Insight on the News - World
Issue: 10/2/00

Original Article found at:

RELIGION - U.N. Faithful Eye Global Religion
By James Harder

Bawa Jain, secretary-general of the Millennium Peace Summit, says he thinks all religions and spiritualists, as well as assorted witch doctors, sha-mans and medicine men, draw their wisdom from the same source. But he applauds efforts to outlaw proselytizing since it matters little whether one worships a downed World War II airplane with a cargo cult, is a snake-handling Baptist or a Roman Catholic. That view has been met with strict opposition from the Vatican and mainline Protestants, who oppose the notion that all religions are equal.

As host of the U.N.'s Millennium Peace Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders, Jain told an international meeting of 1,000 delegates that religions need to accept the validity of all beliefs to attain world peace. The summit, the first of its kind to be sponsored by the United Nations, was held in New York City Aug. 28-31 just before political leaders gathered for the U.N. Millennium Assembly. The timing was perfect, says Jain, as it allowed religious leaders to update their political counterparts on how to usher in the peace of the new world order through religious universalism.

According to Francis Cardinal Arinze, president for interreligious dialogue at the Vatican and a speaker at the summit, the Catholic Church also would favor one religion in the world - if it were Roman Catholicism. Assorted grand muftis and other true believers hold the same view, again so long as it is their faith that is universally recognized. That each is out to convert the world is to be expected, so the proposed ban on proselytizing is surprising.

Less than a week after the summit the Vatican released a 36-page declaration rejecting what it said are growing attempts to depict all religions as equally true. A spokesman for the National Association of Evangelicals says they were astonished that a U.N.-endorsed summit would take a stand against proselytizing when the U.N. charter proposes to guarantee the human right to choose one's own religion.

The goal of world peace has been sought by religious leaders, philanthropists and philosophers alike throughout the centuries. However, for a decade there has been a resurgence among postmodern scholars and liberal theologians to try to achieve that goal through religious partnerships, even unification. The peace summit is their latest attempt to gain legitimacy at an international level with hopes of securing U.N. funding and endorsement.

With the financial backing of such heavyweights as media mogul Ted Turner and Canadian billionaire Maurice Strong, this interfaith movement has had no shortage of cash. Turner, the honorary chairman of the peace summit, addressed the 1,000 delegates on the second morning of the convention after being praised by Strong as the man who has done more for peace, the environment and the United Nations than any other.

According to Austin Ruse, president of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, or C-FAM, and one of those in attendance at the summit, Turner took the opportunity to denounce his own childhood faith. The vice chairman of Time Warner said he turned away from Christianity when he discovered "it was intolerant because it taught we were the only ones going to heaven." The crowd responded with laughter and approving whoops, says Ruse.

The question of tolerance is a central issue for those aligned with the peace summit and its objectives. Summit organizers say religious and spiritual groups need to realize what they believe is part of a greater wisdom and not unique to them.

"What we need to engage in is an education factor of the different religious traditions and the different theologies and philosophies and practices. That would give us a better understanding, and then I think [we have to deal with] the claims of absolute truth - we will recognize there is not just one claim of absolute truth, but there is truth in every tradition. That is happening more and more when you have gatherings such as these," Jain tells Insight.

Summit organizers hoped to have religious leaders sign a Declaration for World Peace, a goal that was realized, says Jain. But their second objective was not. The original intention was to create "an International Advisory Council of Religious and Spiritual Leaders that is designed to serve as an ongoing interfaith ally to the U.N. in its quest for peace, global understanding and international cooperation," according to summit documents. The summit failed to appoint such a council when delegates were unable to agree on who should represent their individual faiths.

Instead, Jain tells Insight, he has been mandated to structure a steering committee for the new group with the help of what he calls "strategic partners." He says these will be "some members of our international advisory board and some of the key people who have been helping me in the process." During the next 90 days Jain also will start tapping religious leaders the world over, putting together his cadre.

A soft-spoken Indian, Jain worked for two years with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and his office to arrange the peace summit. He is one of the founders of the World Movement for Nonviolence, vice chairman of the Council for the Parliament of the World's Religions, vice president of the Interfaith Center of New York and a leader of the United Religions Initiative, or URI.

Upon whom is Jain likely to call to give direction to the United Nations and help steer the course to unified religion in the interest of world peace? A front-runner is said to be Episcopal Bishop William Swing, a prominent figure in the interfaith movement, coming off a summer in which he realized a seven-year dream: This summer Swing gathered 300 people representing 39 religions for a charter signing in Pittsburgh, officially launching the URI. This group is an anticipated melting pot of religious belief, for which a 1998 draft charter declared that all religions draw their wisdom from one ultimate source. In 1995 Swing said the world is moving toward "unity in terms of global economy, global media and global ecological system. What is missing is a global soul."

So who will fund this quest for a global soul? Men such as Turner and Strong seem willing to lay a few extra dollars down for such movements and lend their support at the podium of conferences and conventions. Neither is a stranger to the interfaith scene -particularly Strong, who has plenty of influence with the leading global organizations. Chairman of the Earth Council and senior adviser to both the secretary-general of the United Nations and to the president of the World Bank, Strong is an international figure of such prominence that New Yorker magazine recently sighed that, "The survival of civilization in something like its present form might depend significantly on the efforts of a single man," referring to Strong. He always is on the short list of candidates for U.N. secretary-general.

Turner's wealth is better known than Strong's, and the billionaire media mogul has gone even further to promote the United Nations. In 1997 he donated $1 billion in support for U.N. causes, the most recent being the Millennium Peace Summit at which he expressed his disdain for Christianity. He remains chairman of the United Nations Foundation and the Better World Fund, the organizations that manage his grant.

So what is the objective here? Is it religious tolerance, unification or subversion of religious faith? Jain tells Insight that he looks forward to a day when religious people no longer insist on a single truth. And the URI, in which Jain is active and which was one of the partners for the summit, takes it even further. URI president Swing says, "There will have to be a godly cease-fire, a temporary truce where the absolute exclusive claims of each [religion] will be honored but an agreed-upon neutrality will be exercised in terms of proselytizing, condemning, murdering or dominating. These will not be tolerated in the United Religions zone."

While Swing does not elaborate on what territory that zone might encompass, sources say he is prepared to follow the U.N. lead. And certainly the guest list at the peace summit was impressive, including Cardinal Arinze, Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Kirill, Israel's Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, Sheik Ahmad Kuftaro of the Muslim World League, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Anne Graham Lotz, daughter of Billy Graham.

The guests represented a broad spectrum of faith traditions, including Ba'hai, Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Indigenous, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, Shinto, Sikhism, Taoism and Zoroastrianism.

While Jain and others are calling the summit a success, other delegates still are uncomfortable about it. Ruse complains that it was manipulated by the left-leaning agenda of Turner and Strong. Richard Cizik, director of the National Association of Evangelicals office in Washington, says, "There was a whole premise which I don't accept, which came from the keynote address by Ted Turner and was manifested throughout the programming - namely, the premise that all religions are equal." Equal at the summit perhaps, but assuredly not the same.