in that effort. Indeed, within the Organization, the powerful addiction to warfare was being used as a tool to advance some countries’ interests.
He urged States to move beyond a purely political dialogue, and meet each other on the level of shared humanity: the common ground of religion. Interfaith dialogue was free of the arrogance that often derailed political dialogue, which was why Nicaragua wished to promote cooperation among religions. Ecumenical dialogue was important, but it was through “ecumenical cooperation” that the world would discover that there was more which unified, rather than divided people. Unconditional love was the main value that unified all religions, and universal fraternity was found in religious teachings. “God is everyone’s father,” he said.
VALENTIN OF ORENBURG, Metropolitan of the Russian Orthodox Church, said that cooperation among religions and cultures was tremendously important in today’s world, where religion was being used an excuse for division, while secular bodies were unable to cope with the problems. The exclusion of religion from societies led to a lack of ethics. Without spiritual principles, law could not be respected. He urged a return to fundamental moral principles.
The inhabitants of Russia were of different faiths, he said. Because those differences had always been respected in Russia, it had never experienced religious wars. The interreligious dialogue among Islam, Buddhism, Judaism and Orthodoxy was ongoing in Russia. The universal nature of the United Nations required taking into account the diversity of world cultures and religions. Each of the initiatives, such as the Alliance for Civilizations, was important. He proposed a consultative council of the world’s major religions under the aegis of the United Nations, to promote peace and mutual understanding. He expressed his pleasure at today’s current High-Level Dialogue, which was the first such dialogue to take place within the walls of the United Nations and to offer the opportunity to discuss such important issues.
HIDAYAT ORUJOV, Head of the State Committee on Relations with Religious Organizations of Azerbaijan, said the current stage of globalization, which brought peoples closer together, also exposed the characteristics that drew them apart. It was a time of heightened religious awareness that sometimes took on exaggerated forms and was maliciously exploited to fire conflicts. Therefore, it was crucial for tolerance to prevail. Tolerance had long existed among Azerbaijanis and could serve as an example for others. Throughout the history of the country, tolerance had prevailed between communities without instance of xenophobia. Side by side, mosque, synagogue, and church had coexisted in peace.
Continuing, he asked that the Assembly note Armenia used the tolerance of the Azerbaijan people to occupy their territory and carry out a policy of ethnic genocide. More than 1 million Azerbaijanis once lived in the occupied territory -- today not one. After all of that, it was hard to believe the statements of tolerance heard today from the minister of Armenia. From that aggression, the monuments and shrines of Azerbaijan –- many of different faiths –- had been razed to the ground in the eyes of the world. Many times, Azerbaijan had turned to the world community to ask that resolutions freeing the occupied lands and returning the refugees be implemented. Yet, Armenia did not want to give up its regional appetite. Azerbaijan appealed to the Assembly and called for its cooperation, in the name of restoring the rights of a million people, and heeding the voice of Azerbaijan, which had for centuries revered the tolerance of the great religions.
ROD KEMP, Parliamentary Adviser to Australia’s United Nation delegation, said the right to freedom of religion or belief was a basic right and an essential element of any harmonious society. To build free societies, it was important to recognize that different beliefs were allowed to flourish. Domestically, Australia had implemented the “Living in Harmony” programme, and in 2006, had embarked on a “National Action Plan to Build on Social Cohesion Harmony and Security”. Regionally, his country had fostered interfaith cooperation through its co-sponsorship of the Regional Interfaith Dialogue. Recalling that the inaugural Regional Interfaith Dialogue had taken place in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, in 2004, he said the 2007 Dialogue had resulted in an agreement on the Waitangi Declaration and plan of action.
Although Governments were essential for facilitating dialogue, he said faith and community leaders also had a critical role in denying extremists any moral legitimacy. Australia and the European Union would co-host a Youth Interfaith Forum in Australia in December. Australia also would host the Parliament of the World’s Religions in 2009, the world’s largest multi-faith event, and would continue to engage on that issue with the Human Rights Council. His Government welcomed the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations initiative. In closing, he said the international community should continue to forge interfaith partnerships to ensure that the right to freedom of religion was respected.
