Halfway through this week's Millennium World Peace Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders at the United Nations, the real value of the unprecedented gathering is simply who shares a cup of tea or coffee with whom, who bumps into whom in the corridor bordering the General Assembly Hall, who passes a phone number to whom in the U.N. delegates lounge. Meetings and overtures that would never take place on home turf are easier to carry out away from the local partisan glare.
The summit, which ends its four-day run Thursday, is intended to result in a joint declaration on peace, poverty, and the environment, and the creation of a religious leaders' council to advise the United Nations on settling conflicts involving religious differences. But the U.N. library is filled with past documents signed by nations in which they have pledged to respect religious and other rights, to work for just economic goals, and to show concern for the environment.
Adding one or two more will by no means end the variety of world conflicts for which religion is a contributing factor. Not that anyone expected that would happen.
"Declarations are symbolic, sure, but the symbolism of an event such as this is not to be underestimated," said the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, former executive director of the National Council of Churches. "It is a powerful image that comes across--of religious leaders who at other times may busy themselves with attacking each other--sitting here side-by-side. It shows possibilities, and it's worth a thousand resolutions in terms of impact on the world at-large. But it pales next to what happens in the hallways."
And it's not the high-profile players who are the ones to watch. Instead, it's their aides--plus the B-list religious officials and an assortment of academic and think-tank freelancers--who do the real work of passing messages, probing for an opening that, at some future time, might just lead to progress in resolving a conflict somewhere across the globe.
"Someone on top of their particular religion's pyramid has a hard time moving. They're publicly stuck in everything they or their religion has said about any given issue," said Marc Gopin, who teaches diplomacy at Tufts University and is associated with Washington's Center for Strategic & International Studies. "So it's mid-level people talking to mid-level people who can move, and in doing so are capable of moving those above them in the pyramid."
Gopin is one of many prowling the U.N. and the Waldorf Astoria Hotel--where the summit is holding working sessions--with conflict resolution in mind. His issue is the Arab-Israeli conflict, particularly the question of Jerusalem, as ticklish an inter-religious and political problem as there is. So who is he meeting with this week? His response was a diplomatic laugh that said "No comment."
Only slightly less coy was Albert Lincoln, secretary-general of the Baha'i International Community. The Baha'i faith grew out of Islam and is seen in its Iranian homeland as a heresy. Baha'is say that, as a result, they are persecuted in Iran, a charge supported by Human Rights Watch and other such agencies. This week at the U.N., where the group maintains a permanent office, Baha'is are on the lookout for religious leaders who might be able to help them in Iran.
"I doubt this is the place for real diplomatic work," said Lincoln, an American based at Baha'i world headquarters in Haifa, Israel. "But we'll see who we get to talk to. You never know. We keep trying."
The Dalai Lama, Tibetan Buddhism's leading figure, was barred from the summit's U.N. sessions (he declined a spot on the Waldorf schedule), but a delegation of Tibetan Buddhists was on hand, and spent its time networking on behalf of its cause. Eritrean Bishop Zekarias Yohannes said he planned on meeting with his counterparts from Ethiopia. Those two Horn of Africa nations recently fought a border war that ended in a ceasefire and still-unresolved issues.
Next week, dozens of heads of state and their entourages will descend upon the U.N. for another Millennium Summit. That one will be overtly political, and President Clinton has announced he will meet separately at that time with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in an attempt to nudge the Middle East peace process forward.
Will next week's gathering have a higher diplomatic profile than this week's religious leaders' summit? Sure. But the more than 1,000 religious leaders representing 83% of the world's population gathered at the U.N. are engaged in their own intense diplomatic dance. Rest assured the real substance of both meetings is unlikely to come from the podium.