Greetings of love and peace from New York City, where I sit in my hotel room looking out on the United Nations, the East River and a firmament of lights as the city settles deeper and deeper into the night.
I journeyed here for a major event in the UN’s General Assembly Hall -- United For A Culture of Peace Through Interfaith Harmony, composed of three parts: The Role of Interfaith Harmony in the Peaceful Settlement of Disputes; Symphony of Peace Prayers and the World Peace Flag Ceremony.
The event was presented by His Excellency Mr. Vuk Jermic, President of the 67th Session of the United Nations General Assembly, UNESCO, and the Committee of Religious NGOs at the UN. The event was co-sponsored or formally supported by the missions of ten different nations, and by the World Peace Prayer Society and the Goi Peace Foundation.
I attended at the request of dear friends colleagues Monica Willard, who is URI’s lead UN Representative and the President of the Committee of Religious NGOs, and Deborah Moldow, founding leader of URI and the UN Representative of the World Peace Prayer Society. Monica and Deborah were the lead organizers of this inspiring event.
I was also urged to attend by dear friends Masami and Hiroo Saionji, Chair and President respectively of the World Peace Prayer Society. And I came to support URI’s esteemed Global Council Chair, Kiran Bali, who was one of seven speakers in the first part of the day.
Before the formal opening of the day, I had the privilege of meeting Mr. Jermic, who is from Serbia, with the Saionjis. He spoke movingly about coming from an interfaith family – Muslim, Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christian -- and explained how honored he felt to be hosting this event. I give many speeches, he said, but this one I wrote myself and it comes from my heart.
His remarks, which stressed the important role of interfaith dialogue in building a more peaceful and just world, set the tone for a heartful day. Here are some highlights.
Philippe Kridelka, of UNESCO, asserted that a strong web of relationships among faith traditions was an indispensable foundation for peace. Her Excellency Ambassador Byrganym Aitimova of Kazakhstan acknowledged the importance of high-level religious leaders but stressed that peace is created and kindled at the grassroots level. The Rev. Father Mark Arey of the Greek Orthodox Church noted that any serious discussion of dispute resolution must involve religions. His Excellency Ambassador Libran Cabactulan of the Philippines spoke of the hopes for an end to forty years of conflict in Mindanao, and stressed that critical to this effort was uniting the strengths of the Philippines’ diverse peoples.
Following these remarks, Kiran spoke, in what many declared afterwards to be the most compelling speech of the day. Acknowledging the challenge of religious extremism, she paid tribute to Irfan Ali, and then stressed that diversity does not have to divide us but that we can nurture the flame of unity. She used several examples from URI’s work, including a section of her speech that focused on the importance of the protection, participation and promotion of women. At the end of the program, Kiran was surrounded for quite a while by people who wanted to speak with her.
Kiran was followed by His Excellency Ambassador Hamid Al-Bayati. Though he represents Iraq, Mr. Al-Bayati was mistakenly introduced as representing Iran, which brought first a gasp from the audience, and then laughter as the mistake was corrected and the Ambassador used it as a source of humor. He spoke about his interfaith background – a Muslim who began attending a Christian school and church at age four and whose father spoke positively to him about the Jewish men he did business with. Mr. Al-Bayati said he has gone on to read the holy books of many traditions and believes we are all one family.
The final speaker was Dr. Patrick Ho from China. Speaking from a Confucianist perspective, he said that the pinnacle of this life is to be one with heaven, which means having an attitude of benevolence for all others. By the way, it’s worth noting that many of the speakers referred to the importance and centrality of the Golden Rule. I could see our esteemed colleague Mussie Hailu smiling each time that was said.
Following this section of the program, Masami Saionji spoke of the vision and importance of the Symphony of Peace Prayers, and of the historic nature of having this event in the General Assembly Hall. Prayer helps awaken the spark of divinity within each human being, she stressed. Following her introduction, prayers were offered from the following traditions by women and men, younger and older, from many different countries – Indigenous, Baha’i, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Humanist, Jain, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh and Zoroastrian. The prayers were brief. Each one was moving. Together they offered a powerful experience of the luminous, numinous best of interfaith respect and sharing.
The final major section of the day saw the flags of 193 UN Member States and two Observer Missions carried into the General Assembly Hall and up onto the dais as all present prayed that the people of each country live in peace. I have experienced this ceremony many times over the years and have always been deeply moved by the power of people praying that everyone on Earth live in peace. There was something particularly moving about today’s ceremony, in part because it was in the General Assembly Hall – the scene of so much political debate and division seeking a common path forward; and in part because so many of the flags were carried by a people from that country, people beaming with joy and pride as they waved their flag and heard the hall resound with a prayer that all the people of their country live in peace.
These three sections of the day were woven together with beautiful music – a choir from the Sri Chinmoy community; an extraordinary Korean soprano; the Junior Four Chorus of the United Nations International School (These children from all over the world stole the show!); and the Unity Made Visible Interfaith Choir (a URI CC that brought the house down with “This Little Light of Mine” and “Let There Be Peace On Earth”).
After Monica’s closing remarks, I sat in my chair for a while soaking in the overflowing joy as people embraced, talked and laughed at the wonder at having spent three timeless hours together living not in the world we experience in the news every day, but in the world as we imagine it. The world we work so hard to create. For these hours, at least, this world was real and URI leaders played a central role in creating it.
Wherever you are in the world, I pray you too have the opportunity, for at least a few hours, to live in the world we imagine, pray and work for.
May peace prevail on Earth.
The Rev Canon Charles P. Gibbs
Executive Director, United Religions Initiative