World Religion Summit Begins at UN

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters)–A summit of more than 1000 religious leaders from around the world kicked off Monday–with the participation of His Holiness Karekin I–Catholicos of All Armenia’s.

The summit is organized with the aim of highlighting the role of religion in promoting world peace–since the more than 100 conflicts around the world in the past decade have had religious overtones.

The “Millennium World Peace Summit” is organized by a coalition of non-governmental religious groups–with coordinating help from the United Nations. Half the conference will be held at Manhattan’s Waldorf-Astoria hotel.

A main goal of the gathering is to create an advisory council to the secretary-general and to build “an interfaith ally” to work within the UN system–said Bawa Jain–an Indian-born American serving as the general secretary of the event.

Jain threw down a challenge to the participants.

“Are you willing to show to the United Nations that you are able to combat the major challenges of the world? Are you willing to commit your resources or your own adherents of your faith and help support the secretary-general in his effort to achieve peace in all its dimensions?” he said.

The summit organizers are holding open dialogues at the United Nations covering subjects such as “The Role of Religion in Conflict Transformation,” and “Toward Forgiveness and Reconciliation.”

Closed-door sessions at the Waldorf will put religious leaders that have seen armed conflict between their constituents in the same room. They include leaders from the Balkans–the Middle East–Russia and Central Asia.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan told world religious leaders on Tuesday there was no room for religious bigotry in the 21st century and said they had not always spoken out forcefully against such intolerance.

“Religion has often been yoked to nationalism–stoking the flames of violent conflict and setting group against group,” Annan told the participants at a four-day religious conference gathered in the UN General Assembly chamber.

“Religious leaders have not always spoken out when their voices could have helped combat hatred and persecution–or could have roused people from indifference,” Annan added.

Even before it started–the conference was overshadowed by the conspicuous absence of the Dalai Lama–one of the world’s best-known spiritual leaders and 1989 Nobel Peace Prize winner.

China put pressure on the United Nations and organizers to exclude the Dalai Lama from the UN compound because it views him as a political leader.

The Dalai Lama then declined a belated invitation to the summit’s closing ceremony at the Waldorf.

China–which annexed Tibet in 1951 and has drawn wide recriminations for human rights abuses in the region–refuses to acknowledge the Dalai Lama–who fled into exile during a bloody 1959 uprising.

Commenting on the Dalai Lama’s absence–Bishop Gunnar Stalset–a Norwegian Lutheran and deputy leader of the Nobel Peace Prize committee who voted for the Dalai Lama in 1989–said–“It would have been a historic occasion for the Dalai Lama to have been here in his own right as a spiritual leader.”

The Dalai Lama–speaking from his home in India–said he did not “want to create any embarrassment.” But he told CNN in an interview he turned down a last-minute invitation–calling it “not smooth.”

Annan–who has said previously the United Nations had to abide by members’ wishes–told reporters on Monday–“It would have been preferable if everyone were here.”

The Chinese government has sent a delegation made up of people representing Buddhism–Christianity–Islam and Taoism.

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