JOÃO GOMES CRAVINHO, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs and Cooperation of Portugal, speaking on behalf of the European Union, said mutual understanding did not entail imposing one’s values or culture or faith on others. It involved the respect of different values and beliefs based on the awareness of common political, economic and social goals and challenges. Beyond those attitudes and intercultural competences, world leaders needed to focus on concrete cooperation and common actions. The Union was founded on the principles of liberty, democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedom and the rule of law. A mutual understanding and acceptance of core values among Europeans of all social, cultural, and religious backgrounds remained crucial for peaceful cohabitation and social cohesion.
Today’s European identity was a multiple one reflecting manifold and pluralist influences, including those of migration and globalization, he said. Europe faced the challenge of continuously developing and strengthening the dialogue within its various communities, ethnic minorities, and numerous religious communities, including the European Muslims. Europe remained a strong supporter of The Alliance of Civilizations initiative, which intended to galvanize collective action across diverse societies to combat extremism, and reduce the tensions and polarization between societies of different religious and cultural values. In that same vein, adoption of the Council of Europe White Paper on Intercultural Dialogue, which called for all Europeans to live peacefully, was expected in November. Finally, two years ago, he said, the European Commission proposed 2008 to be declared the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue. With a budget of €10 million, the year should present a wide variety of concrete projects to encourage the mobilization of civil society towards coexistence.
KAREN HUGHES, Under-Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, Department of State of the United States, said a noble framework guided the international community’s work: the Universal Declaration, which stated that religious freedom was universal and all peoples had the right to manifest their religious beliefs through observance. However, unfortunately, many people were still denied their right to worship. Her country’s guarantee of freedom of religion allowed people to speak out against those who trampled on religious tolerance. Having met a variety of religious leaders helping people in different countries, she knew from first-hand experience there were people of goodwill in all religions and cultures. She was worried, however, that people had mistaken “freedom of religion” with “freedom from religion”. Religion had, at times, been a source of division, but respect for diversity was her country’s goal. She believed most people wanted similar things for themselves -- education, health care and solid employment among them. Those were not dreams owned by any one country, but rather shared human dreams.
Echoing the thoughts of leaders from Malaysia and the Palestinian territories during the Assembly’s general debate, she said debate must not be left to those who sought to pervert religions to pursue certain agendas. She went on to address two misperceptions, the first being Muslim nations’ concern that the “war on terror” was directed at them. That was not the case, she stressed. Many Americans had roots in the Arab world and Islam was worshiped freely in the United States. Second, she addressed a complaint among Americans that Muslims had not spoken out against violence. She understood that that also was not the case, as several world leaders had voiced objection, notably Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai, who condemned suicide bombing as “contrary to Islam”. She urged all faiths to state that the killing of oneself in order to kill others was wrong, as nothing could justify the murder of innocents. The United States was encouraging interfaith dialogue through a “citizen dialogue” programme; exchange visits among international clerics; and expansion of education programmes in other countries. The Government also had launched an initiative to encourage Americans to study Arabic and Chinese, among other languages. Each country had a responsibility to confirm its respect for all faiths and cultures. She concluded by recalling Sufi poet Rumi’s words that when one asked what to do, “light the candle in their hand”.
VIKTAR GAISENAK, Deputy Foreign Minister of Belarus, said that religious intolerance, xenophobia and the opposition of one culture to another jeopardized peace and stability, and confirmed his country’s commitment to strengthening interreligious and intercultural dialogue based on the principles of understanding, equal rights and tolerance. Respect for the right of States to preserve cultural identity and for peoples to freely determine their own ways of development was an inalienable element of maintaining international peace and security. Belarus had over 140 ethnic groups and 3,000 religious organizations representing 25 confessions, protected by law and practical measures.
Belarus had traditionally co-sponsored all resolutions adopted by the General Assembly promoting dialogue among civilizations, he said, calling particular attention to its co-sponsorship of the resolution adopted at the sixty-first session on the Promotion of Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue. He proposed incorporating the principles of interfaith dialogue into national plans for sustainable development and fighting poverty; courses on the subject in secondary and higher education; and the organization of international forums and seminars for the media, law enforcement, State institutions and the civil sector. He welcomed effective steps by the United Nations for implementing international initiatives on the mutual enrichment of cultures. Belarus would remain an active participant in those coordinated international efforts.
