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A More Peaceful, Just and Sustainable World (Full Text of 2017 World Interfaith Harmony Week PWR Webinar Speech)

February 6, 2017

A more peaceful, just, and sustainable world” —this worthy goal climaxes the mission statement of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. People around the globe desire these good and noble ends. Regardless of their differences, millions of people have realized that we are interconnected in the Human Family and that our collective future depends upon achieving this goal.

Many of these people are sincere followers of the world’s religions, both ancient and relatively new. It is true, therefore, that in thousands of locations and all kinds of venues around the globe vastly different people of multiple faiths are coming together to discuss common problems and work cooperatively toward reasonable solutions.

Stephen A. Fuqua, a Baha’i interfaith activist from Minnesota, writes about this growing international phenomenon:

Since 1893, a movement has grown up around the idea that religious people can find common ground through dialogue; and while they may not agree on who the mouthpiece of God is—or even what to call that Supreme Deity—they are beginning to learn that their shared values can be put to use for the betterment of the world [originally published in The Fertile Field, a Baha’i youth website; accessed January 31, 2017].

Of course, Fuqua’s allusion to 1893 refers to The World Congress of Religions at the Chicago Exposition, the international event that would later become the Parliament of the World’s Religions. That historic meeting “marked the first formal gathering of representatives of eastern and western spiritual traditions . . . [and today] . . . is recognized as the birth of formal interreligious dialogue worldwide”  [“Our History”, accessed January 31, 2017].

As the chair of the Parliament, I believe that this organization exemplifies the very essence and purpose of the United Nations World Interfaith Harmony Week, for we encourage tolerance, respect, and solidarity, as well as oppose misunderstanding and mistrust [see “World Interfaith Harmony Week, 1-7 February 2017,” accessed January 31, 2017]. The Parliament carries on a number of important ongoing programs and projects, yet we have a unique and very special niche. We are the one interfaith organization in the world with the ability to convene thousands of persons from dozens of countries and religions for multiple days of inspiration, education, relationship-building, networking, and action.

These meetings are designed to create and enhance harmony among followers of different faiths. A broad range of ideas are expressed by numerous voices at a Parliament event, and while we do not expect unity on every issue, we believe the opportunity to get to know people who are different fosters interreligious harmony. A principle guiding these international gatherings is speaking honestly and listening respectfully, techniques for effective dialogue that reflect the moral parameters of the Global Ethic, a famous document ratified by leaders from many faiths at the first modern Parliament in Chicago in 1993. Our most recent international event was in Salt Lake City in October 2015, where almost 11,000 people from some 75 nations and 50 religions gathered. Building on the momentum from Salt Lake, the trustees and staff of the Parliament are busy preparing for our next huge international gathering, the date and place soon to be announced.

As I have represented the Parliament in various places around the world, the breadth and vitality of the interfaith movement has become very clear. At a Conference on the Rights of Religious Minorities in Predominantly Muslim Lands convened in Marrakesh, Morocco, I joined Muslim leaders from a hundred nations sitting down with Christians, Jews, Hindus, and representatives of other religions to hammer out the language of a Declaration of human rights for non-Muslims living in countries where Islam is the dominant religion.

I was hosted at the King Abdullah International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue in Vienna, Austria, where I discovered the remarkable initiatives of this organization co-sponsored by Austria, Saudi Arabia, Spain, and the Holy See.

In Guadalajara, Mexico, leaders of Fundacion Carpe Diem Interfé—a vibrant, local multifaith body—explained to me how they had conducted highly productive regional conferences that introduced interreligious dialogue to hundreds of participants from Central America and beyond.

At meetings in Jakarta, Indonesia—both at the headquarters of Muhammadiyah, the largest national Islamic organization in the most populous Muslim nation in the world, and at Paramadina, a moderate Muslim university whose name—according to the academic dean, means “going beyond the mere tolerance of the Charter of Medina”—I met leaders, scholars, and students who shared stories of working cooperatively with non-Muslims to benefit their nation and promote its national motto of Bhinneka Tunggal Ika, “Unity in Diversity.” And, more recently, champions of the interfaith movement in Bratislava, Slovakia, and Toronto, Canada, have introduced me to the important work of many spiritual and secular leaders in their culturally diverse cities.

