Vienna, Austria—A two-day International Leadership Conference organized by Universal Peace Federation brought together 250 participants from 45 nations.
“Toward Interdependence and Mutual Prosperity: The Role of Religious Leaders and Parliamentarians” was the theme of the conference, held in the historic Parkhotel Schönbrunn on April 28 and 29, 2018.
The participants included members of parliament and political leaders, religious leaders and theologians, scholars and NGO representatives. They came mostly from Europe and the Middle East, with representatives from Asia, Oceania, Africa, and North America.
In the hotel lobby were displays of some of the significant intercultural, interreligious and educational projects initiated by the UPF founders over the years, such as the Unification Theological Seminary, the Bridge of Peace ceremony of the Women’s Federation for World Peace (WFWP), WFWP-supported schools in Africa, Football for Peace activities, the Mr. and Miss University Pageant, the Sunhak Peace Prize, and the recent Africa Summit for Peace.
The conference focused on two major projects launched by the Universal Peace Federation throughout the world since 2016: the International Association of Parliamentarians for Peace (IAPP) and the Interreligious Association for Peace and Development (IAPD). The highlight of the event was the inauguration of the IAPD in Europe and the Middle East, held on the morning of April 29.
Major world religions—Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, etc.—were represented in their diversity. The presence of many Christian denominations—Anglican, Catholic, Hussite, Lutheran, Maronite, Moravian, Orthodox, Presbyterian, etc.—recalled both the powerful Christian spirit that has moved throughout Europe in the last 2,000 years and the religious struggles that have plagued European history. It also demonstrated the need to stand on common ground to face the challenges of modern times.
The conference began on the afternoon of April 28 with greetings from UPF and WFWP leaders and a recorded video message addressed to the conference participants by Dr. Jan Figel, the European Union special envoy for the promotion of freedom of religion or belief outside the EU. Then a presentation was given on the “Vision and Initiatives of the Universal Peace Federation.”
The program continued through the evening with two panel sessions on the themes “Religious Leaders and Parliamentarians as Peacemakers” and “The Role and Relevance of Religion in Building Inclusive, Peaceful and Prosperous Societies.”
Scholars and theologians from Austria, Denmark, Syria, Italy and Israel, parliamentarians from Portugal and Russia, a former president of Kosovo and a high official from the Ukraine State Religious Department addressed the influence of religion on modern democratic societies as well as the need for cooperation between political and spiritual leaders to deal with challenges as varied as sustainable development goals, family breakdown, and the crises in Syria and the Balkans.
A reception was organized over dinner by IAPP for members of parliament. After welcoming remarks by UPF leaders and parliamentarians from Japan and Denmark, an elder Korean diplomat who had been his nation’s ambassador to Russia reviewed and commented on recent events on the Korean Peninsula. The dinner concluded with the transmission of the “Peace Road Flag” from UPF-Korea to UPF Ambassadors for Peace in the Balkans, represented by the former presidents of Albania and Kosovo.
The second day of the conference began with four concurrent panel discussions, addressing current issues of concern in Europe and the Middle East.
The theme of the first panel, co-sponsored by the Women’s Federation for World Peace, was “Values Education and Healthy Families—Fostering an Environment for Prosperity, Citizenship and Interreligious Harmony.” Before a full room, the panel was opened by the WFWP international president, followed by a deputy speaker of the Albanian Parliament, a Czech parliamentarian, a Swiss religious leader and a British specialist on human rights. The session addressed the issue of family ethics as a base for interdependence and mutual prosperity as well as social and interreligious harmony. Dealing with the decline of family values in modern societies, the panel discussion stimulated a lively exchange with the audience.
The second panel, on the theme “Middle East Peace Initiatives: Assessing the Role of Religion,” featured Jordanian, Palestinian and Lebanese scholars and political leaders, as well as a prominent Danish church leader involved in the Middle East. Panelists offered their perspectives on the background of extremism in the region, on the factors behind conflicts and possible means of reconciliation. One panelist testified to the opportunity she was given by the conference to listen to and better understand opposing political views. The discussion ended with an engaging question-and-answer session.
The third panel addressed the theme of “New Dialogue between Europe and Eurasia.” Panelists discussed the potential revision of the Helsinki Accords, which established new borders in Europe following the dissolution of the USSR, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, taking into account new geopolitical realities in the region. The panel brought together distinguished scholars and political leaders from Russia, Ukraine, Georgia and Austria, including a former secretary general of the Council of Europe. The academic and political experience of the speakers attracted many participants coming from regions concerned with this sensitive issue.