HELENA BAMBASOVA, Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic, reminded the Assembly that over centuries, inhabitants of her country witnessed the disastrous consequences of many periods of religious intolerance, but once the Czechoslovak State emerged in 1918, far-reaching religious freedom prevailed. After the fall of communism, the Czech society once again started accepting cultural and religious differences as a value, not a threat.
Almost 60 years ago, she continued, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was formed, comprising the best ingredients for peace: tolerance; respect for diversity; and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms. After 60 years, there was still no better solution. To be tolerant in words and deeds, societies needed dialogue. Where no genuine and open dialogue across religious and cultural lines existed, prejudice prevailed. But to lead a genuine dialogue, leaders must come with an open mind and the knowledge of all cultures and religions. That knowledge was gained not only from formal education, but also through the media, government, and general public.
In supporting dialogue, cooperation, tolerance, and education, she said, the United Nations played a crucial role and needed to continue in that role. Once the world succeeded in learning the capability of leading friendly and genuine dialogue between cultures and religions, world leaders would be on their way towards achieving the goals enshrined in the United Nations Charter.
LYUBOMIR KYUCHUKOV, Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs of Bulgaria, spoke of the historical tolerance among his country’s multicultural citizens of diverse religious confessions. Bulgaria lay at the crossroads of Christianity and Islam, he said. Furthermore, he noted that his was one of only two countries in Europe whose citizens did not contribute to the deportation of Jewish fellow countrymen during the Second World War. He said that today, Bulgaria embodied a model of transition characterized by the preservation of ethnic and religious peace -- of special significance if one looked elsewhere in the region.
He said that success of intercultural dialogue depended on the interaction between the United Nations and regional organizations. He listed numerous ongoing regional initiatives for intercultural and interfaith dialogue, such as the Euromed Barcelona Process, the Black Sea Strategy, the European Union Strategy on Central Asia, and the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) Interfaith Dialogue, in which Bulgaria participated, and welcomed the declaration of the year 2008 as the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue. Among other things, it was meant to integrate minority groups, in particular Muslim communities, into non-Muslim environments. As an example, he stressed the importance of efforts to integrate Roma populations, supported by nine Governments from central and south-eastern Europe with the participation of representatives of Roma civil society. Further, Bulgaria launched and helped to realize concrete measures to enhance intercultural dialogue in Kosovo aimed at preserving cultural and religious monuments in the region. In 2003, Bulgaria proposed a joint project, “Cultural Corridors in South East Europe”, intended to promote centuries-old connections among the peoples of the region. It laid out a road map for a new attitude and interpretation of the region’s rich cultural heritage.
During the afternoon session with civil society, several speakers participated in a panel discussion titled “Challenges of Interreligious and Intercultural Cooperation Today”. They included: Gulvaira Shermatova, Director, L’auravetli’an Information and Education, Network of Indigenous Peoples, Russia; Paul Knitter, Paul Tillich Professor of Theology, World Religions and Culture, Union Theological Seminary, United States; Gamal I. Serour, Director, International Islamic Center for Population Studies and Research, Al Azhar Centre, Egypt; Sohan Lal Gandhi, President, Anuvrat Global Organization, India; and Muhammad Nurayn Ashafa, Joint Executive Director, Interfaith Mediation Centre, Nigeria.
The panel’s respondents included: Manuel Manonelles, Director, Foundation for a Culture of Peace, Spain; Thalif Deen, United Nations Bureau Chief, Inter Press Service International Association, Sri Lanka; Eliseo Mercado, Chair, National Peace Council, Philippines; Judith Van Osdol, Continental Coordinator of Women’s Ministries, Latin American Council of Churches, Argentina; and Katy Sarre, Chief Executive Officer, INFOGEST, Senegal. The moderator was William F. Vendley, Secretary-General, World Conference of Religions for Peace, United States.
The afternoon session began with welcoming remarks from Mr. KERIM ( former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia), the President of the General Assembly. Commitment to interfaith and intercultural dialogue were valuable in creating a new culture of international relations based on human security, human rights, the responsibility to protect, and sustainable development, he said. It was essential for the media, private sector, civil society, faith groups and non-governmental organizations to be actively involved. Many opportunities to promote intercultural cooperation had been opened by the nature of the global economy and commitment to corporate social responsibility.
