More than 1,000 religious leaders will gather in New York this week to share ideas on the role they can plan in conflict prevention. The event has gained attention because of the exclusion of the Dalai Lama. but the leader of the summit stresses its message will be positive. RFE/RL Robert McMahon reports.
United Nation, 28 August 2000 (RFE/RL) -- An extraordinary gathering of world religious leaders begins today (Monday) at UN headquarters with the goal of creating a formal role for the spiritual community in efforts at preventing conflicts.
The meeting is the first of its kind and includes leading figures from the Islamic, Jewish, Roman Catholic, Buddhist, Shinto, and Orthodox Christian faiths.
Those scheduled to attend include the secretary-general of the Muslim World League, Israel's chief rabbi, the grand muftis of Bosnia and Kosovo, the patriarch of the Armenian Orthodox Church, and senior representatives of the Russian Orthodox patriarch and Iran's Ayatollah Khamenei. (For more information see: www.millenniumpeacesummit.org).
The secretary-general of the summit, Bawa Jain, told our correspondent that the participants are coming with a sense of commitment toward lessening world hostilities. Jain says that at the end of one of the world's bloodiest centuries, a different approach is clearly needed.
"When we know so many of the world's conflicts are based on ethnic or religious differences then we have to question ourselves and see what role can religion play in helping transform these conflicts, and once the conflicts are ceased what role they can plan in the healing process within the communities."
Jain is hoping the summit will provide an opportunity for faith leaders from sometimes hostile nations to open a dialogue of peace. He said the visit to Jerusalem earlier this year by Pope John Paul, leader of the world's Roman Catholics, provided a strong message to other religions.
The pope's homage to Jews murdered by the Nazis has been seen as marking the beginning of a new era in relations between the Roman Catholic and Jewish faiths.
"Forgiveness and reconciliation are very important aspects. And for us, the Holy Father's trip to the Holy Land, where he acknowledged what we need to do differently and sought forgiveness -- that was a marvelous gesture and I think that was a wonderful commitment for us to build upon during the summit."
The four-day gathering involves formal and informal meetings, including sessions focusing on solving conflicts in the Balkans, Russia, and Central Asia. They are expected to result in a "Declaration for World Peace" in which religious leaders affirm a plan of action for dealing with conflicts.
The second major outcome expected is the creation of an International Advisory Council of Religious and Spiritual Leaders. This is intended to serve as a resource for the United Nations in its efforts at conflict prevention and resolution.
Despite the broad attendance expected and its ambitious aims, the conference has already been overshadowed by the decision to exclude the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader and Nobel Peace prize winner.
While meeting is not officially sponsored by the United Nations, its first two days will be held in the UN General Assembly chamber. The gathering has received funding from the UN Foundation of U.S. media mogul Ted Turner and other groups, and was organized by a coalition of interfaith leaders.
A UN official told organizers that China would be outraged by the presence of the Dalai Lama, seen as a threat to Chinese sovereignty over Tibet. The Nobel peace laureate was invited to a final plenary of the summit, to be held at a New York hotel, but declined. He is sending three representatives instead.
The Dalai Lama's exclusion from UN-based events has prompted strong criticism from U.S. officials and from the press. U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher expressed concern at a news briefing last week.
"We do think the Dalai Lama is an important religious leader who has something to contribute to this conference, and we would have liked to see him there."
Jain, the summit leader, said organizers were put in a difficult position, but says he was urged by the Dalai Lama early on that the event should go forward whether or not he attended.
"Unfortunately, when you work within the framework of the United Nations, you have to respect certain political constraints and political sensitivities. I don't necessarily agree with this but I have to abide by it."
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan told reporters last week that the disappointment over the Dalai Lama's exclusion is understandable. But he said the United Nations is first of all a house for member states and their sensitivities are given major consideration. He said he still believes the gathering of so many religious leaders to spur dialogue on peace is a sign of progress.
(The proceedings will be webcast live by www.beliefnet.com)