The G8 and G20 nations of the world gathered in Ontario in June to explore solutions to the world’s greatest concerns. Issues addressed included the eradication of poverty and hunger, the achievement of universal primary education, the promotion of gender equality, the reduction of child mortality, the combating of HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases and the ensuring of environmental sustainability.
Each year since 2005, these summits have been preceded by parallel gatherings of world religious leaders. This year, the World Religions Summit took place at the University of Winnipeg from June 21 to 23 and included meetings of the interfaith media as well as a human rights conference focusing on freedom of religion and a strong youth component.
Eighty-four delegates and 160 observers from 24 nations representing 47 faith traditions attended. Many of the world’s great religions were represented, including Judaism, the United Church, Russian Orthodox, Lutheran, Catholicism, Islam, Mennonite, Shinto, Baha’i, Hinduism and aboriginal spirituality. Delegates came from around the world, including Canada, the United States, Rwanda, Great Britain, Japan, Russia, Zambia, India and Saudi Arabia. Prominent speakers included Senator Roméo Dallaire.
Rabbi Adam Scheier, of Congregation Shaar Hashomayim of Montreal, represented the Canadian Jewish Congress and he, together with CJC’s executive director, Benjamin Shinewald, lent their articulate voices to the proceedings.
Setting the tone for the meeting, Lloyd Axworthy, U of W’s president and a former minister for External Affairs, stated that “creating fundamental and positive change through the intersection of faith and politics is increasingly relevant today.”
The summit began with an aboriginal ceremony, conducted by the Anishnabe Nation. This was followed by a Holocaust-related oratorio, I Believe, written and conducted by Zane Zalis. Beginning with the calls of the shofar, this work portrayed the rise of hatred, its horrific consequences, survival, liberation and the ability to love.
Virtually all of the religious leaders at the Summit were male, with such notable exceptions as United Church moderator Mardi Tindal; Methodist minister from Lusaka, Zambia, Suzanne Membe, and aboriginal elder Katherine Whitecloud. This reflects the lack of egalitarianism that characterizes religious leadership around the world.
During the summit, there was little discussion of the conflict in the Middle East. A representative of the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Islamic Affairs stated that the “most important [issue] for us in the Middle East is peace and security rather than the environment and poverty. In the Middle East, there is conflict and extremists on both sides who want to portray [the conflict] as religious. We don’t think it is religious, we think it is political.”
The final communiqué of the conference, titled A Time for Inspired Leadership and Action, contained a similar statement on the relationship between religion and politics. It stated that “there are those who inappropriately use religion to justify violent acts against others, and thereby offend the true spirit of their faith and the long-standing values of their faith communities. We condemn religiously motivated terrorism and extremism, and commit to stop teaching and justifying the use of violence between and among our faith communities.”
This final document called on the world’s political leadership to address poverty, care for the earth and invest in peace.
Conference delegates were not representatives of the fanatical or extremist factions that feed the world’s conflicts with pseudo-religious rhetoric. They were faith leaders of goodwill who are genuinely determined to work co-operatively to heal the world.
Rev. Jim Wallis, of Sojourners magazine and a religious adviser to U.S. President Barack Obama, summed up the purpose of the religious summit when he said that “religious communities need to move well beyond what is politically astute to pursue their dreams and visions of a better world,” a world where 30,000 children don’t die every day.
Although it ‘s unlikely that the final document of the World Religions Summit had an impact on the subsequent G8 and G20 meetings, one can hope that the essential message will guide the leaders of these powerful nations when they return home to work with their governments.