The statement of the High Representative of the Secretary-General for the Alliance of Civilization, Jorge Sampaio, was delivered by IQBAL RIZA, Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on the Alliance of Civilization. Today’s debate was particularly relevant, the statement said, as it showed high-level recognition of the need to address growing cultural and religious tension. The United Nations had a lead role to play; ensuring close coordination between all United Nations actions that involved interreligious and intercultural dialogue was key.
He then briefed the hearing on the ministerial meeting of the Alliance of Civilizations Group of Friends, held last week, at which participants revealed a strong commitment to improve cross-cultural relations. In particular, the ministers showed strong support for initiatives in the areas of media, youth and education to reduce cultural misunderstandings. He described suggestions that he had made at the gathering, recalling that he had urged ministers to take advantage of the Alliance’s first annual forum, next January in Madrid, to make commitments and “deliverables”. While States were the building blocks of the United Nations, non-State actors such as non-governmental organizations, the private sector and churches were key partners for promoting a global alliance for peace. That was why today’s Hearing with Civil Society was of great relevance, helping to highlight innovative projects to build bridges between cultures.
Ms. SHERMATOVA said her organization brought together more than 20 religious groups in Russia. Indigenous peoples played a significant role in Russian society. The federal Government supported indigenous cultures and the rights of indigenous peoples were protected and guaranteed under article 69 of the Russian Constitution in accordance with international law. The three special laws concerning the rights of indigenous peoples should ensure those peoples’ rights to their ancestral lands, but poor implementation of those laws thwarted the ability of indigenous peoples to honour their culture. The dialogue today must take place on a human level.
She pointed to the global campaign of indigenous peoples and the growing recognition of their rights in recent years. The 13 September General Assembly resolution on indigenous peoples’ rights was proof of the strength of that movement. However, violations of ancestral land and land use continued. In recent years, indigenous peoples had created stronger ties with the United Nations, as evidenced by the creation in 2000 of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. It was important to continue creating mechanisms for closer direct ties between councils of elders and United Nations agencies. The voices of indigenous peoples must be heard at the highest levels.
Mr. KNITTER said that, unless religions were part of the solution, they would remain part of the problem. They had been a “determinative” source of conflict and violence, used by leaders and politicians to inspire hatred; it was necessary to deal with the problematic role that religions played. Moreover, religions had to be part of the solution together, not separately. The causes of religious violence were like bad breath: other people were needed to make someone aware of the problem. High-level understanding and harmony was relatively easy; the challenge would be conducting dialogue at the grassroots level.
For religions to be part of the solution, they had to confront why they had been part of the problem, he continued. It was insufficient, even facile, to simply say that “extremists’ were not true Christians or Buddhists or Muslims. Texts and teaching used to justify violence had to be recognized and dealt with. A key reason why religions had been easily exploited for hatred and violence was because each had claimed to be superior; while each religion might recognize the reality of other religions, they did not really recognize their validity. It would be like trying to organize the United Nations around only one nation that claimed to have the final word on how the world should be organized. Claims of superiority provided opportunities to turn religion into weapons of violence. Religions had to offer up a model of an egalitarian community of communities; only in that way could religions attain a lasting peace between themselves and foster peace among nations.
Mr. SEROUR said Al-Azhar Mosque had first opened for prayers in 972 A.D. and scholarly activities had begun three years later, leading to the foundation of Al-Azhar University, which accepted students from more than 50 Muslim countries. The University’s International Islamic Centre for Population Studies and Research in Egypt worked to dispel misconceptions about Islam and family planning and population policy, as well as develop a bioethics curriculum, a population education curriculum, infertility treatment training and study tours for students from Muslim and non-Muslim countries. It collaborated with various United Nations donors and other organizations. Obstacles encountered were overcome through constant open dialogue, compromise, flexibility and through embracing cultural differences as a foundation of scientific development. Scientific progress must take into consideration all viewpoints.
