Role of New UN Religious Advisory Council Still Vague

 — Sept. 1, 20001 sept. 2000

New York’s World Peace Summit ‘lacked detail’ and ‘authentic leadership’ from some major faiths, says ecumenical leader.

Konrad Raiser, general secretary of the World Council of Churches (WCC), has criticized key elements of the Millennium World Peace Summit in New York—a major gathering of 1000 religious leaders at the United Nations headquarters from August 28 to 31.

The meeting brought to New York representatives of a wide range of religious faiths and traditions, and resulted in a formal “Commitment to Global Peace”—a pledge by the religious leaders to respect other religious traditions, condemn religious violence, and work for more equality between women and men.

The summit also committed itself to creating a religious advisory council for the UN, but the details of such a panel remained unclear, with conference organizers saying a steering committee would have to be formed first.

However, Raiser said that many aspects of the proposed panel remained vague, and that insufficient details about its formation and implementation had been presented at the summit, which was not an official UN event but was the first gathering of a large group of religious leaders at UN headquarters.

Raiser also said the summit did not have a “clearly discernible focus” beyond providing a forum for people to acknowledge the great diversity of the world’s religious and faith traditions, but he added that it was good to show religious support for the work of the UN. “This is important, and is something that should be welcome,” he said, though he added the summit had not yet “found the consensus” on ways in which faith communities could work with the UN. However, he said that it had “helped to clarify the agenda.”

Sponsors of the event—which included foundations with close ties to the UN—said that the historic summit was a ground-breaking event enabling religious leaders and communities to work more closely with the UN in promoting peace and in other activities.

But Raiser mentioned a number of existing “interfaith networks focusing on the issues of justice and peace,” including the World Conference on Religion and Peace and the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions, which, like the WCC, have formal links with the UN.

“I’m not convinced forming another body will take us much further,” Raiser told ENI. Any new organizations should be created “as part of a transparent and careful process, and build on a more representative forum” than had been the case at the summit.

The WCC general secretary said his conclusions were based partly on the fact that “the most prominent level of [religious] leadership” was not present at the New York summit.

A formal advisory group at the UN would require, Raiser said, “the most authentic leadership of traditions” in order for it to have real credibility. “The term ‘leader’ was ambiguous,” he said of the summit.

Pope John Paul II did not attend the event, nor did the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan Buddhist leader. Though later invited to the two final days of the summit—which were not held at the UN headquarters—the Dalai Lama was not invited to the opening events at the UN because of Chinese government opposition.

Raiser said he regretted that the Dalai Lama had not been invited for the opening of the summit. But he added that given the format of the summit—which resembled a UN meeting, punctuated by many short speeches and addresses—he was not sure the Dalai Lama “would have had more than five minutes than anybody else.”

“This was not the format to present the profound spirituality the Dalai Lama represents,” Raiser said.

He also expressed concern that some of those attending the summit—including some Indian Hindu leaders—”spoke of peace” at the summit but were often militant at home. When he spoke on the second day of the conference, 29 August, at the hall of the UN general assembly, Raiser referred to religious militancy, strongly urging those present to condemn the use of religion as a tool of violence.

“All true religion wills justice, peace and harmony,” he said in his address. “Yet, as we engage here in dialogue, we are conscious of the fact that wars are being fought in many parts of the world appealing to the name of religion.”

He also criticized political leaders who, he said, demonstrated a “lack of civil courage and statesmanship,” and were “more concerned about the preservation of national self-interests—and often their own personal privileges—than for the collective interests of the peoples of the United Nations.”

The summit would not establish “an amalgam of spiritual truth.” Rather, Raiser said in his speech, religious leaders had to seek ways “to create a global culture of mutual respect which will provide a model to those who bear responsibility for governance at all levels of society.”

In his interview with ENI, Raiser said that the summit had to be seen “as one step” in a larger ecumenical process of dialogue, though he added it “was not the first step—there have been many international, interfaith meetings, and some were far more structured than this one.”

“We will have to see in hindsight what this meeting has made as a contribution,” he said. “It is too early to say what that [contribution] will be.”

Nonetheless, he said, the “WCC’s commitment to promoting inter-religious dialogue is firm, and we will continue to be open to all of those who walk on the same path.”

Posted: Sept. 1, 2000 • Permanent link:
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