- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 30, 2000

NEW YORK U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan yesterday warned hundreds of religious figures that they are "powerful agents of change" who must use their influence for good and not stand by when governments or authorities fail to protect their citizens.
Noting that "the practice of religion can have a dark side, too," Mr. Annan told those gathered for the Millennium World Peace Summit that "religion has often been yoked to nationalism, stoking the flames of violent conflict and setting group against group."
"Religious leaders," he added, "have not always spoken out when their voices could have helped combat hatred and persecution, or could have rousted people from indifference."
His remarks were met with polite applause from the nearly 700 religious leaders who have gathered at the United Nations for a four-day conference.
Mr. Annan urged the representatives of Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, Orthodox and indigenous faiths to "to set an example of interfaith dialogue and cooperation."
It was the second day of the interfaith summit, in which gloriously attired religious figures prayed, listened to religious messages and music, and discussed their roles in averting conflict and promoting reconciliation and healing.
Representatives of the Vatican, the World Muslim League, the Dalai Lama and the Rev. Billy Graham also spoke yesterday, but it was sports and media mogul Ted Turner who generated the most enthusiastic response.
Mr. Turner, whose Better World Fund underwrote much of the summit's expenses, commanded the podium of the General Assembly hall with an almost evangelical fervor, telling of his early desire to be a missionary and sharing a bit of his own personal gospel.
He had been born into a Christian family, said Mr. Turner, "but the thing that disturbed me is that my religious sect was very intolerant not of religious freedom for other people, but we thought we were the only ones going to heaven."
That idea "confused the devil out of me," he said. "There weren't that many of us."
Mr. Turner noted people of all faiths love nature and their families and put on coats when it gets cold. "So I said, maybe instead of all these different gods, maybe there is only one God who manifested himself and revealed himself in different ways to different people. Huh? What about that?"
Pope John Paul II sent a message to the participants saying the summit "provides an occasion to take stock of our present situation and plan for what needs to be done if religion is to be an ever-greater force for peace in the world."
"It is an exceptional opportunity to make it abundantly clear that the only religion worthy of the name is the religion that leads to peace and that true religion is mocked when it is tied to conflict and violence."
Although organizer Bawa Jain declared that the General Assembly hall "has become a sanctuary," politics were never far from the podium yesterday, whether it was Mr. Turner pleading for nuclear nonproliferation or the Buddhists' message of peace and reconciliation.
Mr. Graham's daughter, the Rev. Anne Graham Lotz, offered a taste of old-fashioned evangelical oration.
A delegation of Tibetan Buddhists addressed the gathering on behalf of their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, who was not invited to the summit because China has historically objected to anything that legitimizes Tibet's claim of sovereignty.
Meanwhile, Tibet's government-in-exile criticized summit organizers for bowing to Beijing's pressure.
"It is wrong not to invite His Holiness to such a major religion conference, which is particularly concerned with world peace," Tashi Wangdi, religion and culture minister for the Central Tibetan Administration, told reporters in Dharamsala in northern India.

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