To achieve successful cooperation between donors and recipients, donors must understand the cultural and religious context of their recipients, who were typically more traditional; not insist on a one-size-fits-all solution; understand that local populations must be convinced, not coerced, into accepting major structural changes, particularly if from a foreign source; and respect a recipient’s freedom to reject changes they deem unacceptable from a cultural or religious perspective. Recipients must reconcile the need for improvements and change with the need to be sensitive to cultural and religious values; re-educate local populations on how to embrace scientific development as non-threatening to cultural and religious values; and be able to recognize the inadequacy of some current local solutions without viewing all Western involvement as interference with domestic affairs.
Mr. GANDHI said the main aim of religion was to enable an individual to live a good moral life, based on truth and justice. But to look back on history, it was shocking to find that most wars had been fought in the name of religion. Conflicts arose when beliefs had been forced on others. The challenges facing cooperation between religions and cultures were today complex and formidable, because religious and political aspirations had become mixed. Rather than being a personal ethic, religion had become institutionalized and politicized, and used to fulfil the political aspirations of a few individuals in each religious community. Religious loyalties were being exploited, and that gave rise to fanaticism and terrorism.
Civil society was the main actor of interreligious and intercultural cooperation, he said. Civil society groups had been creating an environment of reconciliation, implementing many joint action plans, such as poverty elimination projects. When followers of different faiths sat together in fellowship, they found that they had much in common, and superficial differences quickly fell away. They became one in universal life, and that was the difference between faith and belief.
Mr. ASHAFA said the dialogue was highly desirable as one observed how religion and cultural identity were being misused to perpetrate the century’s most inhuman acts. However, religion and culture were not evil as tools for change; rather, incapable and overzealous conductors turned them negative. United Nations General Assembly resolutions on the issue were the most desirable tools available to checkmate the Samuel Huntington theory of a clash of civilizations. People must use the culture of peace to suppress the culture of war, cooperation to obliterate disintegration, justice to suppress injustice and love to replace hate. There was a corollary between religion and culture. Religion was a sustaining factor for the foundation of most early cultures and civilizations. However, it, like nuclear energy, could be used positively or negatively.
Misinterpretation of scriptural texts, which seemed to promote hate, violence and war, was among the greatest barriers to interreligious and intercultural cooperation. The media and film industries often had disregard for the sensitivity of religious and cultural traditions. Policymakers applied double standards when enacting laws and policies, resulting in religious-motivated conflicts. A battle had been drawn between extreme Islamists and extremist Democrats. They had created an unstable, unsafe world, drawing a line between freedom fighters and terrorists. The United Nations must study interreligious models at the regional and community level, not just at the diplomatic level. He also stressed the need for research and documentation of best practices and tools of interreligious and intercultural cooperation. The United Nations needed to encourage sincere dialogue across conflict-prone areas. As long as man could not find peace with Almighty God, man could not have peace within himself.
A respondent, Mr. MANONELLES, said that perceptions, rather than reality, needed to be looked at, as the world was living in a “screen-driven” society, the screens being television, computers and third-generation cell phones. Perceptions often overrode reality; some people had a notion of a clash of civilization, which -- if it did exist -- should instead be called a clash of ignorance. Stereotypes, misunderstanding, and spin were all factors. Parallel work could be carried out on perceptions and reality, with the media being a most important part of that work. In education, “media literacy” -– education about the media -– might be useful. Local and regional actors had to be involved, as they encountered reality on a day-to-day basis. In many cases, they were already engaged in cooperation.
Mr. DEEN said that the media had been accused of irresponsibility in making judgements on religious and ethnic issues. By way of example, he cited the Oklahoma City bombing in August 1995 that had initially been linked to Middle East terrorist groups; that had been proven wrong, but the damage had been done. Mr. Deen cited other examples in which some wire services had rushed to judgement based on claims of responsibility made by telephone after bombings. In most cases, such reporting caused irreparable damage.
Mr. MERCADO referred to Mr. Knitter’s remark about religions being part of the problem and part of the solution. Political will was needed to safeguard minority rights; government and religious leaders were paid to protect such rights. No longer could people remain silent in the face of extremism in faith communities. Furthermore, a new tradition of solidarity with peace and development was needed; the best milieu for such a partnership was realization of the Millennium Development Goals.
Ms. VAN OSDOL stressed the importance of coming together with a shared vision and of bringing to the fore people who were often brutalized and marginalized for their views and beliefs by the powers that be. It was essential that people learned to turn their differences into strengths. Processes must be translated into visions. There were wonderful ways in which people could find a new synthesis and path to hold such things together.
