But some of the public politeness evaporated when, after two days, the four-day summit, which ended Thursday, moved from the hall of the United Nations General Assembly and into the nearby Waldorf-Astoria Hotel and the assembled leaders began the hard work of discussing how religious communities can tackle such problems as poverty, reconciliation and peace-making, and environmental degradation.
If anything, these closed-door sessions proved that religion and spirituality are never separated from the realities of culture, society and politics--particularly during a time of enormous global change.
``Religions aren't holier than other institutions,'' said Wendy Tyndale,coordinator of the World Faiths Development Dialogue and the moderator of a Wednesday working session on the issue of poverty. ``What we are witnessing is a microcosm of globalization and a clash of cultures.''
Indeed, the session on poverty--at times impassioned, noisy and a little messy--proved just that and more.
Roman Catholic Bishop Alvar Ramazzini of San Marcos, in the western highlands of Guatemala, gave an impassioned opening speech in which he declared, in a booming voice, that he did not believe in a God ``that would allow his creatures to suffer.'' He said it was the responsibility of religious communities to work toward just and sustainable development ``based on human values.''
There was a visible stir among the assembled audience, perhaps tired after sitting and largely listening to two days of prayers and official addresses. Robed Hindus from India, Buddhists from Vietnam, and indigenous persons from Central America and Africa all clamored for the microphone.
Often identifying themselves only by country and faith, they exposed some of the political, economic and religious fault lines of much of the world. A woman from Africa condemned what she called ``collaboratized stealing'' on the part of the West and its international lending institutions; a Mayan from Guatemala made a plea for indigenous rights; a woman who has studied the ``Course in Miracles'' program said the answer to poverty required a solution ``not of this world.''
But the most impassioned remarks came from Hindus from India, condemning what they said was continued proselytizing by Roman Catholic and Protestant Christians in India, something they linked to a legacy of Western colonial dominance. In recent years, a number of Christian missionaries have been killed or attacked by Hindus in India.
The criticism of Christianity, in turn, drew an impassioned defense of religious freedom by Cardinal Francis Arinze, the president of the Pontifical Council on Interreligious Dialogue and the Vatican's representative at the summit. He said international law protects the rights of people to accept and practice the religion of their choice. As he left the session, a clearly irritated Arinze was approached by Hindus who wanted to continue the debate.
While all religions have their distinct spirituality, she said, it is on social issues that religions could possibly unite. ``If we could join our strengths on these issues, we could be seen as a force for harmony,'' she said.
But Tyndale, the moderator, said she was neither dismayed nor surprised by the heated nature of the session. In fact, she said, it would send a message to the United Nations that ``poverty was not just an economic process but something that embraces the whole of life and that development must be a multidimensional process.''
She added that in India and other countries, there is great fear about the standardization of global culture and ideology, and religion has become something of a force of resistance to that trend. If channeled in ``the right direction,'' Tyndale said, that passion ``could be a very powerful force'' for non-violent social action.
How the more than 1,000 religious leaders will address concerns would be known later Thursday, when a formal declaration to develop a plan of action was set to be voted upon. The leaders were also to vote on whether to form a religious advisory council for the United Nations.
The summit has not been a formal U.N. event, but has been sponsored by organizations with close ties to the United Nations.