The General Assembly of the United Nations staged a special event entitled “World Interfaith Harmony: Multi-Religious Partnership for Sustainable Development” during World Interfaith Harmony Week on February 6, 2015. Unlike last year’s program, which was organized by religious groups, with prayers and short rituals from various traditions, accompanied by music and colorful dress, this program consisted of straightforward presentations.
His Excellency, Mr. Sam Kahamba Kutesa, President of the General Assembly, noted that the success of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – now being refined for international action between next year and 2030 – will be dependent on major changes in the way we all think and act. Religious groups are essential to bringing about these changes.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon sent a similar message, calling on religious leaders to foster harmony based on tolerance and respect, in sharp contrast to the “violence cowards are [wreaking] on civilians, bringing shame to themselves and their religion.”
Dr. William Vendley, President of the Religious NGOs Committee at the UN, said that, beyond their many pioneering services in health, education, etc., religious groups bring to the development of all people a strong moral foundation, which is not just individual but also communal. The individual and communal development of such virtues as trust, compassion, and honesty is necessary to have the vision of the SDGs, to work for all people, not just “our own.” A third dimension religious groups can contribute is the awareness that the market must operate within boundaries, to serve society and be led by values in a moral context.
Ms. Sara Rahim, UN Youth Representative of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, declared that, as a young person, she looks to the wisdom of religions, working together, to transform the world.
As a second-generation American Palestinian, she said the tragedy of 9/11 and the attackers’ claims to be acting out of their Muslim beliefs pushed her to examine her own faith. She then sought an internship in the Middle East, where she was so moved by the interfaith cooperation that she committed herself to interfaith work. She also spoke of the great potential young people have to harness their interfaith and social connections for the good of society and Earth.
After these opening statements, Michael Katz, cellist, provided a musical interlude with a few short pieces by Bach.
Panel Discussion I: Interfaith Collaboration for Post 2015 Sustainable Development Agenda, was chaired by H.E. Ambassador U. Joy Ogwu, Permanent Representative of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
Archbishop Bemardito Auza, Permanent Observer of the Holy See Mission to the United Nations, spoke of the many ways religious groups are providing vital services and drew parallels between UN concerns and those of religious groups. The organization of faith-based groups is needed to help resolve conflicts and distribute what is necessary for development. Therefore, religious groups must be involved in developing policies and programs, and the violence and coercion of some groups must be condemned so that we can be agents of true development.
Imam Shamsi Ali, Chairman of the Al-Hikmah Mosque and Director of the Jamaica Muslim Center, and Rev. Dr. Usman J. Fomah, Secretary General of the Inter-Religious Council of Sierra Leone said that greater understanding of each other’s beliefs – rather than the imagined beliefs we presume – is essential and must come from serious interfaith dialogue. Separating politicizing and media misinterpretations of religious teaching is essential in this. We need to learn from instances where interfaith collaboration has brought about peace, and focus on the ways we can collaborate to bring “spiritual interventions” and pray for peace, as well as work for the justice that must underlie peace.
Rabbi Roger Ross, Executive Director of the Rabbinical Seminary of America and Chair of the International Seminary for Interfaith Studies, observed, “We have done less than is needed for justice,” and reminded us that “Spirit is moving us to act.” We must work to constantly choose peace, and take time to “recognize the divine spark in ourselves and others.” The SDGs, he said, are “a vision of what is needed,” based on a paradigm shift from the “crazy idea that we have to go to war to end war” and the destruction of our planet to believing in the new beginnings our faiths hold out.
Dr. Uma Mysorekar, President of the Hindu Temple Society of North America, called us to move from “too much talk” and to focus on our shared values, rather than differences among us. She also emphasized the need for much greater education about other religions so that we can work together to meet the needs of the poor. Also, she said, interfaith dialogue will make each one a better “whatever you are,” not try to collapse all into one religion.
We then saw a short video of images from last year’s World interfaith Harmony Day, which included Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon’s advice: “Let us never forget that what divides us is miniscule compared to what unites us.”
The second Panel Discussion, Multi-religious and Multi-sectoral Partnership in Achieving Sustainable Development Goals (nobody makes titles like UN people!), chaired by Her Excellency, Ambassador Irene Susan B. Natividad, Charges d’Affaires of the Philippines Mission to the United Nations.
H.E. Ambassador Ufuk Gokcen, Permanent Observer of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to the United Nations, observed that – besides being essential to the success of the SDGs – faith groups are uniquely able to help build cooperation in society against fundamentalists and extremists. Children and youth, especially, need to see the results of interreligious collaboration. He also urged religious leaders to teach families the importance of educating their girls, and he called for more women as religious leaders.
Dr. Azza Karam, Senior Culture Advisor of the UNFPA and Coordinator of the UN Inter-Agency Task Force on Faith-Based Engagement, described the ten-year effort to have religious communities included in the UN. While their roles are still being defined and how such collaboration can work is still in process, she asserted thatboth groups have learned much from each other.
Some things she has observed: The UN must regard the religious groups as partners and not “instrumentalize” them to accomplish other goals. Many terms –such as “human rights” and “dignity” – need clearer definition. UN agencies tend to speak of “human rights,” while religious groups tend to speak of the “dignity of the human person.” Both are necessary. The biggest challenge is to take action against violent extremism, not just speak about it. She also remarked that “Partnership language is fine, but the litmus test is women’s equality.”
To succeed, the SDGs must recognize that there may be different ways to achieve goals.
Dr. Katherine Marshall, Senior Fellow at Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and WorId Affairs, then gave examples of inter-religious cooperation in Accra. Muslim, Christian, and Jewish leaders struggled to work efficiently on waste and sanitation (with the motto: “Cleanliness next to Godliness”) until they learned to trust each other. Climate change now posed a similar challenge.She outlined five principles on which to base interreligious work:
1. Coalitions must be built on solid knowledge of each other’s religious institutions and best practices for fighting poverty;
2. More documentation of successful interfaith programs is needed, to show others how to succeed;
3. The Millennium Development Goals did not include proactive ways to make partnerships work. The Sustainable Development Goals must include both inspiration and practical guidance;
4. Be sure the SDGs are translated into locally appropriate means; and
5. Create ways and space to work out our differences, for example, what poverty is and how to measure success.
Mr. Doug Hostetter, Director of the Mennonite Central Committee, the final speaker, noted that peace is essential to who we are, as well as critical to development, and made a plea that “It is not too late to include Peace as an SDG.”
He also spoke of the importance of listening: during his experiences as a volunteer with Mennonite relief services in Vietnam, he said, he was surprised to discover that the greatest desire of the refugees was for their children to learn to read and write.
A brief Question and Answer period ended the program.