United Nations

At the United Nations, a closer collaboration with religions

From the Alliance of Civilizations to resolutions passed by the General Assembly, the UN is forging new partnerships with religions and religious communities

UNITED NATIONS — With words like “peace,” “dialogue,” and “cooperation” salted through its agenda, the program for a special hearing of the General Assembly last autumn might have been any of a thousand meetings here.

But what made the 4-5 October 2007 “High-Level Dialogue and Informal Interactive Hearing with Civil Society on Interreligious and Intercultural Understanding and Cooperation for Peace” different was the degree to which a new actor was spotlighted before the UN’s most globally representative body.

That new actor was religion — or, rather, people who directly represent religious communities from around the world.

“What is new is that the president of the General Assembly was calling for this kind of a hearing on religion and intercultural cooperation for peace,” said Bani Dugal, the principal representative of the Bahá’í International Community to the UN. “You’ve never really had the General Assembly reach out to this sector of global civil society before.”

The General Assembly, however, is not the only UN body that is reaching out to religious groups. Spurred in part by the threat of religion-inspired violence that was so starkly demonstrated in the 11 September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, and also by an increasing recognition of the power of religious belief to inspire social action, the UN and its agencies have recently launched a number of initiatives that involve ever closer collaboration with world religious communities. Such initiatives include:

  • The Alliance of Civilizations. Established in 2005 at the initiative of Spain and Turkey, under the auspices of the UN, the Alliance aims to improve understanding and cooperative relations mostly among Western and Islamic nations and peoples and “to help counter the forces that fuel polarization and extremism.”

  • The Tripartite Forum on Interfaith Cooperation for Peace. Founded in 2006, the Tripartite Forum is an open-ended consultative group composed of representatives of UN member states, the United Nations system, and non-governmental organizations that aims to foster mutual respect, tolerance and friendship among peoples, cultures, and religions.

  • A new collaboration/partnership between the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC) to better involve world religions in addressing climate change and specifically to help religions develop concrete programs of action to slow global warming.

  • The “Culture Matters” review by the UN Population Fund (UNFPA). Published in 2004, this report offered a series of case studies from the Fund’s efforts to work with “communities and faith-based organizations.” It concluded, among other things, that partnerships with “religious and faith-based organizations” can help “reach some of the most vulnerable and marginalized communities” in development efforts.

In December, as well, the General Assembly adopted a resolution declaring 2010 the Year of Rapprochement of Cultures, and recommended that appropriate events be organized on interreligious and intercultural dialogue, including, among others, a high-level dialogue and/or informal interactive hearings with civil society.

“I believe there is a sea change taking place at the United Nations,” said Joan Kirby, the UN representative of the Temple of Understanding, in a recent speech in London. “Member states are recognizing that religious traditions hold the key to peace and security or alternatively, the misuse and misunderstanding of religion can incite violence and bring chaos to the world.”

The UN has always dealt with religions in their capacity as humanitarian-oriented non-governmental organizations. During World War II, religious groups gave input to discussions on the UN Charter. And, after the UN’s founding in 1945, many religions entered into consultative status with the UN as non-governmental organizations. The Bahá’í International Community, for example, has had observer status with the UN Department of Public Information since 1948.

And UN agencies have long collaborated with religious NGOs in the promotion of development and social welfare.

“It has always been an assumption that working with faith-based communities is essential for the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals,” said Jordi Llopart, program coordinator of the UN Millennium Campaign. “Faith-based communities have been working on the ground for many years. They know malnutrition. They know ill health. They have been working with the poorest of the poor. And in the global south, they are often trusted more than anyone else,” said Mr. Llopart.

But beyond the field of development, the UN has in the past hesitated to become too closely involved with “religious” issues.

“The UN is an intergovernmental mechanism, and governments are wary of directly cooperating with religions,” said Hilario G. Davide, the permanent representative of the Philippine Mission to the UN, which helped found the Tripartite Forum. “On the other side, religions do not believe that they are inferior or subordinate to governments or even to other religions because they function in a world distinct from the secular concerns of intergovernmental cooperation.”

What has changed, said Ambassador Davide and others, is the emergence of a new understanding that closer collaboration with religions is critical to a wide range of UN efforts, not only in development but also to the UN’s main mission of promoting peace and security.

