Faith leaders have joined together to urge an end to “all forms of manipulation of religions” that lead to terrorism.
In a joint statement at the end of the 6th Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions in Astana, Kazakhstan last week, the 82 delegates from 46 countries said: “We reject all forms of manipulation of religion,” and condemned “the massive and systematic abuse of human rights by international terrorist organizations”.
The participants from all the major religions, including Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Taoists, Shintoists and Zoroastrians, terrorist acts “undermine mutual trust and cooperation among followers of different religions and among followers of the same faith”.
They added: “We appeal to all people of faith and goodwill to unite in this difficult time and make their responsibility in ensuring peace and harmony on our planet.”
They also agreed to support and respect religious diversity and counteract provocations of pseudo-religious rhetoric enticing hatred and extremism.
“(We) express solidarity with all religious groups and ethnic communities exposed to the rights and violence inflicted by extremists and terrorists,” stated the declaration.
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Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev – the man behind the triennial congress – told the delegates: “We have already been living in the third millennium for 18 years, but peace, prosperity and wealth have not become the main trend of human development. The world community has not been able to get out of the sinister circle of mutual distrust, hostility and conflict.
“We see that the situation has worsened. New walls, new ‘iron curtains’ are being built between countries and geopolitical blocks. But the most dangerous issue is that in the minds and hearts of people, a feeling of mutual estrangement is increasing.”
Ahmed al-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of al-Azhar University of Cairo – the leading Sunni Muslim educational authority – set the tone of the two-day event, saying that “the Koran states that Allah created males and females, so that we can meet each other. People are equal. Even seas and mountains cannot separate people.
“The crises the world is facing cannot be resolved without appealing to religion.”
However, in a recurring theme from the Muslim speakers, he made it clear that he was opposed to the idea that all “terror is connected to Islam. I am sad that almost all people believe this absurdity, and we have to fight against what is a very successful campaign against Islam.”
He added: “Terrorism knows no boundaries and no religion. Terrorists can come from all religions, and many terrorists – especially those from Europe – had nothing to do with religion before they started.”
His views were echoed by the said Mufti of Tajikistan Saidmukarram Abduqodirzoda, who said: “We should not confuse Islam with terrorism. It is the mistake of many media. Islam is the religion of peace and tolerance. It doesn’t promote extremism. Security and safety are human rights. That is what Islam believes.”
Israel’s Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef spoke after al-Tayeb and demanded that religious leaders be heard “strongly and proudly” after terror attacks. “It is forbidden for us to be silent, silence is tantamount to identifying with terror,” he declared.
“The inability to listen to the other side has instigated world wars throughout the generations,” said the chief rabbi. “It seems that it is not just words that can kill but also the failure to listen to the words [spoken] which can kill. We have a responsibility to serve as an example to our peoples to open our ears and listen.”
To applause, Rabbi Yosef ended his speech with the Oseh Shalom prayer: “May He who makes peace from on high make peace for us and all of Israel.”
His Ashkenazi counterpart Rabbi David Lau made much the same point, and told the Jewish News: “I had meetings and shook hands with people from around me, especially the Muslims from the Arab world. Sadly, however, the Shia Muslim delegate from Iran moved away and wouldn’t even make eye contact, and that’s a pity. It was a good opportunity to show that we are all human after all.”
Kazakh Deputy Foreign Minister Yerzhan Ashikbayev and other officials also stressed the importance of education “to prevent the radicalisation of youth. To make religion serve its original purpose and not to confuse them with messages from radicals”.
Despite the best efforts of the hosts, it wasn’t all peace, love and understanding, with some delegates seeking to settle scores.
For instance, the Serbian President, Aleksandar Vučić – in Astana on a state visit – was keen to stress that “spirituality is the most supreme feeling of a human being. Without it, we can’t understand our world or to make it better.
“This is a good opportunity for people from different parts of the world to come and try to exchange attitudes that influence having more rational relationships in the world, simply for peace to be the one that will prevail. I am honoured to be able to attend the gathering on behalf of Serbia and say a few words,” Vucic said.
However, he demanded that the world ensure that the monasteries in the breakaway republic of Kosovo be protected.
Theophilos III of Jerusalem, the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church of Jerusalem and all Palestine and Israel, used his speech to have a dig at Israel.
While noting that “faith leaders must be leaders of peace, because peace is at the heart of all religious traditions”, Theophilos attacked those who had driven “people out of their homes Jerusalem and Palestine”.
The lack of female participants was also noted, with the Jewish News counting a mere two women at the top table of religious leaders.
William Vendley, the secretary general of the World Conference of Religions for Peace, said that “progress has been made in this respect, but change doesn’t happen overnight”.
And that is probably why, after 15 years since the first congress, the world is only marginally closer to resolving interfaith problems than it was then.
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- 6th Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions
- Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev
- Grand Imam of al-Azhar University of Cairo
- Ahmed al-Tayeb
- Mufti of Tajikistan Saidmukarram Abduqodirzoda
- Israel’s Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef
- Rabbi David Lau
- Kazakh Deputy Foreign Minister Yerzhan Ashikbayev