On Tuesday February 7, 2012 ten students and four faculty members of Convent of the Sacred Heart (CSH) in New York attended the World Interfaith Harmony Week 2012 conference titled “Common Ground for the Common Good” at the United Nations (UN). As a religiously based school we thought it important to attend this important annual event held for the second time. Upon arrival at the UN, we were greeted by Cecile Meijer, rscj, and soon after we found ourselves sitting in the General Assembly Hall, in the same seats where so many leaders have debated issues of worldwide importance.
The structure of the three hours conference was clear and transparent. Besides the opening and closing speeches, speakers addressed the main idea “Common Ground forthe Common Good” and the four goals the UN has put forward for the immediate future: 1. Mediation of conflict and peaceful settlement of disputes; 2. Disaster prevention and response; 3. Revitalization of the UN; and 4. Sustainable development toward a more harmonious world. These lectures were interspersed with musical performances and ‘religious voices’ from well-known representatives of different religious denominations – Catholic, Hindu, Sikh, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, trans-denominational, Protestant.
Here are some thoughts that were brought up and struck a cord:
- The importance of involving religious organizations and diversity in policy making, especially concerning healthcare and education. In many parts of the world they are the main providers.
- The importance for religious organizations and believers to reject violence, to promote peace, to reiterate the common good for everyone, to be the voice of the voiceless, to respect the environment, and to eliminate all discrimination based on religion. The abuse and misuse (not the use) of religion is often the heart of the problem to justify violence. Hans Kung was quoted in this context: “There will be no peace among the nations if there is no peace among the religions. And there will be no peace among the religions if there is no dialogue among the religions.”
- The need to strive for interfaith harmony, dialogue between cultures and cultural literacy in the arts and the media.
- The urge to recognize our commonalities and common problems. To be religious is to be interreligious for the harmonious coexistence of people in the world, as the ‘transcendent mystery’ is immanent to every human heart centering around love, honesty, humility, good will, self-denial, meditation and compassion. Isn’t there a common destiny – God – in spite of our differences? As one of the presenters, Rev. Michael Bernard Beckwith, pointed out: “Take a deep breath!” “Breath transcends religions and is a moment when we move in the awareness of the transcendence”.
The conference concluded with a tree ceremony: the tree symbolizing all life on earth. Representatives of all different religious traditions watered the tree one by one. They poured their wisdom, hope and healing on the tree and asked from all of us to hold our own vision of inner world harmony in our heart. Sister Joan Kirby, rscj, was the first one to water the tree and represented Christianity.
Katinka Vanderbauwhede, Chair of Religion Department of CSH
What personally struck me the most at the Interfaith Harmony conference was the ability of all the religions to work together in order to maintain peace. One would think that in a time period where varying religions and faiths are coming under attack by their own governments, foreign nations, and even their own believers, that religions and religious leaders would be taking a more defensive stance against one another. However, this is not the case. The World Interfaith Harmony Conference brought together representatives of faiths from Buddhism to Christianity, from Islam to Jainism, and from Sikhism to Zoroastrianism. While one may think these faiths may have more to differ over than in common, all representatives agree and confirmed that while their faiths may preach different principles, it is in the best interest of all global believers and non-believers alike to promote non-violence and environmental stability, in order to promote the health and longevity of the earth and its inhabitants, no matter what their religious affiliation or moral compass will tell them. I found this to be the most compelling message of the day because, as a New Yorker in the wake of 9/11 and as a human living in an environment suffering from increasingly depleting resources, I believe that these two goals are selfless and centered on the common good, and they should take precedence over policies of self-interest and greed as shown throughout the world during this time of economic crisis.
One of the most inspiring things I took away from the speeches made at the Interfaith Harmony Conference was the idea that we all share more similarities than we differ. Of course each and every individual is unique. Appearances, idiosyncrasies, languages, religions, and ethnicities vary from person to person. But we all think, and feel, and believe in something. Whether you believe in a God, or many, or no God at all. We are all here on earth with a common goal: to live. Religions too share a common goal. But their goal is peace. And in order to obtain this peace there must be a harmony amongst the religions.