The summit, which will open August 28 at the United Nations, will drawmore than 1,000 religious leaders from around the world, from the Rev.Jesse Jackson to the chief rabbi of Jerusalem.
But missing from the mix on the summit's opening day will be theDalai Lama, the exiled leader of Tibetan Buddhism and Nobel Peace Prizewinner.
Critics say summit organizers are bowing to Chinese pressure toexclude the 65-year-old leader. The Dalai Lama and China have been atodds ever since the Chinese occupation of Tibet began in 1949. The DalaiLama now lives in India.
Trying to stem an increasingly hostile wave of criticism, summitleaders this week invited the Dalai Lama to speak at the end of theconference. The Dalai Lama's supporters, however, said because thatsession would be held at a hotel and not the United Nations, organizerswere still giving in to China.
"You do not invite someone with the stature of the Dalai Lama to bepart of a meeting in another building," said Brahma Das, director of theInterfaith Call for Universal Religious Freedom and Freedom of Worshipin Tibet. "That's not an invitation. That's an insult."
Conference organizers are choosing to walk gently through what hasbecome a political and religious minefield.
"The appropriate reply would be to say that [the Dalai Lama] isinvited as a keynote speaker for the closing ceremony," said Bawa Jain,the summit's secretary-general.
Organizers are bringing together leaders of many of the world'sreligions and spiritual traditions to discuss ways religion can be usedto foster peace and reconciliation. Delegates are expected to sign apeace declaration at the end of the meeting.
Among the 60 or so U.S. leaders expected to attend are Jackson,Coretta Scott King, prominent Harlem pastor the Rev. Calvin Butts, RabbiArthur Schneier of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation, and thearchbishops of the Greek and Armenian Orthodox churches.
Emerging from the conference will be the International AdvisoryCouncil of Religious and Spiritual Leaders, which organizers say will bea resource for the United Nations for conflict resolution and peaceefforts.
While the conference is largely sponsored by private organizations,the summit's ties to the United Nations are central and unmistakable.U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan will address the assembly August 28.
The United Nations' ties to the proposed advisory council are alsodrawing criticism, with some saying the religious sphere and thevolatile political nature of the United Nations should never be mixed.
"A permanent institution within the U.N. would weaken the witness ofthese religious leaders because they would be...bogged down in thepolitical culture of the U.N.," said Brother Wayne Teasdale, a trusteeof the Parliament of World Religions.
Organizers, meanwhile, say religious leaders have an important roleto play in the international body's global peacekeeping efforts.
"There is no other global body responsible for peacekeeping, and aswe move away from the age of the superpowers, it's really the U.N. thatis left to bear that role," said Dena Merriam, vice chairwoman of thesummit's executive council. "We want the religious leaders to supportthat effort."
Beyond the delicate political aspects of the conference, organizerssay bringing more than 1,000 people from around the world to New Yorkhas its own challenges.
Officials had to create birth certificates and buy clothes andunderwear for a nine-member Inca delegation from Peru. The spiritualleaders have never seen the ocean, or an airplane, and the UnitedNations will have to rent horses to get the leaders out of their remotevillage.
Food is also a problem. Jews will not eat pork, Hindus will not eatmeat, Muslims will eat only halal meat, and some won't touch meat at all.The solution? A vegetarian menu, with kosher options.
"It's been a real challenge," Merriam said.