Next week, the international community will be marking World Interfaith Harmony Week designated by the United Nations to occur annually in the first full week of February where there will be a chance for the global community to promote harmony between all people and to establish a dialogue amongst the different faiths and religions in an attempt to enhance mutual understanding, harmony and cooperation. This week comes on the back of a conference held at the UN in November 2008 organized by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. Appropriately called ‘Culture of Peace’, it looked at the concept of creating a new environment by the promotion of Inter-Religious and Inter-Cultural Dialogue, Understanding and Cooperation for Peace. The Saudi sponsored conference examined the need to build tolerant societies and durable peace by restoring values of compassion and solidarity and encouraging the promotion of dialogue amongst the different forums available in all cultures. The conference noted that achieving a culture of peace required effort from ‘‘the forces that hold our societies together’’, which also included religious beliefs, among other worldviews and focusing on the shared values of these religions and not on the differences. The final declaration of the Saudi conference emphasized the ‘importance of promoting dialogue, understanding and tolerance as well as respect for all religions, cultures, beliefs’, whilst expressing concern over ‘serious instances of intolerance, discrimination, expressions of hatred and harassment of minority religious communities of all faiths’.
Much can be said about the motives for the conference and the week (and it is not without its critics) but I think that the spirit that the two UN initiatives are trying to achieve cannot be criticized because it provides a space for conversations to take place that transcends beyond the local to the global, realizing that this is not only just a faith perspective but has political implications. This culture of peace requires real work from all stakeholders.
However it needs to be real and fruitful conversations that involve talking to people and understanding how to address the misconceptions that exist about the ‘other’ within all of us that is the starting point for any initiative. Too often, mention the word ‘Interfaith’ and people roll their eyes. The common perception (in itself a misconception) is that ‘interfaith’ conjures up a bunch of mature / retired ladies and gentlemen sitting around having tea (no disrespect intended!!). Pastor Bob Roberts in his latest book Bold as Love sees “interfaith as loosey-goosey, let’s all just hug one another and ignore core truth” (2012, 19). I could not agree with him more!!. We have to move away from just polite conversation about each other’s faiths to really seeking to understand our differences yet finding commonality to move on. Hence I subscribe to Bob Roberts’ term of ‘multifaith’ which says “we have fundamental differences, but the best of our faiths teach us we should get along.” (2012, 19).
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