Seeds for a ‘100-Year’ Peace Process

 — Sept. 6, 20006 sept. 2000

Ecumenical summit leaves religious leaders cautiously hopeful for gradual change.

Prominent ecumenists have declared that the Millennium World Peace Summit of about 1,000 religious leaders, held in New York at the end of August, may well have a good result. But they also criticized the event as too cumbersome and too vague.

Referring to interfaith dialogue in general, S. Wesley Ariarajah, a Sri Lankan theologian, said of the New York meeting: “The inter-religious program is a 100-year process—we are sowing seeds.” Dr Ariarajah is professor of Ecumenical Theology at Drew University and a former deputy general secretary of the World Council of Churches (WCC).

In an interview with ENI, Professor Ariarajah was philosophical about some of the unwieldiness of the August 28 to 31 meeting, which was criticized by several high-profile participants, including Dr Konrad Raiser, general secretary of the WCC, for an overall lack of focus and depth.

The meeting, part of which was held at the United Nations headquarters, brought to New York representatives of a wide range of religious faiths and traditions. The religious leaders signed a formal “Commitment to Global Peace”–a pledge to, among other things, respect other religious traditions, condemn religious violence, and work for more equality between women and men.

Left unsettled, however, was how the religious community would continue working with the UN, which did not formally sponsor the summit. Though the faith leaders resolved to create a religious advisory council for the UN, it was not clear at the end of the conference how the group would work or even be formed. A steering committee will now help establish the panel.

Professor Ariarajah told ENI that the historic summit had a symbolic value that should not be minimized. The UN, he said, was now likely to pay attention to the voices of religious leaders. In turn, he said, the summit was a way for communities of many faith traditions to begin more serious reflection and action on social and political issues. The symbolism of religious leaders worshipping together “has its own value,” he said. “There are people here who will ‘catch the spirit’, and when they return home, will become more involved in interfaith dialogue.”

But Dr Ariarajah said the summit’s format—resembling a formal UN meeting—made the proceedings long, rambling and repetitive, with prayers and addresses going far over allotted times.”

There was more an emphasis on the representation [of faiths] than a concentrated attempt to explore issues in depth or to mobilize groups around issues,” he said.

Professor Ariarajah, a veteran of international religious meetings, said the summit had to live with the limitations of being a UN-affiliated event, and, as a result, had to be mindful of the political realities and power of the UN member states. This was perhaps best exemplified by the controversy over the decision not to invite the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan Buddhist leader, over fears of offending China.

Eventually, the Dalai Lama was invited to the summit’s final two days, held at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, but he declined to attend. A Tibetan Buddhist group spoke at the UN-hosted section of the summit, but Chinese delegates walked out.”It was an unhappy compromise that pleased no one,” said Dr Ariarajah.

David Little, director of the Center for the Study of Values in Public Life at Harvard University, told ENI it was easy to become cynical about such large international gatherings, given their large size and ambitious, if sometimes vague, agendas. Still, he said, it was beneficial for different faith traditions to begin “to subject themselves to external review,” given the realities of economic globalization and historic political changes—such as the fall of the Soviet Union and non-violent changes of governments in the Philippines and South Africa. These developments had, he said, “added a new plausibility” to the idea of peace.”

Lessons are being learned,” he said. “There is a ‘contagion’ of peace at work, in which people are now caught up in new ways of looking at conflict, and where spiritual values are being discussed in the political realm.”

How this will be worked out is a huge, huge issue,” Little said, noting that large-scale violence was still prevalent in many countries. “It is still inchoate. But there is a spirit at work that makes me cautiously optimistic, and religious leadership has to be part of this.”

If nothing else, the summit provided a remarkable display of the sheer variety of faiths and religious traditions, and the UN and the Waldorf-Astoria were awash in a sea of colorful vestments and robes.

Among the most prominent groups were the indigenous peoples, representing faith traditions from several continents. Their representatives stressed the dangers of environmental destruction, using the melting of the polar ice cap as a potent symbol. No matter how profound were the declarations made at the summit, said Chief Oren Lyons of the Onondaga Nation in North America, “the ice is melting in the north. There can be no peace as long as we wage war on our own Mother Earth.”

Laila Spik, a representative of the Saami indigenous people of Sweden, told ENI that the fact that religious leaders had gathered and were able to hear the voices of indigenous peoples was valuable. “It was good. You must start from somewhere,” she said.

But she warned of the dangers of nothing concrete resulting from the summit. “There is talk, but does anyone listen?” she said. “Do they take it to heart?”

Posted: Sept. 6, 2000 • Permanent link:
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