NEW YORK, Aug. 29 (JTA) — At the U.N.-sponsored Millennium Peace Summit this week — an event with all the potential to be a photo-op for the 1,000 religious leaders who attended — at least one participant was hoping for something a bit more substantive.
Rabbi A. James Rudin, who recently retired as the director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, was particularly interested in attending panel discussions focusing on the environment and bioethics — issues that potentially unite rather than divide people of different religious faiths.
“When it comes to war and peace, everyone’s for peace — it only depends on how you define it,” Rudin said Monday, as the summit kicked off.
“And religious leaders may not be able to get together and resolve issues with borders and refugees.
“But all groups have a stake in conserving the environment. It would be nice if we only breathed Jewish air or Muslim air or Christian air, but it’s not just that way.”
This approach to conflict resolution has been tried elsewhere. In the Balkans, for example, counselors brought together rival groups to focus not on the source of conflict, but on the common ground they share. Once the groups develop some spirit of cooperation, then they ease into the more tendentious areas.
At the four-day summit, the religious leaders covering 15 major faith traditions were expected to pray and discuss how to resolve conflicts and achieve peace.
The summit’s agenda acknowledged the important role religious leaders play in both domestic politics and world affairs. “Forgiveness and Reconciliation” in the Middle East was on the agenda for Wednesday.
This four-day summit precedes another U.N. millennial summit next week, in which political leaders from 170 or so countries will participate.
Attendees of the religion summit included Francis Cardinal Arinze of the Vatican; Samdech Preah Maha Gosananda, the Buddhist Nobel Prize nominee; Mustafa Ceric, the Grand Mufti of Bosnia; Secretary-General of the Muslim World League Abdullah Salaih Al-Obaid; and Kuniaki Kuni, who has never appeared outside of Japan in his official capacity as the Jingu Daiguji (chief priest) of the Grand Shrine of Ise.
Jewish invitees included Yisrael Meir Lau, Israeli’s chief Ashkenazi rabbi, plus the chief rabbis of Russia, Great Britain and Chile.
U.S. Rabbi Arthur Schneier, president of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation, in his opening address to the assembly, called on his colleagues to “marginalize the religious demagogues to ignite national, ethnic and religious passions with their preachings and practices.”
Recalling his own Holocaust experience, Schneier added: “The source of conflict between men lies not in their faith but in the failure of the faithful.”
The most prominent summit no-show was the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of Tibet.
His absence was due to politics. The United Nations bowed to the Chinese, who say the Dalai Lama is a political leader. In his place, other spiritual leaders of Tibetan Buddhism addressed the gathering.