Participants say they hope the summit, which runs through Thursday, will result in resolutions on peace, poverty, and the environment, and the formation of a permanent council of religious leaders to advise the United Nations on preventing and settling disputes.
But the difficulty of achieving any consensus was highlighted when participants learned earlier this month that conference organizers had not invited the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan Buddhist leader and a Nobel Peace Prize winner, to the first two days of the conference for fear of offending China.
Demonstrations protesting the Dalai Lama's exclusion are planned.
"We're not trying to undermine the conference," said John Hocevar, executive director of Students for a Free Tibet, the group organizing the protests. "We want to express dissatisfaction with the decision."
The seven-member Chinese delegation to the summit accused the Dalai Lama last week of "creating turmoil in Tibet," from which he fled in 1959 after an abortive uprising against China's occupation.
Despite the tensions, many participants say that given the number of conflicts with strong religious components--from Indonesia to the Balkans--they wouldn't miss a chance to form alliances for peace.
An interfaith coalition organized the program and invited high-ranking religious leaders.
"The delegations from China and Vietnam were the only ones chosen by their governments," said Dena Merriam of the summit executive council.
Among the leaders on the program: Cardinal Francis Arinze, president of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue; Cambodian Buddhist leader Samdech Preah Maha Ghosananda; the Grand Mufti of Bosnia, Mustafa Ceric; Israeli Chief Rabbi Meir Lau; the Rev. Jesse Jackson; Evangelist Anne Graham Lotz, the Rev. Billy Graham's daughter; and numerous indigenous leaders, including Chief Oren Lyons, faithkeeper of the Onondaga Nation in upstate New York.
Leaders who declined include Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, who sent a videotaped message, and Jerusalem Mufti Ikrema Sabri, who has refused to meet with Rabbi Lau.
The United Nations is not an official summit sponsor, which has received funding from Ted Turner's U.N. Foundation, Better World Fund, and others. Turner, who once said that Christianity was "for losers," will give the keynote address.
Still, organizers say the meeting was a response to a call from U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who is scheduled to speak Tuesday. The first two days of the summit will be held in the U.N. General Assembly chamber.
Even a limited U.N. connection has placed the meeting in the midst of international political strife.
A U.N. official advised conference organizers that China would be outraged by an invitation to the Dalai Lama.
Organizers invited him only to the last two days of the conference--being held at a New York hotel, away from the United Nations. He declined.
Fellow Nobel peace laureate Desmond Tutu said the exclusion "totally undermines the integrity of the United Nations and the credibility of the summit."
Participants welcome the opportunity for interreligious dialogue on a grand scale, but some observers question how much progress can be made in four days.
Harvard Divinity School professor David Little said he hopes religious leaders will discuss subjects they often avoid, such as their communities' treatment of minorities who have become the leading victims of human rights abuses.
Most important, he wants to see leaders make tough political choices about who will serve on an advisory committee to the United Nations and their ongoing responsibilities.
"The institutionalization of an advisory committee is enormously important," he said, "if the summit is not to be seen as a once-in-a-lifetime thing."