"If you believe that, you'll believe anything," the Duke of Wellington once replied when a man approached him in his club and said, "I believe you're Mr. Smith." The same answer, "If you believe that, you'll believe anything," comes to mind when we are told that the meeting at the United Nations of 1,000 religious leaders from around the globe will promote world peace.

Forgive my skepticism, but let's begin with the exclusion of the Dalai Lama from this Millennium World Peace Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders.

There is no more prestigious religious leader in the world, except perhaps Pope John Paul II, yet the Dalai Lama is being excluded due to pressure from the repressive regime in China. "This compromises the integrity of the United Nations and the credibility of the summit," said Bishop Desmond Tutu of Cape Town, the famed opponent of apartheid. The New York Times even urged that the summit be moved out of UN auspices because "a gathering of spiritual and religious leaders should not have a political admissions test."

Quite right, but unrealistic in any UN gathering. The UN remains a club of governments, some very good and others very bad--oppressive, aggressive, even murderous. The backers of this summit, who include UN benefactor Ted Turner, have a laudable commitment to the UN but a very unrealistic view of its possibilities. Putting religion and reconciliation ahead of politics is not one of them, and never has been since the day the organization was founded a half-century ago. Thus, the Dalai Lama is excluded due to Chinese pressure. The thing to note is not the Chinese pressure, which is entirely predictable, but the quick surrender to it. That is what marks the event as standard UN fare, unable to rise above power politics and into the realm of ideals.

The exclusion of the Dalai Lama, whom the Chinese regime despises because he embodies the Tibetan religion and culture it is trying to destroy, is thus the key symbol of what is wrong with Big Think ideas like this summit. There will presumably be Hindu Indian religious leaders present; will they speak out about the persecution, even murder, of Christians by Hindu extremists in India? Will the Secretary-General of the Muslim World League, who will attend, speak out about the deaths of nearly 2 million Christians in Sudan over the last 15 years at the hands of the Muslim government there? Will Iranian Shia religious leaders say anything about tolerance within Iran? Will Saudi religious leaders say a word about how that regime treats Shia Muslims, or non-Muslims?

Sadly, the whole premise behind this summit is hard to swallow. The idea is that the UN needs help in fostering peace and reconciliation, and religious leaders can help. From this meeting will emerge an International Advisory Council of Religious and Spiritual Leaders, supposedly to help the UN resolve conflict. One may doubt whether this council will ever get off the ground, as it is supposed to contain the very Sunnis and Shias, Muslims and Hindus, Jews and Arabs, and so forth, who are nearly at war in so many parts of the world.

The sad truth is that religion, as we begin this new millennium, still starts more conflicts than it resolves. From the former Yugoslavia to the Middle East to the Indian subcontinent, the notion that religion will help stop conflict is, to say the least, not proved. And this is not the only objection to the "Advisory Council," if it ever does get formed. For one is entitled to ask, "Who elected them?" It is a Catch-22, admittedly: The more the religious leaders are subject to government control, the less likely it is that they will provide an independent voice promoting reconciliation.

But the less it answers to governments, the less accountable and democratic the council will be. Who decides, for example, which Muslim leaders are invited? Which Hindus or Buddhists? Which Jews, or Protestants, or Catholics? Does Ted Turner decide, or UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, both of whom agreed to the Dalai Lama's exclusion?

Of much greater use than this extravaganza would be a summit of religious dissidents, people who do not enjoy their government's favor and speak up against the religious or political establishment when it is in the wrong. But that kind of meeting, while possible, would not likely take place at the United Nations. Maybe a neutral site, such as Geneva, would be available. At this conference, we might not meet Ted Turner or Kofi Annan, but we would see men and women dedicated to peace and reconciliation, such as the Iranian philosopher Abdolkarim Soroush, and President Abdurrahman Wahid of Indonesia, both renowned Muslim reformers, and--yes--the Dalai Lama of Tibet.

It is hard for some people to believe a summit dedicated to reconciliation can do much harm, I suppose, but if this meeting leads to disillusionment, it will not advance the cause of peace. If it proves only that geopolitics still dominates the world scene, that reconciliation is a much lower priority, and that all too many political and religious leaders are still willing to kowtow to Chinese oppression, has the cause of peace been advanced? When the photo ops and the banquets are over, and the delegates have flown home, will anything have changed? History and realism teach us that the struggle for peace and human rights is long and hard, and begins with honoring the bravery and commitment of people like the Dalai Lama. Start by excluding him, and you end up with more speeches about peace than progress toward it.

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