Religious Tolerance

Worldwide, the Baha'i community issues an appeal for religious tolerance

In a letter to "the world's religious leaders," the Universal House of Justice warns of the danger posed by "the rising fires of religious prejudice" and calls for decisive action against fanaticism and intolerance

NEW YORK - Expressing concern over the worldwide rise of religious prejudice, the international governing council of the Baha'i Faith has issued an appeal to the world's religious leaders, calling for decisive action to eradicate religious intolerance and fanaticism.

Issued in April and delivered to religious leaders around the world in May and June via the global network of national Baha'i communities, the message warns that "[w]ith every day that passes, danger grows that the rising fires of religious prejudice will ignite a worldwide conflagration the consequences of which are unthinkable."

"Tragically, organized religion, whose very reason for being entails service to the cause of brotherhood and peace, behaves all too frequently as one of the most formidable obstacles in the path; to cite a particular painful fact, it has long lent its credibility to fanaticism," wrote the Universal House of Justice.

By the end of June, the six-page letter had been delivered to at least 1,600 leaders in more than 40 countries. And the response has, so far, been overwhelmingly appreciative, with religious leaders, academics who study religion, and specialists in related fields saying that the letter is a much needed and timely intervention on an issue of global concern.

"This is the message. This is the moment," said Professor Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of Great Britain and the Commonwealth. "We are facing the greatest challenge that God has ever given us and this is the message we need."

Many leaders - whether Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Islamic or other - expressed hope that the message will spur religious leaders and their followers to action.

"I would hope that this letter will have consequences, that there will be people reacting to it," said Dr. Ulrich Dehn of the Protestant Center for Religious and Ideological Issues in Germany. Dr. Dehn added that he agreed generally with the letter's premise that religious leaders need to "clarify their position" on religious tolerance.

In some regions, the appeal received significant publicity in the news media. In India, for example, The Times of India and The Hindu, as well as several other newspapers, have featured articles on the message. One newspaper in New Delhi, The Pioneer, reprinted excerpts of the letter in two installments.

The letter begins its appeal for tolerance by pointing to the general rise over the last century of the consciousness of the oneness of humanity. It notes specifically that prejudices based on gender, race, or nationality, while persisting in many quarters, have nevertheless been widely recognized as unacceptable by people everywhere.

However, the letter continues, religious prejudice not only persists but has become a "formidable obstacle" in the "cause of brotherhood and peace."

"The crisis calls on religious leadership for a break with the past as decisive as those that opened the way for society to address equally corrosive prejudices of race, gender and nation," states the letter. [See page 2 for excerpts.]

The letter suggests that increased interfaith dialogue can be an important step in fighting religious prejudice, noting that the Baha'i community has been a "vigorous promoter" of such dialogue. But the letter also warns that if interfaith dialogue is to be effective, it must become far more vigorous and searching.

"Baha'is see in the struggle of diverse religions to draw closer together a response to the Divine Will for a human race that is entering on its collective maturity," the letter states. "[I]nterfaith discourse, if it is to contribute meaningfully to healing the ills that afflict a desperate humanity, must now address honestly and without further evasion the implications of the over-arching truth that called the movement into being: that God is one and that, beyond all diversity of cultural expression and human interpretation, religion is likewise one."

In the letter, the Universal House of Justice offers the assistance of the worldwide Baha'i community in the creation of new efforts to foster such dialogue.

"Taken as a whole, the letter and its distribution amount to a global initiative by the worldwide Baha'i community to assist humanity to overcome what has, at this stage in history, emerged as a major obstacle to peace, security, and prosperity in the world," said Albert Lincoln, Secretary General of the Baha'i International Community.

"In particular, the rise of religious fanaticism, as exemplified by terrorist attacks, attacks on houses of worship and the desecration of cemeteries, and civil wars spurred by religious differences, is becoming perhaps the dominant source of conflict in the world," said Dr. Lincoln, who represented the Community at the Millennium World Peace Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders, held August 2000 at the United Nations. "So, as the Universal House of Justice itself explains in its letter, it felt obligated to 'speak frankly' to the leaders of other organized religions about the need to take action."

So far, the letter has been translated into 16 languages, including Afrikaans, Arabic, French, Hindi, Persian, Portuguese and Zulu. A great many more translations are in the works and the distribution of the letter will be an on-going project.

