Beliefnet
NEW YORK, Sept. 1 (RNS)--Rich in color and pageantry, long on good intentions but often falling short of a clear purpose and outcome, the Millennium World Peace Summit provided a revealing glimpse of religious groups sometimes at their best, and sometimes at their worst.

On paper, the four-day summit, which concluded its work Thursday, did little that was either surprising or remarkable.

In a final "Commitment to Global Peace," the nearly 1,000 leaders representing a wide spectrum of religions pledged their support to ending religious-based violence and respecting each other's faith traditions.

Still left unsettled was the formation of a kind of global religious advisory group to the United Nations, which hosted the first two days of the conference. As the summit ended, there was talk of selecting a steering committee to oversee the creation of such a panel, though the specifics remained to be worked out.

Indeed, it was not clear how badly the U.N., or its secretary-general, Kofi Annan, even wanted the panel, though both seemed eager for some kind of alliance between the world body and religious leaders.

To longtime ecumenists such as Konrad Raiser, the general secretary of the World Council of Churches, it all seemed a bit vague, and he was not alone in raising concern that there was not enough "heft" to the proposal. Raiser also suggested that the depth of representation at the summit was not equal to its breadth, which was enormous.

Those were far from the only grumblings about the summit.

The decision of the conference organizers not to invite the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan Buddhist leader, to the U.N. portion of the summit out of deference to the Chinese government was a sore point that would not go away. Nobel Peace Prize winner Betty Williams publicly decried the Dalai Lama's absence, as did a group of indigenous leaders who spoke at the summit's closing ceremony, calling him "our brother."

A group of Tibetan Buddhists eventually spoke to the gathering late Tuesday, reading a statement by the Dalai Lama in support of the goals of the summit, prompting a walkout by Chinese representatives.

The summit's structure--which often resembled a formal U.N. meeting--was also bemoaned, criticized for an overkill of representative, though often repetitious, prayers and declarations that kept thwarting the assigned timekeepers.

"I thought prayers were supposed to be short," grumbled one delegate, expressing a common complaint.

Other criticisms? A lack of representation of women--though Laila Spik, a representative of the Saami nation in Sweden, said she believed that may be a reflection of long-standing problems within the faith traditions themselves.

Swami Vigyananand, a Hindu monk from India, complained the summit was largely dominated by Christians, Jews, and Muslims, and that the Hindu presence was more show than substance. "The failure of this conference is that we are not addressing the basic conflict contained in the religions, which is their theology," he said as the saxophonist Paul Winter drew a riff during the closing ceremonies at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.

Others, however, said the summit was weighted too heavily in favor of Hindus and those of other Eastern faiths, whose flowing robes became a common sight in the halls of the hotel and the United Nations.

The summit's organizers seemed to steel themselves for the expected criticisms. At a Wednesday press briefing, Bawa Jain, the summit's general secretary, and Dena Merriam, the summit's vice chairman, responded to some of the criticisms: Yes, women were a minority at the summit, but their voices were being heard; the conference was not expressly political, but the fact that Tibetan Buddhists were able to read a statement from the Dalai Lama in the hall of the General Assembly was itself a sign of progress.

"I have to commend the Chinese," said Jain. "We've come a long way with them [on this issue]."

As he would so often during the summit, Jain said that, however imperfect, the summit had important symbolic value and would lend greater spiritual wisdom to the U.N. at a time when its role was being expanded internationally. "The U.N. has never seen a sight like this," he said.

Beyond the symbolism, however, was something of lasting value and importance, said David Little, director of the Center for the Study of Values in Public Life at Harvard University and a member of the Scholars' Group at Harvard Divinity School, one of the summit's partners.

"Yes, it's a slow, glacial process, but it's worth trying because it gets dialogue going," Little said of the summit and its attempt to get religious leaders to think more concretely about issues of poverty, conflict resolution and environmental damage.

Calling himself an adherent of the political realism espoused by the late American Christian ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr, Little said it was important "to sound a new note" and begin a process by which religious leaders can more clearly engage ``the political and legal world and force them to face up to political realities."

"However awkward," he said, "it is a start in the right direction."

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