Ms. SARRE said the world of business was the best example of multicultural and multi-religious cohabitation. Senegal was a country with Christians and Muslims. Ethnic tension was avoided by using the concept of “ethnic cousins”. That concept made it possible to diffuse conflicts. People were not born into a religion; they were born into a group of individuals. Mutual acceptance was important for any interreligious dialogue. The challenge facing intercultural dialogue was to ensure that today’s children learned that the existence and exchange of religion and culture was natural.
In the ensuing question and answer session, a participant said that dialogue was not a matter of church and mosque and temple, but about respect and better knowledge of the other. He also disagreed with the assertion that extremists were to be found in every religion; as a Muslim, he felt nothing in common with those who killed in the name of God.
The representative of UNESCO said she was honoured to see culture being put atop the agenda. Building peace in the human spirit was not an easy task. Dialogue was a spirit, a state of mind, and if someone said that everyone was wrong, then a lot of people would be wrong. Promotion of cultural diversity, and culture as diversity, was important, and it was necessary to promote dialogue because society was multicultural.
Another participant said that today was an exciting day, but that “a cold dose of realism” was needed. A lot of challenges lay in the way of making the vision of dialogue work. Great progress had been made in protecting the victims of violence and discrimination, and in devising strategies, but neither governments nor civil society had gone beyond giving lip service to fundamental rights. There had to be a commitment to long-term action, in terms of decades and of long-standing programmes, conceived collectively through careful preparation.
A representative of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) said there was very little agreement among religious groups over such sensitive health issues as contraception and population control. UNFPA was learning a great deal from the dialogue and saw it as an opportunity to learn how to operationalize lessons learned, carrying out cultural sensitivity training programming among its country teams that included a human rights based approach. While the issue was not for UNFPA, the agency was very committed to it. She thanked the faith-based community for its input and insights.
A representative of the Philippines emphasized the importance of local action plans in education. The Philippine Government had issued assurances that it would include peacebuilding education in local schools. It had set up initiatives of Muslim Imams to provide a forum to address problems on the ground, including the “salam soldiers” concept, which promoted peace over war. He looked forward to greater efforts for interfaith dialogue, saying it was a key component of the Philippines’ movement toward peace.
In concluding remarks
Mr. ASHAFA called for creation of an interreligious advisory council to mediate religiously motivated conflicts worldwide. It was important to honour religious leaders, perhaps through universities or the Alliance of Civilizations, in order to check current levels of extremism. Mr. GANDHI said the world had enough religion to make people hate, but not enough religion to make people love. Mr. SEROUR called for commitments by all actors, policymakers and government on interreligious and intercultural exchange and cooperation. Mr. KNITTER said it was not enough to dismiss extremists who manipulated religious doctrine to justify violence. It was important to engage them. In responding to the United Nations call to come together, religious groups must not join on the basis of their religious commonalities. Rather they must come together to alleviate the suffering in the world and from there establish a basis for a religious dialogue.
Ms. SHERMATOVA said her small community in Siberia was inspired by the interfaith dialogue at such a high level at the United Nations. It was important for the dialogue to continue and be followed up with concrete measures and programmes. Mr. VENDLEY said religious communities today were learning to become bilingual. But such communities could not speak just speak among themselves. There must be a language of shared caring about the fundamental challenges that confronted mankind.
Devoted to the theme “Best Practices and Strategies for Interreligious and Intercultural Cooperation Going Forward”, Panel II was moderated by Abdullah Ahmed Mohamed Al-Murad, Permanent Representative of Kuwait to the United Nations.
The panellists were: Sr. Gerardette Philips, of the Islamic College for Advanced Studies/Religious of the Sacred Heart; Sr. Georgette Bennett, President and Founder, Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, United States; Rev. Carlos Tamez, Representative, Comunidad Teológica de Honduras; Mitra Deliri, Representative of the Bahá’í International Community and Director of External Affairs Office of the Bahá’ís of Tanzania; and Effenus Henderson, Chief Diversity Officer, Weyerhaeuser Company, United States.
