In a world where people increasingly kill and die for their faiths, inter-religious councils (IRCs) offer the one ray of hope against the relentless spiral of violence and counter-violence, say religious leaders gathered in this ancient Japanese cultural capital.
Some 2,000 of the world's top religious heads, representing such diverse faiths as Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, as well as indigenous belief systems, are participating in the World Conference of Religions for Peace (WCRP) that got down to business on Saturday.
Taking place in the backdrop of the recent conflict in the Middle East between Israel and the Hizbollah in Lebanon and the alleged plans to bomb airliners midair, the world assembly of the WCRP plans to thoroughly examine over its four-day course the theme of ‘Confronting Violence and Advancing Shared Security,' with IRCs and inter-faith understanding being given pride of place.
Significantly, the assembly is convening for the first time after the Sep. 11, 2001 aerial attacks on the United States.
''I believe it is possible for people to overcome differences in cultures and religions through dialogue and deepen mutual trust in order to overcome the difficulties and confrontations the world is confronted with," said Junichiro Koizumi, Prime Minister of Japan, which is hosting the meet after a gap of 36 years. Kyoto had the honour of holding the first ever assembly in 1970.
Representatives from Israel, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Palestine, the Congo and Sudan and other conflict hotspots are attending the conference.
''Religious communities are gathering at a critical time because religion has been hijacked by extremists, politicians and the media,'' said William F. Vendley, secretary general of the New York-based Religions for Peace. "Whenever extremists attempt to hijack religion for violent ends, whenever politicians seek to exploit sectarian differences, and whenever the press mischaracterises our faith traditions, people of faith, religious communities and religious leaders must stand up, speak out and take action.''
In his message to the assembly, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan emphasised the value of inter-religious understanding. "By standing together in multi-religious alliances, you are well-placed to be effective agents for peace. By cooperating within the Religions for Peace networks, your effort is multiplied, and your impact in your communities magnified."
Already, IRCs have grown from 30, at the last world assembly in Amman in 1999, to over 70 at the present event, billed by the organizers as the largest non-sectarian coalition of religious groups in the world.
In Sierra Leone, pressure from an IRC helped create 'Truth and Reconciliation' while IRCs, it was noted, were enormously useful after they were set up in the Balkans in1997.
Communities have, through IRCs, been effective at working with governments and Islamic, Orthodox, Catholic and Jewish traditions have had the chance to share their stories of loss and pain and thereby break down barriers to create effective networks for peace. Many IRC-based efforts have gone unreported. For example, a group in Romania bought land to build both a synagogue and an orthodox church.
At the plenary sessions there was focus on how women could be involved effectively in the IRCs. In a group discussion on conflict transformation in the Middle East, several women spoke of the role their organizations played in trying to address the root causes of conflict, of how sharing stories and listening are powerful tools for reconciliation.
An IRC in Israel is active, bringing Palestinians and Israelis together through a wide variety of programmes including one for youth called ‘Face to Face/ Faith to Faith'. One of its publications, ‘Women of the Book: A Jerusalem Collage' reflects the often painful and difficult process of Palestinian and Israeli women dialoguing. Each participant tells her own story with photographs and drawings to discuss the way she identifies with lineage, history and cultural connections.
Israeli delegate, Dorit Shippin, talked about how good it was to meet an Iraqi and an Iranian for the first time. The organization she works for, ‘Neve Shalom- Wahat Al-Salam' (Oasis of Peace) is a community of Israeli and Palestinian families living together in a cooperative village between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. She spoke of how well the members have come to know each other and how this kind of activity could bear fruit in the future.
Another representative spoke about a programme of teaching children 60 ways to do Jihad in an effort to reclaim the original meaning of the word. In the West, Jihad is usually equated with ‘Holy War' but it also means intense effort to reach a perfect faith, which can be achieved through all actions that make up daily life. So doing housework could be one way of doing Jihad.
Former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami is a participant as also is UNICEF's executive director, Ann Veneman, and former Norwegian Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik.
Veneman gave examples of how religious groups compliment and work together with UNICEF. In Turkey, for example, there is collaboration with Muslim religious leaders in campaigns for girls' education.
"The conflicts that rage around the world are ever-present reminders of what divides humanity. But there is so much more that unites us, including concern for the survival and well-being of children,'' Veneman said.
Yet, an indication of the difficulties ahead was available at the assembly in the shape of a condemnation of Japan issued by a North Korean religious group for denying entry to six of its members.
''The illegal and reckless action taken by them (the Japanese authorities)...is nothing but suppression of religion unprecedented in the history of international relations,'' said the Korean Council of Religionists in a statement.
Tokyo imposed a series of sanctions against North Korea, after it fired a series of test missiles into the Sea of Japan in July, and these include denial of entry to nationals of that neighbouring country.
Copyright © 2006 IPS-Inter Press Service