KYOTO — More than 2,000 religious leaders from 500 organizations representing over 100 nations gathered Saturday in Kyoto to discuss themes ranging from transformation of violence to advancing shared security in the face of a world threatened by sectarian conflict.
Religions represented at the 8th World Assembly of Religions for Peace, an organization based in New York, include Islam, Judaism, Shinto, Buddhism, Christianity and regional faiths.
Among the themes of the four-day conference are “Confronting Violence and Advancing Shared Security.”
After opening presentations that included children from Palestine, Israel, African nations and Asia taking the stage, a multicultural prayer for peace and a message from Pope Benedict XVI, the assemblage was addressed by several dignitaries, including the supreme abbot of the Tendai sect of Buddhism in Japan, the Venerable Eshin Watanabe, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and former Iranian President Muhammad Khatami.
Watanabe spoke of the tragedies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the genocide perpetrated in places such as Auschwitz during World War II.
“Before preaching the justice in God or the wisdom of Buddha, we, the religious people, must deeply reflect within ourselves and contemplate if we are worthy of the word ‘peace,’ ” Watanabe said.
Koizumi said that though Japan’s influence on the Middle East peace process is limited, he has proposed a “corridor for peace” that would raise the living standards of people in the region.
He noted that the initiative has already received the endorsement of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and King Abdullah of Jordan.
Prince El Hassan bin Talal of Jordan, the conference’s moderator and longtime spokesperson, began his speech by apologizing as a Muslim to all Buddhists for the destruction of Buddhist figures in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, by members of the Taliban government in 2001.
He went on to chastise those who would deny the faith of many who have no voice in the current religious debates.
“What is the most important role for so-called religious communities?” asked Hassan. “I say so-called religious communities because unlike the Vatican and the Holy See, I do not see an ecumenical shared responsibility of moral authority between Jews, Muslims and Christians in Jerusalem, yet.
“I do not see 365 days of consultation in Mecca, yet, on issues ranging from stem cell research to controlling, guiding and containing the voices that have privatized Islam and have de-regulated Islam. Religion is a belief, virtuous action. It is knowledge. It is not a profession.”
Dr. William Vendley, the secretary general of the conference, spoke on a similar theme. He called on religious leaders to respect their differences and to find common ground based on morality at national and global levels.
“Our religions, all of them, are always vulnerable to being hijacked,” Vendley said. “I am not speaking of any one religion at any one time, but of all religions across time. Today our religions are being hijacked by religious extremists, hijacked by unscrupulous politicians, hijacked by the sensationalist media.”
In the plenary sessions, speakers from several denominations gave examples of how their activities had helped lessen or resolve seemingly insurmountable conflicts in their home countries through interfaith coordination.
Archbishop John Baptist Odama poignantly recounted his success in bringing rebels to the negotiating table in the embattled northeast of his native Uganda.
“This conflict has displaced 1.8 million people,” Odama said. “After working with Christian and Muslim leaders and endangering our lives by going into the jungle to meet with (the rebels), we finally heard them say that they were willing to commit to peace.”
In an impassioned plea, Mustapha Ceric, an Islamic mufti from Sarajevo in Bosnia and Herzegovina, urged understanding between members of the Jewish and Islamic faiths to stop the bloodshed in the Holy Land and to regain trust between Muslims and the rest of the world.
“The biggest question of our time is the question of trust,” he said. “We, at the moment, don’t trust each other. Trust is based on truth and justice. Muslims today don’t trust the world as far as these issues are concerned. As a consequence, Muslims are not trusted. I will work as much as I can to return the trust of Muslims to the world.”