I am grateful for the opportunity to celebrate World Interfaith Harmony Week with you. I thank the President of the General Assembly for bringing us all together. I bring you greetings and best wishes from the Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, now on travel outside New York.
At a time when too many communities and too many countries are being split apart by strife between religious groups, this initiative is an important chance to reach across divides. We want to reclaim faith as an instrument of peace. As the PGA eloquently just stated. This is also a key goal of the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations, preparing for another important event next month.
All of the world’s great religions share the values of peace, human dignity and respect for others. The United Nations is proud to uphold and represent these values. We actively defend religious freedom and work to protect minorities. We welcome opportunities to join forces with people of faith who are working for peace, development human rights and the rule of law.
His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, who as we know just announced his decision to resign, visited the United Nations in 2008. At the time, he called on the United Nations to encourage and support interfaith dialogue. We were proud and pleased to respond to this call. I join the Secretary-General in the hope that the Pope’s legacy will serve to build deeper dialogue and wider tolerance around the world.
Religious groups have traditionally been at the forefront of grass-roots efforts to help the poor, heal the sick and support the young. We cannot let small numbers of extremists of any faith obscure the good work of the vast majority of believers in our world.
At the same time, we have to acknowledge that conflicts between, and even within, religious groups have caused and are causing lasting damage and widespread suffering.
There is reason to be especially concerned about young people who fall prey to extremists promising rewards or salvation – now or in another life. Our youth need and deserve faith that offers them a path to help others. They do not need destructive ideologies that conscript them in campaigns of hate and violence.
Young people naturally have much energy and idealism. We should find ways to help them use these positive qualities to improve conditions of life.
In history, religion has at times been a source of conflict. Today, many of the hot spots on the agenda of the United Nations are marked by religious disputes. Sectarian divisions are causing terrible human suffering, not least in Syria right now.
During my earlier years of work in Sudan, I experienced first-hand the tensions between the Muslims in the North and the Christians in the South. But I also saw the potential of interfaith dialogue to reach out to communities and foster understanding.
This strengthened my conviction that religion can help resolve, as much as deepen, conflicts.
Sensitivity to the beliefs of all sides to a conflict is a basic requirement for any mediator.
I remember a situation when I served with Olof Palme, former Swedish Prime Minister and the Secretary-General’s Special Representative on Iran and Iraq. We carried out intensive shuttle diplomacy between Baghdad and Tehran in the early 80’s for many months.
One issue discussed with the parties was the withdrawal of military forces to the internationally recognized boundary. Olof Palme asked a Muslim member of the UN delegation for help in finding a Sura in the Quran that would support this point. Our colleague shared a Sura with us which said: if the enemy turns his back on you, you are not allowed to attack him.
This immediately resonated with our Muslim interlocutors. They were genuinely moved that we had demonstrated respect for their religion. Interfaith understanding turned out to be a key to progress in the negotiations.
All of you understand the serious and urgent challenges we face in today’s world.
The grinding poverty that afflicts a billion people. The natural disasters that drain peoples’ energy and endanger their health. The environmental disasters which destroy lives and communities. Climate change that poses an existential threat to our planet. Widespread violence against women and children.
All of these problems are interconnected – and they affect all of us. That means all of us have to be a part of the solution. No matter where we are, no matter what we work or struggle with, and no matter what religion we practice, we are bound together by human bonds and by interdependence in a globalized world.
In closing let me say.
We often, and rightly, use words like respect, tolerance and understanding during World Interfaith Harmony Week. But for this celebration and commemoration to really succeed, we have to use these words all year long, not only during this one week. We have to work every day to translate these words to practical action for peace, development and the right to life in dignity for all.
I count on all of you to be part of this effort. With dialogue, we can combat hate. With interfaith harmony, we can build bridges to a better future.