Walker's World: The U.N. and the churches

By MARTIN WALKER, UPI Chief International Correspondent  |  July 14, 2003 at 10:52 AM
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ASAN CITY, South Korea, July 12 (UPI) -- At the next meeting of the General Assembly of the United Nations in September, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo of the Philippines is to present a formal proposal for the establishment of an Inter-religious Council at the world body. It would be an institutional part of the United Nations, with status like that of the U.N.'s Economic and Social Council or the Trusteeship Council.

At her meeting with President George W. Bush at the White House in May, Arroyo suggested the United States might want to co-sponsor the proposal. Bush, a practicing Christian with a keen sense of the power of religion, expressed deep interest and asked his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, to study the matter.

In fact, Rice already knew of the plan. Two of her aides, Karen Brooks and James Moriarty, had already been briefed on the plan by the speaker of the Philippines House of Representatives, Jose de Venecia, who has waged a personal campaign for such a religious infusion into the work of the United Nations.

"We in the Philippines feel that President Bush should try and avert the confrontation with the Muslim world that seems to threaten," de Venecia then wrote to Rice, in a letter of which United Press International now has a copy. "And while the really grievous need is for a global Christian-Muslim dialog, the effort must also encompass Buddhists, Hindus, Confucians and Jews, heads of churches, temples, synagogues and mosques, political leaders as well as representatives of global civil society."

The idea is not entirely new. Even before the United Nations was founded in 1945, the English Bishop Bell of Chichester suggested the formation of an Advisory Committee of religions to work with the United Nations -- an idea firmly squashed by the atheist Soviet Union. But the United Nations has already granted observer status to the World Council of Churches, and a number of religious bodies and their associated non-governmental organizations are affiliated to UNESCO.

In August 2000, as part of the U.N.'s Millennium events, 1,000 religious and spiritual leaders met at the U.N. and established a new World Council. But they decided to retain their independence from the U.N. structure, and to act instead "as a resource body for the Secretary-General and the U.N."

So the proposal for an Inter-religious Council to become a formal part of the U.N. structure is both ambitious and new, and de Venecia has put his formidable energies behind the task of winning political support through his connections with Christian Democrat parties around the world, and particularly in Europe. This may be an idea whose time has come.

This was certainly the view of a current conference organized in Asan, South Korea, by the Interreligious and International Federation for World Peace, an organization begun by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon of the Unification Church. Moon also is the founder of News World Communications Inc., which owns UPI.

Imams and rabbis, Buddhist monks and Church of England clergymen, Muftis and leaders of the Unification Church all backed the council idea strongly, and series of campaigns are being organized around the world this summer to win support for the next U.N. session.

But what good would it do? Even if such a council were able to speak with a united voice and deploy its moral authority behind a proposition, it raises Stalin's old dismissive question about religions -- "How many divisions has the pope?" If such a council had been in existence earlier this year, and added its own weight to the French and German and Russian opposition to the U.S.-led war on Iraq, would Bush have been deterred? Probably not.

And if such a body is to make hollow pronouncements, how long before it becomes a talking shop? How long before it sinks down the radar screen of public opinion to the level of those other U.N. bodies of which few members of the general public have ever heard, the Economic and Social Council and the Trusteeship Council?

The Reverend Marcus Braybrooke, of Oxford International Interfaith Center and current president of the World Congress of Faiths, raised one pungent question.

"I think religious people need to be wary lest other politicians are trying to co-opt their support for a particular agenda," he told the conference. "The World Development Dialog, for example, has brought together representatives of the World Bank and of the religions. But is the World Bank really willing to have its models of development questioned or is it using religions to clean up its image?"

Bush may duck the idea. The U.N. General Assembly may ignore it. But from Bosnia to Rwanda to Chechnya to 9/11, one common thread unites the real threats to world peace -- violence is increasingly inter-ethnic and inter-faith. There ought to be some way to harness for peace the spiritual force of the world's religious leaders -- if only they could stop quarreling among themselves.

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