(from New York) The tragedies and hopes of the Rohingya in Myanmar, of the child soldiers of Sierra Leone, the protests in Chile and in various South American countries, the threats of populism, the exploitation and destruction of forests, are at the centre of the three-day assembly of Religions for peace in New York, focused on the contribution that religious communities can make to peace, with the creation of platforms and forums for dialogue between enemies, heads of State, victims and assailants, the exploited and the exploiters. The religious leaders attending the Conference represent 90 countries and the voice of at least one billion believers working closely with UN envoys for climate and conflict prevention, as well as with various foundations wishing to support peace-building and environmental protection through faith.
“Peace is not only the absence of war: it is also a matter of ensuring that poverty is uprooted, that inequality is dismantled, that efforts are made to protect our planet”, said Azza Karam, the new Secretary General of this assembly of World Faith leaders to journalists.
Peace has a broad agenda, and the world cannot be improved without involving people of faith or those who identify with a religious belief, for it represents an added value to the work of international institutions”.
Dr. Karam describes Religions for peace as “the natural counterpart of the United Nations, the government world, while
we represent the world of faith traditions and we are and can be increasingly stronger partners of the UN
especially with regard to peace-building and development, and I will ensure that the UN honours and is rewarded by the extraordinary efforts of religiously inspired communities.” In the year 2020, marking the 75th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations, Religions for peace will be celebrating its 50th birthday. The first official assembly of religious leaders took place in Tokyo in 1970. That event marked the establishment of the coalition, which, after last summer’s assembly in Lindau and this programmatic meeting in New York, aims to pool the energies of many more religiously inspired organizations with clear humanitarian guidelines, in an effort to provide guidance to the commitment of faith communities, religious leaders and international politics.
“As is known,
more than 30% of basic health services in the world are provided by religious organisations,
as much as 70% in the United States – said Azza Karam – so why not team up with governments to overcome the challenges of environmental degradation, poverty, violations of human dignity and injustice? Many humanitarian crises lie ahead of us, linked to climate in particular. We have the opportunity to work together, not Christians for Christians, Muslims for Muslims, or Hindus for Hindus: we can make a difference together.”
A veritably effective and visible difference was highlighted in two distinguished speeches by Reverend Kyoichi Sugino, Deputy Secretary General of Religions for peace, on the conflict in Sierra Leone and the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar. In the first case, the inter-religious council set up in 1997 inspired Christian and Muslim mothers to negotiate with the rebels for the release of 57 hostages. “The success of religious mediation led the government to invite the representatives of this council as mediators in the peace process. Their build-bridging efforts resulted in the final agreement. They have inspired other countries to create inter-religious councils that can play a fundamental role. Their work with humanitarian agencies has been crucial in the fight against Ebola and AIDS,” Rev Sugino pointed out.
Myanmar is a different case. Here Cardinal Bo brought together the religious leaders of the country with those of Bangladesh, where the Rohingya minority found refuge, with the goal of a joint declaration on humanitarian action for the refugees. “The Cardinal is well aware, for example, that at grassroots level and among simple believers no one likes to speak of the Rohingya, but he found the right words, along with other religious leaders, to create bridges of dialogue, including with the government, to protect minority groups and the population at large. We know that sometimes policy or leadership activity is easier than convincing the believers, but we need to develop dialogue techniques aimed at bottom-up participation. This is being done in Amazonia, where religious and indigenous leaders are working together as guardians of the rainforest.”
Freedom of thought, conscience and belief, as well as threats to democratic systems, are also high on the daily agenda, raising challenges and concerns to all faith leaders.Azza Karam guarded against the risk of becoming a political entity and focusing only on policies and governments since “our task is loftiness of spirit and listening to the spirit along this common path: it our responsibility for our institutions, for the protection of the planet, for peace and for young people.”