- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 29, 2000

NEW YORK About 1,000 religious leaders converged on the United Nations yesterday at the start of a summit devoted to using faith as a tool to foster world peace.
But the historic gathering was overshadowed by the absence of the Dalai Lama, the 1998 Nobel peace laureate, whose invitation was opposed by the Chinese government.
Participants in yesterday's opening ceremonies included muftis, swamis, rabbis, clerics, prophets, reverends, monsignors, patriarchs, sheiks and chieftains, all turned out in the vestments of their respective faiths.
Several expressed dismay at the treatment of the Dalai Lama, but all said it was time to focus on what could be accomplished at such an unprecedented gathering of religious leaders.
The exclusion of one of the world's most recognized and respected religious leaders has undercut organizers' aspirations to use religion to blunt politically fueled conflicts.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has been distancing himself from the Dalai Lama dispute, saying that summit organizers had to expect such "sensitivities" from member states.
And Bawa Jain, the secretary-general of the World Peace Summit, opened by calling for a moment of silence in honor of "great religious leaders, past and present, who are not with us in body but in spirit."
The Dalai Lama declined an invitation by summit organizers to attend the final two days of the conference, which will be held outside the United Nations. Officials say he has instead sent a delegation of eight Buddhist monks who will be permitted to address the international gathering.
The religious gathering comes just one week before more than 150 world leaders meet in New York for a millennium summit of their own.
The meeting that began yesterday was organized by an independent umbrella group whose membership comprises dozens of faiths. But the decision to meet at the United Nations has lent the gathering a political cast that threatens to overshadow other themes.
China's human rights record has been sullied in recent years by the government's imprisonment of unapproved Christian groups and persecution of the Falun Gong and other sects.
Beijing invaded Tibet in 1959 and has vigorously quashed criticism of its treatment of the mountainous kingdom. The government did send an official delegation with representatives of Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and Taoism.
Summit organizers tried to steer the debate back on track yesterday afternoon.
"The goal of this summit is to send a strong message of commitment to those heads of state who will gather to work together for a resolution of conflict, for peaceful coexistence, for the healing of past injuries, for the formation of a new culture of acceptance and respect for all life," said Mr. Jain in his opening remarks.
Representatives of scores of faiths were evident yesterday, bringing more color and energy to the General Assembly chambers than has been seen in recent memory.
As muscled musicians beat out a welcoming rhythm on enormous taiko drums, American Indians wearing full feathered headdresses squeezed into their seats near women with flowing gauzy robes.
A young black woman belted out the gospel hymn "Amazing Grace" to an audience filled with Shinto priests in traditional top-knotted wigs and monks reflecting the TV lights in their shaved heads.
Vivid silk saris and saffron-dipped cotton contrasted with the black of Islamic and Eastern Orthodox robes and the crimson-sashed vestments of Catholic representatives. The skullcaps were small and black. The turbans were white and tall. And most of the beards were very long.
Over the next three days the religious leaders will discuss protection of the environment, forgiveness and reconciliation, and the effect of poverty and violence on humankind.
They expect to produce a global appeal for peace at the end of the summit, and create an interfaith panel to formally advise the secretary-general on religious matters.
"The secretary-general welcomes their closer involvement in the work of the United Nations," said his spokesman, Fred Eckhard. However, U.N. officials said that the panel will not likely be permitted to advise the organization in any formal manner.
Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Orthodox, indigenous, Taoist and scores of other religious leaders are taking part in the summit.
In addition to Mr. Jain, an Indian who has taken the name of his faith, the religious summit was organized by an advisory board including longtime U.N. adviser Maurice Strong, public relations executive David Finn and the Very Rev. James Morton Parks.
Summit Web sites say much of the funding for the four-day event is provided by the Better World Fund, a lobbying group created by communications mogul Ted Turner.
Mr. Turner, who has been criticized for publicly telling jokes about the pope and lambasting the Catholic Church, is the summit's honorary chairman and will be addressing the gathering today.

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