“If we are to go over the statements of the more than 80 high-level personalities who attended the High-Level Dialogue on Interreligious and Intercultural Understanding and Cooperation for Peace [in October],” said Ambassador Davide, “we will note that several speakers alluded to the importance for the interaction between the UN system and the faith communities in the discharge of the three pillars of the UN goals, namely, the promotion of peace, development and human dignity.”

“One of the conclusions that could be drawn,” he added, “is that the partnership between and among governments, the UN system and religious NGOs or faith communities is no longer an option but a necessity.”

As noted above, new initiatives are emerging from a wide range of issue areas, involving many UN bodies and agencies. One new element is a focus on practical steps beyond mere talk.

For example, at the Alliance of Civilizations’ first major meeting, held in Madrid 15-16 January 2008, participants issued a list of “major outcomes” that announced a series of concrete actions. These include a $100 million Global Youth Employment Initiative and a multimillion dollar Media Fund, both defined as efforts to support the Alliance’s focus on the relationship between Western nations and predominantly Muslim populations and, specifically, efforts to reduce factors that contribute to extremism.

The UNDP’s new initiative with the ARC on climate change aims also at concrete action. Under the terms of that initiative, Bahá’í, Buddhist, Christian, Taoist, Hindu, Jain, Jewish, Muslim, Shinto, Sikh and Zoroastrian leaders will be invited to commit their communities to projects that address climate change and the protection of the natural environment in “practical ways” — from “forestry conservation to organic farming schemes to introducing, promoting and financing alternative energy sources,” according to the ARC.

The December 2007 General Assembly resolution likewise encourages governments to “identify areas for practical action in all sectors and levels of society for the promotion of interreligious and intercultural dialogue, tolerance, understanding and cooperation.”

The Tripartite Forum, which focuses on dialogue, can also lead to action, said Ambassador Davide. “Before a treaty is agreed by member states, it generally takes a number of years of discussions, negotiations and consultations before consensus is arrived at,” he said. “It is, therefore, not a waste of time for governments to deliberate on how to harness the partnership of religious communities in the achievement of UN goals no matter how long is the process of consultations.”

The discussion at the “informal, interactive” segment of the High-Level Dialogue in October reflected many of the new ideas needed to promote religious dialogue — as well as some of the thorny issues that lie ahead.

The segment brought together some 20 non-governmental speakers representing a variety of cultures and religious traditions, including representatives from the Bahá’í Faith, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, and Judaism.

Participants included Paul Knitter of the Union Theological Seminary, Gamal I. Serour of the International Islamic Center for Population Studies and Research at the Al Azhar Centre in Egypt, Sohan Lal Gandhi of the Anuvrat Global Organization in India, Fatima Ahmed of Zenab for Women in Development in Sudan, Steven Rockefeller of Earth Charter International in the United States, and Mitra Deliri of the Bahá’í International Community.

“The religions are part of the problem,” said Dr. Knitter. “They are a source of conflict and violence among nations and ethnic groups.” The solution, he suggested, lies in “a model of an egalitarian community of communities, in which the unique validity and value of each community, each religion, are affirmed and engaged, but no religion claims to be superior or dominant.”

General Assembly President Srgjan Kerim said while “cultures and religions are being pulled ever closer together by a web of telecommunications and economic links” these encounters also “reveal deep-rooted misunderstanding.

“However,” he continued, “we have the unrivaled opportunity to replace intolerance and discrimination with understanding and mutual acceptance. Open and sustained dialogue, respect for freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief is fundamental to this endeavor.”

Ms. Deliri focused on the situation in Tanzania, where she resides. There, she said, “large Christian and Muslim populations” have found a way to live together peacefully, “side-by-side,” often intermarrying and attending each other’s religious festivals.

“It is a living example of religious pluralism,” she said. “This coexistence did not come about by accident but rather as a result of the vision and deliberate action of Tanzanian leaders, dating back to the country’s first president...,” she said.

Ms. Deliri also pointed to religious freedom as a key to tolerance, saying that governments must work to create a climate where freedom of religion or belief is clearly upheld in law and in practice.

“Such a climate must be free from incitements to violence or hostility in the name of religion,” she said. “Where contentious opinions about religions are expressed, it is the responsibility of the state to provide for right of reply.”

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