Katherine MarshallSenior Fellow, Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University
The United Nations General Assembly began on February 11 to debate Syria’s prolonged and bitter tragedy of killing, after the Security Council, next door, failed miserably to find enough agreement among the world’s dominant nations to act. United Nations idealists believe that the General Assembly, as a body representing all the world’s nations, has the responsibility and the capacity to protect the vulnerable. Sadly such idealism is generally in scant supply these day and so these General Assembly debates have an aura of symbolism as the tanks mass in Syria.
On February 7 in the same General Assembly Hall a very different group gathered in a very different spirit. It was inspired by what some might call an even more idealistic cause: interfaith harmony. For the first time World Interfaith Harmony Week was celebrated at the United Nations. Sikhs, Zoroastrians, Muslim imams, Christian bishops, Shinto priests, Jewish rabbis, and many others came there to celebrate and reflect on their deep belief that, while religious diversity is part of humanity’s very essence, people can live in peace and harmony. The morning event did change the generally dour tone of the Hall as music echoed, children read inspirational passages, and speaker after speaker spoke to the ideals of common cause and the common good. It concluded with representatives of different religions symbolizing their common, shared care for the earth as each watered a tree.
World Interfaith Harmony week, for those who gathered to celebrate, marked a hard won achievement. In October 2010 the General Assembly passed, unanimously, a Resolution declaring the first week in February each year as World Interfaith Harmony Week. In proposing it, King Abdullah of Jordon harked back to the initiative of Muslim leaders who reached out to Christians in a 2007 letter entitled “A Common Word”. The King urged that: “It is .. essential to resist forces of division that spread misunderstanding and mistrust, especially among peoples of different religions…Humanity everywhere is bound together, not only by mutual interests, but by shared commandments to love God and neighbor; to love the good and neighbor.” The aim is thus to work through interfaith dialogue and common action to counter the idea and reality of a clash of civilizations.
There’s another agenda that various actors have pursued doggedly over the years: to find a wider, more recognized space for spiritual voices in the United Nations. Organizations inspired or linked to many faith traditions are indeed currently present at the United Nations as accredited representatives of their organizations, and they can thus participate, as does civil society more broadly, in many aspects of the hugely varied work of the United Nations. But the formal bodies like the Security Council and General Assembly are for nation states and thus only the Holy See has a seat (as an observer). This is not to the liking of advocates of more formal representation, who believe that at a minimum the United Nations could benefit from spiritual counsel as they act on grave matters of war and peace. World Interfaith Harmony Week is a compromise or a step, depending on how you look at it, short of a full decade for Interreligious Harmony or a formalized and permanent Spiritual Council.
The interfaith morning at the General Assembly, meanwhile, served one purpose well. In a short space of time it highlighted the extraordinary diversity of religious and faith involvement in the many dimensions of the work of the UN. Peace, of course, was front and center, as leaders from Indonesia and Nigeria spoke to religious efforts to settle conflicts. The care for nature by religious traditions (including traditional spiritual traditions) has real power to inspire more forthright action, and the children’s voices echoed that theme. United Nations agencies are more alert today to how important religion is to the citizens they seek to help (some awakened by the jolt of 9/11, others by opening their eyes to realities on the ground). A revitalized United Nations will, it was argued, take more account of their religious partners.
The most moving moment Tuesday morning came as Yuka Saionji spoke of what she termed 3/11: the disaster that struck Japan on March 11 last year as earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster called forth every ounce of spiritual energy and courage. In Japan’s secular society religious organizations sprang into action and people turned to their faith for comfort. Saionji could barely choke out words to express her profound gratitude for the support and comfort that Japan received when disaster struck. In the hardest times religion does seem to offer true common ground for the common good.
Theologian Hans Kung often repeats his maxim that there can be no peace among nations without peace among religions, and no peace among religions without dialogue among religions. The ideal of World Interfaith Harmony Week is that such dialogue should take place everywhere, not just for one week a year but as part of daily lives. The United Nations celebration was thus a part of a much wider effort not just to bring together the visible symbols of living religion but to explore why their differences matter as part of humanity’s heritage and reality and how much, despite our differences, we have in common.