For the most part, Baha'i National Spiritual Assemblies around the world have focused first on distributing the letter to national level religious leaders, along with academics and journalists who specialize in religion. Local Baha'i communities have also begun to join the effort by presenting the letter to the leaders of other religions at the local level.

In Brazil, for example, the National Spiritual Assembly prepared a list of some 44 names of national religious leaders, theologians, and religious academics, and then sent the letter out by mail or personal delivery. As a second step, some 330 copies of the letter were sent to 66 local Spiritual Assemblies in Brazil, for distribution to local religious leaders.

"In Brazilian society, religious divisions are a problem," said Roberto Eghrari, secretary of external affairs for the Brazilian National Spiritual Assembly. "There are tensions between evangelical groups and other Christian denominations, and between Christians and Afro-based religious groups. So we believe the distribution of this message is very timely, that it has the potential to bring new understandings."

Mr. Eghrari said religious leaders have acted with much appreciation. Several groups had indicated a desire for some kind of collaboration or follow-up on the message with the 55,000-member Brazilian Baha'i community. "It is not just a matter of people reading the message. They want to put it into action."

Reports from national Baha'i communities indicate that Baha'i delegations bearing the letter were treated with a high level of courtesy and dignity, which was seen as a reflection of the seriousness of the issue.

"We felt an extraordinary courtesy from them all, a response not so much to us in particular, but to the occasion itself and the inherent weight of the message," said Amy Marks, who was involved with the efforts of the local Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of Capetown, South Africa, to present the letter to more than a dozen religious leaders there.

Dr. Marks, who served as co-chair of the Parliament of the World's Religions, South Africa, which was the local host of the 1999 Parliament of the World's Religions, said she believes the letter's warm reception has come partly because of the rising tide of interfaith activity in recent years.

"In our region, at least, I believe that the interreligious work that has gone before, particularly the goodwill generated by the Parliament of the World's Religions here, has laid a foundation for people to respond in a very sincere and reverent way," said Dr. Marks. "I anticipate that this letter will help to open new doors for dialogue among the religions."

A number of religious leaders indicated that they will distribute the letter among other leaders in their own organizations. In one African country, the national Muslim council requested additional copies for distribution to all mosques in the capital. An academic dean at a Catholic-run Latin American university expressed interest in working with the Baha'i community there to develop a program for professors and students at the university.

In the United Kingdom, George Carey, the Archbishop of Canterbury and head of the Anglican Church, wrote: "I very much share your view that we all need to address the question of how our different faiths can become forces for peace and justice. Much honest discussion between the communities will be required as we pursue this goal, and it is good to learn, from the message which you delivered, of the ways in which the Baha'i community is seeking to engage with these matters."

In Tanzania, the Baha'i community received positive responses from many of the 30 some leaders who have officially received the letter, said Shabani Seffu, secretary of the National Spiritual Assembly there.

For example, Biharilal Keshavji Tanna of the Hindu Council of Tanzania wrote: "I have read the document with great interest and feel that it contains a supremely important message not only to the leaders of the faith groups, but to all thinking individuals, who must shoulder the duty and responsibility of breaking down barriers amongst the various groups of the family of mankind."

Some recipients, while expressing a general sympathy for the goal of tolerance, nevertheless voiced clear reservations about the idea that all religions are one.

"You will be pleased to know that the Catholic Church acknowledges that the Spirit of God is at work in the whole of creation leading all people to a wonderful destiny," wrote Bishop Peter J. Cullinane, president of the New Zealand Catholic Bishops' Conference. "But this does not mean that all religious beliefs and practices are the same.

"Our commitment to 'investigate reality', to 'live the truth', and to 'respect others', does not allow us to be indifferent as to whether people are led towards the whole of what God has revealed or are left to live with only some of it," continued Bishop Cullinane. "Christians believe God has revealed his wonderful purposes more fully and more explicitly in the person, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ."

Others, however, welcomed the call to examine the oneness of all religions. "I've always been impressed by the idea that all the religions are essentially one," said Prof. Johann Figl, head of the Institute for Religious Science of the Catholic Theological Faculty of the University of Vienna. "Today I think that the members of all religions are part of mankind, which is a unity. On the other side the religious and cultural differences are a valuable addition.

"These two dimensions, difference and unity, are to be reconsidered in every age, so that liberty and individuality are preserved and - at the same time - this common ground is an enduring basis," said Prof. Figl.

[The full text of the letter can be found at: http://www.bahai.org/article-1-1-0-1.html]

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