Vienna was the center of a lively multiethnic six-day meeting in November, which saw KAICIID partners and Religions for Peace in its 9th World Assembly, discuss educational cooperation and the importance of dialogue
Vienna, which was a hub of diversity and in Middle-European culture in the epoch preceding its’ obliteration through the black night of Naziism, seems now to have turned full circle.
An amazingly vital multi-religious, multiethnic gathering took place in this city recently. For six days a total of approximately 1200 leaders and representatives of all the world’s major religions from the five continents gathered at the Hilton Park Hotel for two separate but related meetings – 600 attending each.
The King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID) housed in Vienna, sponsored the first two days. Then, from Nov 20 – 22 Religions for Peace partnered with KAICIID for its 9th World Assembly. The themes were, respectively, “The Image of the Other: Interreligious and Intercultural Education” (KAICIID) and “Welcoming the Other: a Multi-Religious Vision of Peace” – (Religions for Peace).
Certainly forums such as these could not take place today in Saudi Arabia, one of the three founding member countries of KAICIID along with Austria and Spain, but King Abdullah seems intent to begin reforms abroad with the hopes he may eventually make inroads in his own country. This, at least, seems to be the predominant interpretation by many of the outstanding religious leaders of all faiths participating in both the KAICIID and RfP assemblies.
The two organizations are completely independent, but cooperate on vital projects promoting education for dialogue, respect and tolerance.
Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, representing the Holy See as a founding Observer of KAICIID, addressed the Assembly at its inaugural session. He stressed that it is necessary “to be careful not to present the religion of the other in a bad light in schools, universities, the mass media and, in particular, in religious discourse….and to consider diversity…as a richness, not as a threat.”This theme was echoed in all presentations.
The Secretary General of KAICIID, Faisal Bin Muaammar, announced concrete educational cooperation agreements, based on “improving understanding and building better relationships that will lessen the temptations of extremism.” International partners will include the African Union, the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (ISESCO), the World Scouts Foundation, and UNESCO. Key interreligious and intercultural issues will be tackled this coming year by a newly formed “Global Policy Network” of experts from Ministries of Education, Religious Affairs and Integration around the world.
Rabbi David Rosen, AJC’s International Director for Inter-Religious Dialogue (American Jewish Committee) – a founding member of KAICIID’s Board along with religious leaders of Islam, Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism — is also an international President of Religions for Peace.
At the RfP opening assembly, Rabbi Rosen illustrated the essence of “welcoming the other” by referring to the Torah’s story of Abraham, who ran out of his tent in the desert to welcome three strangers. He did not know they were actually angels, “but he saw the angel in every human being” said Rabbi David Rosen. In response to a comment from a Senegalese delegate who lamented the lack of respect with which Africans are often treated in Europe, Rabbi Rosen replied, “We must also see the Divine in ourselves and not permit ourselves to be humiliated.
Delegates to the 9th global assembly of “Religions for Peace” came from a network of 90 national inter-religious Councils and groups, five regional Councils, one world Council and global networks of religious women and youth of the Baha’i, Buddhist, Christian (all branches), Hindu, Indigenous, Jain, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Shinto, Taoist and Zoroastrian faiths. The Italian RfP delegation composed of Chapter leaders and fraternal observers from the S.Egidio and Focolare movements, totaled about a dozen.
Contrary to many other groups engaged in inter-religious dialogue, no one religion dominates RfP. Founded in the 1960s by an international nucleus of multi-religious leaders, it continues to operate as a totally interfaith organization.
Fr. Miguel Ayuso, Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue participated in the RfP assembly as the Holy See’s observer delegate. Another Vatican expert present was Archbishop Felix Machado, who formerly served as Undersecretary of the Pontifical Council and is now Chairperson of the Federation of the Asian Bishops Conferences (FABC) as well as being Archbishop of the Diocese of Vasai in India.
Archbishop Machado shared his feelings of deep commitment to interreligious dialogue and therefore also to “Religions for Peace”, which has “distinguished itself for dialogue on all levels including grass roots. From the beginning” he said, “we found solid ground without syncretism.” He expressed appreciation for RfP’s final declaration, which calls attention to the need for all religions and groups to eliminate all forms of intolerance and discrimination by states, by non-state actors, by civil society, by religious groups and leaders, and by individuals, working together with urgency “through multi-religious action…to overcome the new threat to peace – rising hostility toward the ‘other’.
Dialogue is essential” said H.E. msgr. Machado. “Hatred begins through non-communication, when we merely see each other but never talk, never communicate. Dialogue does not bear immediate fruits but religious leaders can slowly, steadily, make dialogue acceptable in their communities.”
He recalls introducing the prayers of Rabbi Abraham Heschel to Indian Catholics, and the works of Ben Israel, a Jewish poet from Bombay who wrote in the Marathi language spoken in the Mumbai area by 60 million people.
Dr. Gunnar Stalsett, who is Bishop Emeritus of Oslo – Church of Norway, an International President of Religions for Peace, Moderator of the European Council of Religious Leaders and a member of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee gave a vibrant speech on conflict prevention and transformation, with particular emphasis on the situation in Europe.
He spoke in particular about the dangers of a return to fascist extremism. In response to the “unspeakable atrocities” of a Norwegian terrorist who committed a massacre at a youth gathering “under the pretext of saving Europe from the onslaught of Islam”, he said, “Our response must be to honor the positive contribution of Islam to European history. Let there be no doubt after this assembly; Islam belongs to the past, present and the future of Europe.”
Bishop Stalsett also recalled the recent Jewish-Christian-Muslim commemoration of the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht in Vienna when “more than 1400 Synagogues were destroyed in Germany and Austria in the first major demonstration of Hitler’s plan to annihilate European Jewry.”
“Let there be no doubt”, he repeated, “from this platform, in the name of Religions for Peace; we unequivocally condemn every old and new form of anti-Semitism….As servants of world religions, we are here to call on European citizens, their leaders and institutions to multiply their attempts to curb an increasing number of neo Nazi groups and extremist political parties.”
A message from Pope Francis to Religions for Peace was read out in which he called for multi-religious cooperation to end indifference to violence in the world.
Human rights, including freedom of religion, and freedom for the individual to believe or not to believe, were stressed throughout the meetings.
After the reading of the final “Vienna Declaration”, Dr. William F. Vendley, Secretary General of RfP said, “All faith traditions make clear that it is a religious imperative to welcome the other. This commitment can guide multi-religious action for peace, the antidote to the rising tide of hostility.”
The closing session included a few significant and varied happenings.
Religious leaders from both North and South Korea took the stage together and joined hands, bowed, and asked the assembled RfP family to pray and work for peace on the Korean peninsula. Archbishop Hyginus Kim Hee-joong, President of the Korean Conference on RfP said, “Although Korea is divided by north and south, in our religious communities we are not divided. We are performing reunification.”
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I arrived just before the end to greet the assembly. He said, “the theme…welcoming the other, could not be more appropriate and timely than now. …We are going to knock on all doors – looking for peace, looking for co-existence, looking for love.”
H.E. Sheikh Shaban Mubajje, Grand Mufti of the Uganda Muslim Supreme Council and co-Moderator of the African Council of Religious Leaders – RfP said, “We need to have a common platform to work on the common problems of all people.”
Dharma Master Most Venerable Sitagu Sayadaw, from Myanmar stated, “By finding bridges of culture and religion, we can reduce conflict.”