UN Interfaith Conference: “The Role of Interfaith Education in Conflict Prevention and Sustainable Peace”

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Interfaith dialogue is a broad concept comprised of many diverse understandings of religions and belief systems as a part of our common human experience. The UN Interfaith Conference entitled “The Role of Interfaith Education in Conflict Prevention and Sustainable Peace” organized by the Peace Islands Institute, Journalists and Writers Foundation in partnership with Nagasaki Intefaith Council (Japan) and Buddhist Council of New York gathered religious leaders, academia and experts from USA, UK, Japan, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Pakistan, and India to discuss the interfaith education, tolerance, and respect of diversity to prevent conflicts that may arise from violent extremism and religious radicalism, thus promote an understanding of sustainable global peace.

“Be courageous enough to learn from others” for that is the first challenge and the first step towards sustainable peace.

Imam Shamsi Ali

Ambassador Anwarul Chowdhury, a respected advocate for global peace, delivered an inspirational message that championed the United Nation’s Global Citizens Initiative in relation to interfaith education and peace promotion. The Global Citizen initiative pursues an emerging world community bound by shared values and practices instead of separated by differences. Furthermore, Ambassador Chowdhury explained the role of interfaith education that is integral to global citizenship, and essential for culture of peace as a part of the United Nationals Sustainable Development Goal on Education (SDG #4). These two UN initiatives in simultaneity create reverence for diversity and a sense of belonging that cultivate trans-national, trans-religious unity. Ambassador Chowdhury finalized his remarks by underlining the role of youth and youth education around the world as the solution for problems that arise from violent extremism. He said, “When children know that the truth is expressed outside their own religion, then narrow mindedness, the root of violence and terrorism, will not survive.”

Keynote speaker Reverend Monsignor Joseph Grech, First Secretary of the Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations echoed Ambassador Chowdhury’s inspirational message by sharing three elements of good interfaith education. The first is global citizens engaging in the type of peaceful dialogue that will allow believers of different faiths to know accurately what they believe and what others believe. Thus, inciting a process that interrupts stereotyping, the spread of misinformation, and discrimination and instead only leaves room for mutual respect. The second step is aligned with the “golden rule” of humanity: “treat others, as you would have them treat you.” In the realm of interfaith dialogue, this resonates as respect for another’s religious freedom in the face of disputed points so that one proposes rather than imposes what he or she believes as truth. Whereas the final step in successful interfaith education is to live by the aforementioned principles to the greatest extent possible both personally and communally.

Panel 1: Identifying the Conflicts & Interfaith Education

The first panel of the conference “Identifying the Conflicts & Interfaith Education” focused on defining the conflicts and processes of interfaith education. Dr. Carol Dahir, the Chair of the School Counseling Department in NYIT moderated the first panel discussion. Father Isao Hashimoto, Chief Priest of the Nakamachi Catholic Church began the panel by citing the Annual Memorial Service of the Nagasaki Religious council as a best practice in the realm of interfaith education as it allows for the expression of many Japanese faiths while highlighting the community’s ability to go beyond coexistence and embrace the idea of unity. The second panelist, Joyce S. Dubensky, CEO of the Tanenbaum Center suggested that unity is only truly binding if it is supported in the present and the future. This is accomplished through education of both students and adults by providing diverse sources for teachers and students that show “all sides” of any given faith. As being the last speaker of this session, Sheikh Said Faid, Head of Education as the Harrow central Mosque in the United Kingdom, reminded the other panelists and distinguished attendees that “the sole purpose of religion is to bring happiness to people.” He cited coexistence as a path to happiness by respecting seven principles proposed by the Qur’an: freedom of belief, recognition of one another, communication, mutual harmony, honor of mankind, justice, and sharing the common values of mankind. All three panelists agreed that religious violence and radicalism is not a problem as a source of religion, but rather an issue derived from forgetting the inherent unity of human compassion.

Panel 2: Interfaith Education to Prevent Conflicts and Radicalization

Reverend Chloe Breyer, Executive Director of the Interfaith Center of New York, emphasized the observable religious violence today to variable of disconnectedness. She said, “Radicalization always involves a degree of isolation even though isolation does not always involve radicalization…” interfaith democracy and dialogue combat isolation and conflicts from extremism. Reverend Dr. Haruhiko K. Masaki, Chief Priest of the Koyei-ji Buddhist Temple in Japan cited Buddhist teaching as he prescribed “do not get angry when your opinions differ, instead, be aware that we are all imperfect beings” from whose different elements and beliefs come together in mutual respect to create harmony. Beyond a means for harmony, interfaith education has the ability to act as an equalizer in both times of prosperity and times of struggle. Ramaswamy P. Mohan on the Board of Trustees at the Hindu Temple Society of North America shared stories of need-based and non-need-based positive experiences between Hindu and Muslim communities in Queens, New York and in India. In closing, Mr. Mohan reiterated caution towards generalization, as he said not all radicals are violent extremists. On the true cases of the abusive manipulation of faith, Dr. Ephraim Isaac, Chairman of the Peace and Development Center Ethiopia, said, “Terror in the name of God is being used as a conflict mongering negative abuse of our time.” Yet, he concluded the panel explaining it is “man that is wolf to man,” religion is and will always be a practice of purity, compassion, and love.

Panel 3: Interfaith Education in Formal and Non-Formal Institutions

Reverend Dr. TK Nakagaki, President of the Buddhist Council of New York moved the scope of conversation to “next steps” as he introduced the topic of interfaith education in formal and non-formal institutions as and their effect on future peace building. Reverend Miyaji Ikeda, Chief Priest of the Suwa Shrine in Japan described Shintoism and spirituality in the world of nature. Reverend Ikeda suggested that solidifying nature as the strong foundation to preschool education, future generations earn an education in ways human teachers cannot provide. However, that does not devalue what lessons can be derived from peer interactions. Dr. Zeki Saritoprak, Nursi Chair of Islamic Studies at John Carroll University, opened saying “Islam starts with the command ‘read.’” He follows by saying when an individual reads the Bible, the Qur’an, and the Torah; one cannot help but embrace the commonality and inclusivity of the “family of Abraham.” The final panelist, Imam Shamsi Ali ended the conference with first a note that religiosity is not only what you do in religious venues, but even more prominently what you do through human connections. This was followed by a call to “be courageous enough to learn from others” for that is the first challenge and the first step towards sustainable peace.

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