Ms. PHILIPS offered four practices for interreligious cooperation: relax, be not afraid, return to the centre, and encounter the “religion of heart”. In relaxation, people met at the deepest level of each other’s religion and culture in trust. Fear was stifling, but by returning to the centre one could penetrate into the inner mysteries of the other. The heart of religion was “the religion of heart”, and in today’s hostility, only that wisdom could bring harmony. In that context, she also offered four strategies for going forward, the first being “live the message”, and explained that when Muslims and Christians lived from the depth of their own Revelation, that gave life to a new direction. Adopting “open integrity” would allow people to face the challenge of crossing religious frontiers while preserving integrity. “Communion beyond dialogue” meant that to live in open integrity, people must be in communion with one another. The final strategy, “negate the negative”, was a map to orient people in a manner free from prejudice.
Ms. BENNETT elaborated on the Tanenbaum Center’s “Religion in Conflict Resolution” programme, saying her organization was a trusted leader in providing practical measures to reduce religion-based tensions and violence. The programme involved a network of religious leaders working, at great risk, in areas of armed conflict. For example, religious leaders from opposing factions had used their moral authority to advance the peace process in Northern Ireland. Being present to people in the streets, they had forged the key links between people that had proved instrumental to the peace process. Other examples related to the role of respected elders from different backgrounds in the Ethiopia-Eritrea conflict and the contribution of tribal practices to the conclusion of a covenant to end a tribal war in the Sudan. Local religious peacemakers were important actors in peace diplomacy today, she said, adding: “We all must work to better support their efforts … and, when appropriate, ensure their place at the negotiating table.”
Rev. TAMEZ appealed for a rising “above the level of words” to build an intercultural civilization. Interreligious and intercultural dialogue meant opening space so that different religions, Governments and private bodies could guarantee peace and harmony among societies. It was important to find paradigms that joined different dreams and spiritualities. Welcoming the holding of the World Day of Prayer for Peace on 21 September, he said interfaith dialogue could not be postponed if the world aspired to sustainable peace. People were challenged to build peace on the basis of human dignity as a common horizon. Sustainable development was rooted in interculturality, which played an important role in dialogue.
Recalling that the World Council of Churches had launched the Decade to Overcome Violence, he said the International Ecumenical Convention in 2011 would deepen the common commitment to peace and reconciliation. In addition, an initiative in Central America had created different forms of participation related to human survival. Also, UNFPA’s project in Honduras to prevent HIV/AIDS had established an interreligious committee towards that end.
Ms. DELIRI pointed out that large Christian and Muslim populations in the United Republic of Tanzania lived side by side, intermarried and celebrated each other’s religious festivals. The use of Kiswahili as the national language had helped to cement national unity; educational reforms, policies promoting equity, the banning of political campaigning along religious lines, and the reorganization of an ethnically divided tripartite system into a united judiciary had laid the foundation for peaceful coexistence.
She advocated a universal, mandatory educational policy on religion to counter ignorance and fanaticism, noting that South Africa provided an example in that regard, having adopted a national policy on religion and education, guided by the constitutional values of citizenship, human rights and equality. It was also important to promote education through the media and United Nations regional agencies, and to prepare a compendium of innovative interfaith activities. Among other priorities was the need to undertake research on the underlying reasons for the suffering of marginalized groups, forces compelling the unification of mankind, barriers inhibiting cooperation, and key indicators of social cohesion. It was also important to develop operational policies and codes of conduct for interreligious cooperation, which would be acceptable to religious authorities, and to foster social cohesion by encouraging interfaith prayer gatherings.
Mr. HENDERSON focused on collaborative leadership, which he called a new mindset for tackling global issues. In dealing with such issues as displacement, disease and climate change, people must adopt a mindset open to diverse experience. Drawing on his corporate career, he said the achievement of diversity required a mindset that valued collaborative approaches to problem solving. It was important to acknowledge the role of business leaders, he stressed, adding that leaders must model a spirit of inclusiveness so that diverse views were voiced and heard.
Collaboration was built on trust between businesses and social activists, which was in short supply, he said, noting, however, that there was progress as both sides were realizing they needed each other, especially in developing countries. Taking up the issue of limited resources, which was often a reason for intransigence on critical issues, he described Weyerhaeuser’s partnership with CARE in promoting sustainable forestry. The programme allowed villagers to take control of their economic future without depleting valuable environmental resources. Similarly, strategic corporate grants in the hands of committed people could transform struggling communities.
