Friday, December 11, 2009

Working for inter-religious cooperation: observations from a coalition meeting,

[update appended 4 Jan 2010]

On Tuesday 1st December I joined the second meeting of a coalition working on an initiative UN Decade of Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue, Understanding and Cooperation for Peace held at the Holy Cross Retreat Centre in Templestowe, Melbourne.

Holy Cross retreat centre, Templestowe

I was there as a representative of the International Interfaith Centre. The IIC is not yet a member of the network, so I was invited along just as an observer.

The rationale for the decade (in simplistic terms) is the growing acceptance that religion has a significant impact on the major global issues today, particularly relating to the eradication of poverty and the environment. Whilst Europe may assert a secular view of life, the majority of the rest of the world gives a far higher priority to religion. The upshot of this is that the United Nations has hitherto tended to incorporate aspects of religion only under socio-economic umbrellas, regarding it, for instances, as a subset of culture, and as a result it seems that religious organisations generally have been kept at the periphery of its activities.

Yet many of these organisations are already very active in contributing to UN goals, so it seems sensible to support and add value what is already being done with the official approval of the UN, which can provide structures to help link the various organisations under its wide umbrella and guide the foci.

This is, as I understand it, the motivation for the coalition, and the meeting at the beginning of the month was to work through its goal, objectives, etc. so as to provide a convincing case of the need for such a decade. About 35-40 participants discussed the framework at length over a couple of days, with some absorbing sessions held in a delightful meeting room with large windows overlooking the grounds of the centre (the environment was very conducive).

Coalition meeting; Discussing strategies for the UN Decade

The process seems well considered; the steering groups comprises some very experienced members, several of whom have worked for many years at the UN (and shared some glimpses into its internal workings, particular the characteristics of various committees). The steering group is very conscious of the need for broad representation and I felt it serves the interests of its member coalition very well - certainly everyone at the meeting expressed much appreciation for the work being put in, which (like most interfaith-related initiatives) has involved considerable personal commitment, much of it offered on a voluntary basis, with resources largely offered as gifts in kind.

Even as an observer, such gatherings prompt anyone who attends to reflect on what their organisation has to contribute. The more I thought about it, the more I felt the IIC was eminently suited to this kind of initiative. It has a history of cooperation, operating from the local, where for instance it has produced a Directory of Oxford Faith groups (I recall giving my personal copy to a very enthusiastic member of Oxford City Council), through interfaith education, including online studies (formerly with lectures) in coordination with Oxford University academics, through to the co-ordination of the International Interfaith Organisations network

Plenty of opportunity for input across a broad set of issues, though there were evidently some differences of opinion which I think will need addressing further, though they mainly concern what I'd regard as the finer detail. A particular issue is how to treat 'faith' vis-a-vis 'religion,' which is an old cookie! There is a term frequently used in the literature of 'Faith-based organisations,' but its definition is apparently of some concern and some would insist that the definitions come from the religious communities themselves, not sociologists. How important is to to resolve the linguistic semantics? Some would wish to be meticulous about the terms in the title, whilst others are less so and are content to assume that the descriptions will make clear the full scope and import. At some stage the steering committee will probably need to settle on some policy to be applied consistently.

I'd also like to see more visible input from academic institutions. Academic voices can be quite vocal and influential in high level political deliberations, so this experience should be tapped into.

At the end of the day, it is the member states who wlll have to make the decision on whether or not to proceed. The general strategy was expressed of putting it to these states how such a decade would help them to achieve their goals; as such religious communities return to a core responsibility of being of service. And seeing the very positive engagement among the various representatives at this meeting, was to me a good sign that such service would indeed be rendered.

Group photo from Second Coalition meeting

Interfaith cooperation is already making important contributions; a UN Decade would amplify such contributions and so I hope it happens.

Update: UN Resolution

With some help from Stein Villumstad, I've since managed to navigate my way through the documentation of UN Resolutions for the 64th Session. The decade is mentioned in Press release GA/10900 concerning Resolution no. A/RES/64/81 discussing Draft A/64/L.15/Rev.1 + Add.1 (7 December 2009), where it says:

"Also adopted today were resolutions on the 2001-2010: ... the International Decade on a Culture of Peace and Non-violence for the Children of the World, 2001-2010; and a related text on the promotion of interreligious and intercultural dialogue, understanding and cooperation for peace. ... By a draft text on the Promotion of interreligious and intercultural dialogue, understanding and cooperation for peace (A/64/L.15/Rev.1), ... the Secretary-General would ... at its sixty-sixth session, to solicit States views on the possibility of proclaiming a United Nations decade for interreligious and intercultural dialogue and cooperation for peace."

No doubt updates will be made available on the initiative's Web site.

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