Bailing Out Humankind From Its Social Insensitivity

A host of world leaders met at UN Headquarters in New York on 12 and 13 November 2008 for an inter-
religious and inter-cultural dialogue on a "Culture of Peace", at the initiative of King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia. Among the Heads of State and Government, including senior officials, from some 60 countries who spoke were UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, King Abdullah, President Shimon Peres of Israel, President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, Jean-Louis Cardinal Tauran, President of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue of the Holy See, Prime Minister Salam Fayyad of the Palestinian National Authority, President George W. Bush of the United States and President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan.

Miguel d'Escoto Brockmann, President of the sixty-third session of the UN General Assembly, at the opening of the meeting, said that the difficult times faced by the world today were a result of "insane and suicidal selfishness". The dialogue was not meant to discuss nuances of religion and theology, he said, but instead "to join forces, as people of faith and/or of deep ethical convictions, to tap into our vast reserves of moral strength and awaken from our indifference to the fate of others".

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that the paradoxes of globalization were not only bringing the world together, but also deeply dividing it by creating polarized societies, harnessing Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and negative cultural stereotypes and biases. The greatest challenge today was to ensure that the world's rich cultural diversity created a more secure and safer environment for the future of humanity. There was a need for a "dialogue that delivers", he said, adding that this implied involving as many institutions, civil society members, government officials, academics, thinkers and very importantly youth.

In his speech, King Abdullah said that terrorism and criminality had always been enemies of every religion and civilization. "The alienation and sense of being lost among the youth is mainly because of the dissolution of family bonds that God Almighty intended to be firm and strong." He hoped that the dialogue would help reinstate and reaffirm these important values and principles.

President Shimon Peres began his speech with questions that would have the same resonance across borders and cultures: "In our region, children bear the names of prophets who are sacred to us all. Why should Moses, Moshe and Musa, Avraham, Abrahim and Ibrahim grow up as adversaries, in animosity? As our prophet asked: Have we not all one father? Hath not one God created us? Why do we deal deceitfully every man against his brother, by profaning the covenant of our fathers?" Speaking directly to King Abdullah, President Peres said: "Your Majesty, the King of Saudi Arabia, I was listening to your message. I wish that your voice will become the prevailing voice of the whole region, of all people. It's right. It's needed." Referring to the Arab-Israeli conflict, President Peres said that Israel's goals were to end the Arab-Israeli conflict and enter into a peace agreement and provide security for all States in the region. He added that the dialogue would help in bringing greater understanding and a new vision for a better world.

President Hamid Karzai told participants that "all religions of the world reflect and nurture humankind's inner desire for peace and self-realization". He remarked that conflicts and confrontations in human history stemmed not from religion but from pursuit of the narrow political objectives of religious adherents or narrow political ideology. He concluded by reminding participants that there was a need to conquer "our basic instinct of fear and hatred".

Jean-Louis Cardinal Tauran said that the "United Nations must be a school for peace", where all Member States were equal. Quoting Pope Benedict XVI that peace was compromised by indifference, he said that as people gathered in their temples, churches and synagogues to pray, they experienced brotherhood and remembered that man did not live by bread alone.

Prime Minister Salam Fayyad noted that tolerance and coexistence among religions could only be promoted if dialogue aimed at achieving peace was deepened. He called on all Member States to uphold these core principles and create a culture of tolerance that maintained the right to religious belief and human dignity. "The people of Palestine, Muslims and Christians, aspire to peace and justice and are committed to the principles of peaceful coexistence", he said, pledging to continue to work for a lasting peace based on justice and respect for all rights so that, rather than being the victim, the Palestinian people could become a participant of history.

On the second day of the dialogue, President George W. Bush told participants that religious freedom was "the foundation of a healthy and hopeful society", and the best way to safeguard it was by aiding the expansion of democracy. He said that in a democracy, people were able to defend their religious beliefs and speak out against those who would try to twist those beliefs towards evil ends. He thanked the participants for recognizing the "transformative and uplifting power" of faith.

President Asif Ali Zardari rallied with those who would unite the creations of the one and only God. He condemned terrorist attacks and emphasized that Pakistan had also been a victim of such attacks. He expressed grief in the recent growing fear of Islam, and proposed an international agenda where "discrimination on the basis of faith would be discouraged, hate speeches inciting people would be unacceptable, and bigotry manifested in Islamophobia and anti-Semitism must be combated".

Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, Secretary-General of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), echoing the Assembly President, said that the dialogue was not an initiative to preach theological unity, but rather to exchange knowledge and raise awareness of the common attributes of all religions. Speaking on behalf of the sole intergovernmental organization of the Muslim world, he said OIC firmly believed that the diversity of cultures and religions was an acknowledged and essential part of the world.

The two-day dialogue ended with the adoption of a consensus resolution, reaffirming the solemn commitment of the United Nations to promote universal respect for all human rights and fundamental freedoms, in line with the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Assembly President Brockmann, in his concluding remarks, said that the meeting had sent a clear message, that self-destruction lay ahead unless the timeless values of brotherhood and sisterhood were restored. Though the current storm was "of our own making", the international community could combat it with heroic measures, collective resolve and shared responsibility, especially by urgently changing the conditions of millions of people who live in terrible poverty.