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30 Jun, 2002

Religious leaders sign peace charter but now have to practice what they preach

Originally Published: 30 Jun 2002

Hundreds of religious leaders who met in Bangkok between June 12-14 have established a World Council of Religious Leaders and signed off on a charter reaffirming their belief that religion can serve as a positive force for achieving world peace.

But, as usual, their lofty and noble words were belied merely hours later by an event that exemplify the kind of problems they face. Reuters reported from Beirut,Lebanon, that 78-year-old Greek Catholic bishop Gregoire Haddad was assaulted that same night by a Christian man who witnesses said berated Haddad for his liberal views and was then shown on TV punching the priest and knocking him flat.

According to the report, the bishop “is renowned for his calls for tolerance and peaceful coexistence among the religious groups that fought Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war.”

Similar calls for tolerance and peaceful coexistence were made by the conference in Bangkok. The charter they signed says, “As religious and spiritual leaders of the world forming the World Council of Religious Leaders, we believe that religion can serve as a positive force for achieving world peace, that conflicts among religious and spiritual groups are avoidable, and that harmony amongst them is to be consistently promoted through active discussions and dialogues.

“We acknowledge that the history of humanity is replete with conflicts — even violent ones — that might have been avoided had there been a body to promote mutual understanding and equal respect among all religions. Therefore, we believe that it is our responsibility to work together to remove all causes of tension among our communities. We believe we have the will and courage to lead their followers to accept differences, to maintain self-respect, and to live in harmony with diverse communities in the world and with humankind in general.”

All well and good. Indeed, it was clear that the leaders from 13 religions and faiths who gathered in Bangkok do share a desire to work for peace. But whether their commitment can do much to overcome the extremists within their ranks is a moot point.

Moving beyond the rhetoric, and giving shape to the World Council is also going to be an exercise in “religious diplomacy”, a phrase coined by secretary-general Bawa Jain to describe what he went through in putting the Bangkok conference together.

According to the charter, “The World Council of Religious Leaders has been formed as an independent body to be available as a resource, to work in collaboration and cooperation with, and to strengthen the United Nations and other international and national organizations that are dedicated to promoting world peace, harmony, tolerance, mutual respect among humans, and social and economic justice.”

The charter says, “By promoting the practice of spiritual values shared by all religious traditions, and by uniting the human community for times of world prayer and meditation, the World 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.”

Many of these “inner qualities” will be tested among the religious leaders themselves when implementing the structure of the World Council, where another large bureaucracy is emerging. The three-tier structure involves the creation of an umbrella World Council based in New York City, Regional Councils of Religious Leaders to be located alongside each of the regional offices of the UN, and National Councils of Religious Leaders in each UN member country. Each of these councils will be autonomous but linked with the World Council.

Like the UN itself, the composition of these councils is a veritable minefield of politics. The way they will be appointed / elected, their terms of office, representation and chairmanships, the voting system and other such details are all fraught with problems that are bound to emerge when the detailed work begins.

The World Council is empowered to establish task forces and commissions of scholars and experts to address specific issues, such as events and areas of potential religious tension and conflict. These commissions will consider and hear disputes and matters of concern to any religion; hear disputes regarding violations of the UN Charter; and propose recommendations to the World Council regarding any action taken up by the UN or the international or national bodies.

Three of the main tasks of the World Council will be to prevent and resolve tensions and potential conflicts connected with religion and culture; take constructive measures to resolve conflict, promote reconciliation and foster healing; and work for the active promotion of mutual respect and the preservation of religious diversity.

It will also seek methods to reduce poverty, promote respect for women and children and care for the vulnerable in society, help reverse environmental degradation, and mobilise the faith communities around sustainability, conservation and respect for all life.

Subcommittees will be set up on subjects such as conflict resolution, environmental issues of local and global importance, prevention of crime, prevention of terrorism, and gender equity.

While the charter says that all decisions of the World Council will come into force when they have been adopted by a two-thirds majority vote, it adds, somewhat curiously: “Within the terms of reference set by the World Council, the executive committee of the Council will be able to act in response to regional or global crises without having to wait for a vote.”

In times of increased world tension or conflict, the Secretariat will only need to “consult” with the Council co-chairpersons to issue statements on behalf of the Council for the purpose of alleviating a crisis situation. “These statements, which would then be issued to the public, would be purely for humanitarian, rather than political, ends.”

Many of these vague and potentially controversial powers already raised eyebrows among several delegates who felt that much more clarification was needed. Many felt that the event was just like another UN exercise at which most of the delegates make speeches and talk while key decisions are reached and railroaded through by a small inner coterie of power-brokers.

Funding also will be an important issue. While Council members are expected to provide for some funds to the Council, either through their organization or through the support of business leaders, a specific board will be established of business leaders committed to the Council and/or individual religious leaders on the Council. The Council will also seek funds from religious organisations, foundations, corporations, and individuals.