The fourth panel was titled “Peace Initiatives in the Balkans.” Speakers, including a Bektashi religious leader, a Kosovan government minister, a Bosnian journalist and writer, and a Serbian cultural entrepreneur, reviewed several political, interreligious and cultural initiatives meant to build a peaceful and democratic future in the Balkan region. The panel concluded with a presentation on the UPF “Peace Road” project, an initiative engaging youth, religious and political leaders to connect people and nations beyond borders.
The second session of the morning was a plenary assembly dedicated to the inauguration in Europe and the Middle East of the Interreligious Association for Peace and Development (IAPD). A focal point of the conference, it drew an additional 100 participants, including UPF leaders from around the world, bringing the total to 350 participants.
The session began with a speech by His Excellency Shin Dong-ik, the ambassador of the Republic of Korea to Austria, who had been invited to address the assembly about the recent political breakthrough between the North and South Korean leaders. He explained in some detail the issues at stake and the possible steps toward unification that could be taken by President Kim Jeong-un and President Moon Jae-in.
Dr. Felix Unger, the president of the European Academy of Sciences and Arts, gave the keynote address. Dr. Unger, a well-known Austrian heart surgeon, co-founded the academy in 1990 together with Cardinal Franz Koenig, the former archbishop of Vienna, and the philosopher and political scientist Professor Nikolaus Lobkowicz. Its members—1,700 intellectuals, including more than 30 Nobel laureates—address challenges of the post-Cold War era. In his keynote address, Dr. Unger expressed his support for the establishment of IAPD, offering his vision of a common engagement of scientists and spiritual leaders for the sake of peace and development.
Then four prominent religious leaders took the stage, representing Christianity and Islam, as well as Europe, the Middle East and Africa: an Apostolic archbishop from Zimbabwe; a UN envoy for peacebuilding in Syria who is the granddaughter of the late grand mufti of Syria Sheikh Ahmed Kftaro; the dean emeritus of St. Peter’s Cathedral in Geneva, Switzerland; and the president of the World Congress of Faiths from the United Kingdom. Each of them recommended interdenominational cooperation, an engagement with leaders in all fields of society, and the mobilization of women in every peace process.
A Peace Ceremony involving candlelight and water began with a musical interlude. A string quartet of young artists from Austria and the Czech Republic delighted the audience with a beautiful rendition of the Pachelbel Canon. Then a Catholic priest from Spain, the former ecumenical delegate of the diocese of Madrid, and the rector of a major mosque in France stood together on stage for an interfaith prayer given in English and in Arabic.
The Peace Ceremony started with 12 young people, dressed in the colors of the “Peace Starts with Me” festival, coming on stage holding small lit candles and glasses of water—which had been brought by participants from different countries and continents. As they lined up, the dean of the Class of World Religions of the European Academy of Sciences and Arts, a co-organizer of the conference, explained the symbolism of light and water as sources of spiritual and physical life. Then 12 conference participants, each representing a different religion or denomination, lined up on stage behind two tables set up with large candles and a transparent water bowl. Receiving light and water from the young people, they simultaneously lit the candles and mixed the waters, as sacred music was played softly by the string quartet.
Finally, reading the IAPD Declaration, the dean of the Class of World Religions announced the establishment in Europe and the Middle East of the Interreligious Association for Peace and Development.
In the afternoon, filling four large buses, conference participants were taken to the “"Peace starts with me" festival at the Wiener Stadthalle, a large indoor arena. Ten thousand people from all over Europe, the Middle East, Russia and beyond gathered at the festival.
An outstanding entertainment program preceded the main speech, including the three-hundred-voice Longfield Gospel Choir from Austria, the Hungarian shadow theater group Attraction, the Maltese modern-dance troupe Spark, and the Japanese soprano Seiko Lee in a duet with the Albanian tenor Kastriot Tusha.
Former Austrian Defense Minister Dr. Werner Fasslabend gave a warm and heartfelt introduction to UPF co-founder Dr. Hak Ja Han Moon, the main speaker. In her talk, Dr. Moon recalled the importance of Christianity’s development in Europe, as well as some of the human failures that delayed God’s providence. She concluded with a message of hope for our modern era, centering on families and youth living for the sake of others and for the world.
The audience was then treated to exciting entertainment from the Serbian pop singer Nevena Božović. Finally, with her powerful voice, the American gospel star Yolanda Adams, backed by the Longfield Gospel Choir, concluded the program with songs full of heart, ending with a “yes, we can” song that brought everyone to their feet.
The participants of the International Leadership Conference then returned to the Parkhotel Schönbrunn for a concluding dinner banquet. The former president of Albania, a Moroccan scholar and a woman leader from the United Kingdom offered congratulatory words and reflections.
A concluding message was given by the regional chair for Europe and Middle East of the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (FFWPU), an organization affiliated with UPF which provided major support for the Vienna events. He encouraged all participants to actively engage in IAPD activities, after which soprano Seiko Lee delighted the international audience with songs sung in German and Russian.