Speakers in the ensuing debate presented examples of successful interreligious and intercultural cooperation at the local, regional and global levels, and examined possible ways to strengthen such cooperation in the future. Summarizing the debate, one respondent said it had emphasized common humanity and shared values, providing inspiring examples of social responsibility and peacemaking.
Highlighting the importance of ethics in clarifying common values, Steven Rockefeller, Co-chair, Earth Charter International, United States, stressed the importance of deep spirituality as a source of compassion, love, healing and reconciliation. Shared values made cooperation possible, and one of the most important achievements of the United Nations over the years had been the creation of universal values. It was important to continue promoting the global ethic and instilling commitment to the ethical framework in all peoples and generations.
Francisca Ngozi Uti, Representative, Centre for Women Studies and Intervention, Nigeria, said religion and culture were among the most important meeting points. Some religious norms, if misunderstood, could be considered as offensive. For greater collaboration among religions and cultures, greater trust and respect should be built. “We fear what we do not understand, and that leads to prejudice,” she said.
Tatsuya Yoshioka, Director, Peace Boat, Japan, stressed the need to develop an innovative peace education system, as young people were being contaminated by violent environments. He proposed cooperation among the United Nations, private sector and other organizations to build a peaceful world.
Fatima Ahmed, Executive Director, Zenab for Women in Development, the Sudan, pointed out that in her country’s sorghum-producing eastern region, one community was a model of how diversity was being respected. All tribes from Darfur and from the South were represented in that community, which proved that the conflict was not due to religious or cultural diversity. She stressed the important role of local and religious leaders in bringing peace at the grassroots level and urged renewed commitment to facilitating interreligious dialogue in the Sudan. Peace efforts through the empowerment of women were also vital.
Other issues addressed during the debate included the question of how to better coordinate the interaction between the “main actors”, programmes, and initiatives within the context of the United Nations system so as to enable more cohesion and synergy. In that respect, Josef Boehle, UNESCO Coordinator, Chair in Interfaith Studies, University of Birmingham, United Kingdom, stressed the agency’s role in promoting encounters and dialogue among cultures and religions. Interfaith chairs needed better staffing and greater resources in that regard. Also, many international interreligious organizations were already in existence, and it was up to the United Nations and the international community to make the best use of those resources.
The representative of the Philippines suggested the establishment of a United Nations body to heighten the level of interfaith dialogue. It could, perhaps, share humanitarian relief expertise of experts. The Governments of United Nations Member States could set aside part of their defence budgets for interfaith dialogue.
Also underlined during the discussion was the need for governments to ensure balanced and valid forms of education, while respecting the rights of all their citizens. In that connection, one speaker pointed out the need to counter “religious illiteracy”, advocating the learning of not only one’s own religion, but others as well. Another participant cited a series of recent meetings of religious leaders, which had emphasized that violence and terrorism were incompatible with true religion.
The representative of the United States called for two complementary dialogues, stressing the importance of the need for dialogue between mainstream and extremist elements within various faiths and cultures. Extremists played a disproportionate role in shaping the image of any faith, and it was incumbent upon followers to institute a dialogue with their own extremists to bring them back to the path of non-violence.
A representative of the Organization of the Islamic Conference stressed the need to combat intolerance and promote dialogue among cultures. Dialogue should be a dialogue rather than two monologues. The Organization of the Islamic Conference was deeply concerned over efforts to distort the image of Islam and Muslims. A responsible media was essential to the promotion of cultural understanding and tolerance.
Also participating in the meeting were invited guests, including Qamar-ul Huda, Scholar of Islamic Studies and Comparative Religions, Pakistan; and John Taylor, Representative, International Association for Religious Freedom, Switzerland. Other participants were Civil Society Task Force members: Ari Alexander, Co-Executive Director, Children of Abraham, United States; Kezevino Aram, Director, Shanti Ashram, India; Erol Avdovic, United Nations correspondent, Deutsche Welle, Bosnia and Herzegovina; and Hiro Sakurai, United Nations Representative, Soka Gakkai International, and former President, Committee of Religious NGOs, Japan.
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