- The Washington Times - Monday, August 28, 2000

Hundreds of world religious leaders today will enter the United Nations General Assembly hall in a procession of prayer, for the first time taking a spiritual agenda to the heart of the political body.
The Millennium World Peace Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders, assembling more than 1,000 participants from 12 world faiths, will work on proposals to end armed conflict, poverty and harm to nature.
"A number of conflicts in the world are based on religious differences," said Bawa Jain, secretary-general of the event, which ends Thursday.
He said religious harmony is a first step for world faiths to help political bodies with conflict resolution, as an "early warning system," and for global education.
"We've tried to steer away from the political," said Mr. Jain.
With political topics off-limits, attendance has been possible for such religious leaders as Rabbi Meir Lau, chief rabbi of Israel, and Muslim World League leader Abdullah Salaih Al-Obaid.
"Many participants have never engaged in meetings like this," said Mr. Jain, who noted that Hindu swamis, Peruvian shamans and Buddhist sages are all participating.
The only hitch so far has been the exclusion, in deference to China, of the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan Buddhist leader.
After protests, he was invited to give a closing talk Thursday at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, but he would not accept an invitation "made out of compulsion."
"This is an issue the organizers of the meeting have known all along," U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said, noting the "sensitivities" of member states.
"You try to make progress, take progress, as you get it," said Mr. Annan, who addresses the religious leaders tomorrow.
The unprecedented meeting, which unfolds inside the United Nations today and tomorrow before moving to the hotel, was born of "conversations" between Mr. Annan and media leader Ted Turner a year ago.
It has been organized as a non-governmental organization, or NGO, with an advisory board of international religious leaders and funding by Mr. Turner's Better World Fund and other well-known foundations. Mr. Turner is honorary chairman.
"What I hope the U.N. will find is the appropriate way for its peace work to relate to our religious communities," said the Rev. Leonid Kishkovsky, an Orthodox leader with the World Conference on Religion and Peace. "Religion is part of the solution, but could not carry the whole burden."
The summit has the blessings of the Vatican, which is sending Cardinal Francis Arinze, head of inter-religious work. The head of the World Council of Churches, the Rev. Conrad Raiser, also will be present.
The event has been criticized by some evangelicals, and some interfaith activists are wary of a proposed International Advisory Council of Religious and Spiritual Leaders under the United Nations.
"It would weaken the witness of these religious leaders because they would be … bogged down in the political culture of the U.N.," Brother Wayne Teasdale of the Parliament of World Religions told Religion News Service.
The conservative Family Research Council said the summit would not defend "religious freedom around the world and will more likely offend the values of the pro-life and pro-family faithful."
Still, top evangelical Anne Graham Lotz, a Southern Baptist and daughter of the Rev. Billy Graham, will go to deliver his message.
And so will the Rev. Richard Cizik, a Presbyterian who heads the Washington office of the National Association of Evangelicals.
"We felt it better to have someone there and see it from the inside," he said. "Our stand on religious liberty will not change. We want to bring a voice on the reconciling nature of the Gospel."
More than 60 U.S. spiritual figures will attend, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Coretta Scott King, and the Greek and Armenian Orthodox archbishops.
Like many faiths, the Bahais have a human rights grievance about Iran but will not use the summit to protest.
Bahai Secretary-General Albert Lincoln will speak on the "moral vacuum" that threatens the world's children and cite Bahai founder Baha Allah on "the reformation of this age" and religion's aid to "unity and concord."
The summit opens today with an afternoon procession into the U.N. building led by a Buddhist peace activist. Prayers will fill the hall today and speeches tomorrow.
The last two days divide participants into sections on religious amity, conflict resolution, poverty and the environment. They will look at cases around the world and report their conclusions.
They plan to issue a Declaration for World Peace and, Mr. Jain said, announce formation of the council. "I hope on the closing plenary to announce that," he said.

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