By Kalinga Seneviratne
This article is the 50th in a series of joint productions of Lotus News Features and IDN-InDepthNews, the flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate. Click here for previous reports.
NUR-SULTAN, Kazakhstan (IDN/LCN) — There were over 250 religious leaders from across the world attending the 7th Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions on September 14-15, with over 90 per cent of them representing Islamic and Christian traditions.
Thus, the discussions about building multi-religious alliances were heavily focused on serving—the apostle of love and mercy—an idea that will not appeal to Buddhists and atheists who are growing around the world, especially in the West.
The main document of the Congress—Final Declaration—contained 35 recommendations with a clear focus on principles of religious pluralism and tolerance based on the equality of all people in the face of God.
“Peace is born of fraternity,” said Pope Francis in his concluding speech. “It grows through the struggle against injustice and inequality; it is built by holding out a hand to others. We, who believe in the Creator of all, must be on the front lines in promoting the growth of peaceful coexistence.”
The declaration, which will be distributed as an official document of the 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly, reflects religious leaders’ efforts toward promoting interreligious dialogue and fostering inter-civilization cooperation.
However not all religions believe in God, and the focus on the Judeo-Christian definition of religion could create divisions rather than narrowing it. The Pope is right in arguing that the struggle against injustice and inequality is built on holding out the hand to others, but, does this mean asking others to believe in a Creator (as defined by the church) as the path to salvation?
Unfortunately, the voice of Buddhists was muted at the Congress—almost non-existent. One Mongolian monk told IDN “because this is a Muslim area so situation with Muslims gets main attention (and) Buddhists are peaceful—no terrorism—so don’t get attention in this area”.
Speaker after speaker lamented extremism and terrorism in the name of religion. Most of it came from Muslim religious leaders.
“We see intolerance of other believers. Religious leaders have to confront these groups,” argued Dr Zahra Rashidbeygi, Director of the Department for Dialogue Between Islam and Christianity from Iran. “We need to explain the real meaning of religion (and) we have to offer good role models to youth.”
Nazir Muhammed Al-Nazir Ayyad, Secretary General of Al-Azhar Islamic Research Academy from Egypt, said that the pandemic has changed the world and it has affected the social, political and spiritual aspects of humanity.
“The pandemic has coincided with views that God had died, and religion has gone awry,” he noted. “People consider science and materialistic knowledge but ignore feelings and emotions.” He believes that religious leaders are facing the challenge of responding to the suffering of people from a spiritual level.
Arguing that God has created man to serve the world, he says religious leaders need to put a positive spin to this idea—even using modern technology like mobile phones—to give hope for the future.
Presenting a rare Buddhist perspective, Lama Khunkhur Byambajav (left in photo) of the Buddhist Center of Mongolia argued that we need to overcome the psychological consequences of this negative world and religious leaders need to promote spiritual development and harmony by developing personal peace within us.
Li Guangfu, Chairman of the Chinese Taoist Association also spoke about a mind-based solution to addressing problems of a wounded world due to the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. “Achieving harmony within self you get a balanced yin and yang,” he argued. “Civilization cannot be divided into good and bad. We need to develop mutual respect.”
Dr Jo Bailey Wells, Bishop of Dorking of the Anglican Church argued that a deep conviction in one’s faith should not close doors to other faiths. “We have to leave out the rhetoric. For Christians God is truth, but religion is a costly selfless service (to humanity),” she said pointing out that Kazakhstan has shown that religion and politics do mix as the Congress is about politics as much as religion.
Perhaps Pope Francis’s keynote address at the opening session of the Forum reflected —when he focused on social justice while also making references to the service of God—a major principle of Christian teachings. He pointed out that the pandemic brought to the surface the injustices of global inequalities and imbalances, and it is poverty thus created that spreads epidemics and other evils (such as terrorism and violence).
“As never before, we are witnessing massive displacements of peoples due to war, poverty, climate change and the pursuit of a prosperity that our globalized world advertises, yet is often difficult to attain,” noted Pope Francis.
“A great exodus is taking place, as people from the most poverty-stricken areas of our world struggle to reach those that are more prosperous. We see this every day, in different migration movements in our world. This is not just another item on the daily news; it is an historic event demanding concordant and farsighted solutions.”
“Let us rediscover the art of hospitality, of acceptance, of compassion. And let us learn also to be ashamed: yes, to experience that healthy shame born of compassion for those who suffer, sympathy and concern for their condition and for their fate, which we realize that we too share. This is the path of compassion, which makes us better human beings and better believers,” added the Pontiff.
Buddhists for example, would not have any problem accepting that viewpoint. Pope also added a word of warning to those who try to push their own beliefs at the cost of others. “Each person has the right to render public testimony to his or her own creed, proposing it without ever imposing it,” he advised. “This is the correct method of preaching, as opposed to proselytism and indoctrination, from which all are called to step back.”
While terrorism to spread religious beliefs was often condemned in presentations, especially by Muslim leaders, the issue of religious proselytism as a source of conflict around the world was missing from the discussions.
When IDN asked Bulat Sarsenbayev, chairman of the board of the Nazarbayev Center for the Development of Interfaith and Inter-Civilization Dialogue of Kazakhstan why this topic was avoided, when it is a big issue for Buddhist communities in particular in Asia, he agreed that this was an important issue and promised to include it in the agenda of the 8th Congress to take place in 2025.
In an interview with IDN, Buddhist monk Joju of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism Central Asia Branch, who has lived in neighbouring Uzbekistan for over a three decades said that Buddhists need to be less humble and speak out about these issues at such forums as this. “When other religions say our God, our God most not know what outsiders (like Buddhists) think,” he told IDN. He said that Buddhists need to do more networking. “Even Buddhists are not the same; Korean Buddhists don’t know what non-Korean Buddhists think.”
In the concluding session, the Grand Imam of Al-Azar mosque argued that the peaceful message of religions would not achieve its goals until religions unite their followers against hate and violence. “Religion needs to be driven towards its humanistic values, not towards conflicts.”
Though there was widespread agreement on this concept, yet, what the Congress did not address is whether these humanistic values need to be divorced from the idea of serving God? Or should it be left to the believers to interpret it whatever way they want?
If the question of proselytism is address as a major theme of such a Congress, there may be a possibility to reach a middle path on this issue. Buddhists from Asia would need to play a more prominent role in this process. [IDN-InDepthNews – 19 September 2022]
Photo: Multi-Religious panellists at the Congress. Credit: Kalinga Seneviratne | INPS-IDN