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19 May, 2002

World religious leaders to ponder whether they are a part of the solution, or the problem?

Originally published: 19 May 2002

Ministers responsible for the social and economic development of Asia Pacific countries will gather in Bangkok this week for their annual talk-fest on the never-ending range of regional problems. In the august halls of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, they will moan and groan about imbalanced trade and globalisation, poverty, environmental degradation, money shortages, the rich-poor gap, etc., etc.

At the end of it they will sign off on another bunch of resolutions saying pretty much the same things as last year before being driven off in their limousines to Bangkok’s waiting department stores to stack up on some gifts and goodies. As for all the problems they discussed, ESCAP will have to report back next year about what was done to alleviate them. Needless to say, many of them will still be around, the problems anyway, if not necessarily the ministers.

Next month, however, another group of leaders will fly into Bangkok, not those in charge of socio-economic development, but the ‘development’ of the spirit and the soul. Their job: To approach many of those same problems from a loftier angle. After years of relying on ministers, bureaucrats, consultants and experts of various ilk, and making limited progress, if any, the United Nations has decided to seek higher-level help.

A total of about 60 abbots, archbishops, maulvis, swamis, jurists, reverends and rabbis are to be in Bangkok for the historic launching of the World Council of Religious Leaders on June 12 – 14 at Buddhamonthon and at the ESCAP headquarters.

For the first time, the UN has decided that because it shares the same goals as the world’s religions and religious leaders, it is time to permanently rope them into the effort and bring their wisdom to bear in achieving a just, peaceful and sustainable world. The Mission Statement of the meeting declares thus:

“The World Council of Religious and Spiritual Leaders aims to serve as a model and guide for the creation of a community of world religions. It seeks to inspire women and men of all faiths in the pursuit of peace and mutual understanding. It will undertake initiatives to provide the spiritual resources of the world’s religious traditions to assist the United Nations and its agencies in the prevention, resolution and healing of conflicts, and in addressing global social and environmental problems.

“By promoting the practice of the universal human values shared by all religious traditions, and by uniting the human community for times of world prayer and meditation, the Council seeks to aid in developing the inner qualities and external conditions needed for the creation of a more peaceful, just and sustainable world society.”

The Bangkok meeting is a follow-up to the Millennium World Peace Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders held in August 2000 at the UN HQ in New York. For the first time, nearly 2,000 religious leaders from all faith traditions and regions of the world convened for the unprecedented meeting.

Mr Bawa Jain, Secretary General of the Summit, says that the World Council of Religious and Spiritual Leaders is being created as a follow-up to that.

“In order to achieve this vision (of solving critical world problems), a coalition must be built between religion, government and business. Such a coalition will provide the resources, wisdom and capabilities needed for addressing critical issues of conflict, intolerance, poverty and environmental degradation. Religion brings insight and understanding as well as the grass roots outreach to the community. Government brings the vehicle for change and business brings resources and ingenuity.

“This coalition is essential if the world is to progress to a more peaceful and just human society.”

After the launching, a regional headquarters of the World Council will be set up in Bangkok, under the aegis of Mahachulalongkorn Marajavidyalaya Univeristy. Mr Jain says it will bring yet another international focus to the city and to the peace efforts of the world’s faith traditions.

He added, “Bangkok can be a major venue as a zone of peace in Asia where people from different nations of Asia could come together to seek resolution to conflicts, especially those based on ethnic or religious differences. The Council will also work in collaboration with the UN to address the major social challenges confronting more than 40% of the world’s population on the continent of Asia.”

The meeting will be inaugurated by His Highness Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn. It has the blessings and active participation of the Supreme Sangha, the UN ESCAP and the Thai government.

By last week, the following were among the many leaders who had confirmed participation: Mr W.J.M Lokubandara, Minister of Buddhasasana, Sri Lanka, Mr. Mohan Lal Mittal, President, World Hindu Congress, Mr Abdullah bin Abdul Muhsin Al-Turki, Secretary General, Muslim World League, Rabbi Meir Lau, Chief Rabbi of Israel, Reverend Joan Brown Campbell, Director, Department of Religion, Chautauqua Institution, New York, and Jasedar Manjit Singh of Anandpur Sahib, India.

Private companies and individuals are being approach to sponsor the gathering and help fund the participation of the religious leaders. Patrons and sponsors will have the opportunity to join the religious leaders at Buddhamonthon and attend the Plenary Sessions at ESCAP as well as all the private dinners, functions and press conferences. They will also be publicly recognised and listed on all materials as a sponsor.

After a day of speeches at Buddhamonthon, the gathering will move to the ESCAP for more specific discussions on the very same issues that will be debated and discussed at the ESCAP ministerial session this week.

In an age when religions are being seen as outdated, controversial and part of the problem, Mr Jain says it is important for the leaders to propose new initiatives that will make them part of the solution. For years, societies have thrown both laws and money at problems, only to make progress that can best described as two steps forward and one backward.

The meeting is significant in another way because it is designed to transcend the traditional focus on building inter-faith dialogue (which often gets bogged down in turf wars) and get right to the heart of issues affecting common people, especially the poor and the marginalised.

The end goal is to alleviate conflict and sources of conflict, but in doing so, the religious leaders will have to first end conflict amongst themselves. That has historically proven to be a daunting task. It will be interesting to see how this gathering will be different, as it has to be, if the religious leaders are to prove themselves capable of succeeding where ministers clearly have not.