At the more grassroots level—from Boston to Seattle, from Atlanta to Fresno, from Abilene to Philadelphia—I have seen how face to face encounter with the Religious Other enables all kinds of persons to overcome their fear of the unknown and build friendships that value one another’s differences and that do not let stereotypical misinformation trump compassion and kindness.

In all of these places, I have been inspired by the lives of interfaith peacemakers—the true Superheroes of our day. Captain America and Wonder Woman may be the superheroes of the comics and movies, but the real heroes are the women and men who stand up to tyranny, promote peace, and defend the rights of all people and the earth.

My friend and activist-writer, Daniel Buttry, introduces some of these figures in his book Blessed are the Peacemakers.

One such hero is Masahisa Goi, a Japanese visionary who studied spiritual teachings as varied as the Chinese philosophy of Lao Tsu and the Semitic ethics of the Bible, then founded Byakko Shinko Kai, a new thought organization dedicated to peacemaking. Believing that the five-word prayer, “May peace prevail on earth,” was given him during intense periods of meditation, Goi determined to introduce that prayer globally through planting “Peace Poles.” Over the years, about 200,000 Peace Poles have been erected all over the world, the simple prayer inscribed in hundreds of languages. Many religious leaders have planted Peace Poles, including Pope John Paul II, Mother Teresa, and the Dalai Lama. This hero’s simple prayer has become an inspiration to millions of people who have never heard his name but have shared his passion and hope—namely, “May peace prevail on earth” [Daniel L. Buttry, Blessed are the Peacemakers (Canton, MI: Read the Spirit Books, 2011), 21].

Another hero is Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian Muslim, born into a family of legal professionals. Ebadi, herself, studied law at the University of Tehran and in 1975 became the first woman judge to preside over a court in Iran. The Iranian Revolution of 1979 forever changed her fate, however. Ruling imams declared that women couldn’t serve as judges, so Ebadi became a clerical worker in the very court over which she had once presided. Later, when she was even prevented from practicing law, she retired and established, with four other lawyers, the Defenders of Human Rights Center. Despite constant death threats and at least one unsuccessful attempt on her life, Shirin Ebadi continues to work for justice and freedom for all—including Afghan refugees and followers of minority religions in Iran—a commitment that makes her a target of extremists and for which she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 [Ibid., 115-116].

The Women in Black are a group of Jewish females who courageously protest the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. In 1988, the Jerusalem branch of Dai LaKubush, an organization supporting a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, gathered on Paris Square. The women, everyone dressed in black, stood silently around the square holding signs in Hebrew and English that said, “Stop the Occupation.” Sadly, some passing drivers yelled sexual insults and profanities at them and passengers in buses spat on them. They were called “whores” and “Arafat lovers.” Occasionally, [rotten] tomatoes, oranges and eggs were thrown at them. . . [After deep discussion [the Women in Black] committed themselves to the practice of nonviolence . . . . They determined to be disciplined and dignified, maintaining their vigils in silence [Ibid., 282].

As Buttry explains:

The movement spread throughout the country, . . . [and soon] they were joined by Palestinian women who were Israeli citizens. [Their campaign] spread further as women in other countries began vigils against the Israeli occupation in solidarity with the Women in Black. . . . What began as a few women in one country has spread to over 10,000 women in [numerous] countries, addressing many conflicts besides the Israeli occupation. Through dignity, symbolism and faithful persistence, Women in Black in Israel and around the world have given increased power and clarity to women’s voices against militarism and violence [Ibid., 284-285].

Finally, Arun Gandhi, the grandson of Mohandas Gandhi—“the Mahatma,” or Great One—continues the peacemaking work of his grandfather as he travels throughout the world speaking in churches, mosques, temples, and gurdwaras, on college campuses and in elementary and secondary schools, at large conferences in capital cities or under a tree in tiny Third World villages. A former trustee of the Parliament and personal friend, Arun Gandhi embodies the nobility of his famous name as he carries on the life-affirming work of his grandfather.

The inspiration of these and hundreds of other well-known and unknown superheroes, and the work of thousands of grassroots and global organizations that promote peace, justice, and sustainability for all persons and for the earth—these are helping us to make progress toward achieving our goals. Our work is not done, and while we may grow weary, we will not quit. Even though we will occasionally become discouraged, we will hold on tenaciously to hope, for our cause is righteous and the company of fellow-believers with whom we walk gives us strength.