Vienna, Austria - Approximately 200 people observed World Interfaith Harmony Week by attending a conference at the Vienna headquarters of the United Nations.

The half-day conference, titled “The Importance of Interfaith Cooperation for Securing Peace in the 21st Century,” was held on February 6, 2015, at the Vienna International Center.

It was organized by UPF-Austria in cooperation with the Academic Council on the United Nations System (ACUNS Vienna), Women’s Federation for World Peace International and media partner The Best of the World Network.

To set the tone for the conference, UPF first showed a video titled “Creating a Family of Faith” which advocates the establishment of an Interreligious Council at the UN.After words of welcome by Peter Haider, secretary general of UPF-Austria, Elder Ruben Silverbird, a longtime Ambassador for Peace, opened the conference with a Native American flute blessing, asking those present to close their eyes and say a silent prayer for peace.

The first speaker, Dr. Slawomir Redo, who has worked for many years as a UN senior expert on crime prevention and justice, spoke on “An Interreligious Input for the United Nations 2016-2030 SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals].” He explained that the UN Millennium Development Goals will be developed as Sustainable Development Goals for the next 15 years. How can religion be integrated into these goals? Of course, the Golden Rule can be found in almost all religions: love for God and love for one’s neighbor. This rule could guide people to a more just distribution of wealth. In addition, he emphasized dignity and justice. Buddhism has contributed to respecting animals and nature in general, he said, whereas justice could be strengthened by the idea of the brotherhood of all humankind. Finally he told the story of the six blind men who tried to describe an elephant, with the moral of the story: Each of us has a part of the truth, and our fellow human has another part of it!

Then an Austrian who with two companions walked from Cape Finisterre in Spain to Jerusalem spoke about his pilgrimage. Johannes Aschauer, speaking about the project “Jerusalem Way  a Pilgrimage to the Holy Land,” said that in the six months that he needed to walk the 4,500 kilometers he had a lot of time for thoughts, discussions and encounters. Later they marked the way and so developed a new pilgrimage path. They also turned it into an international peace project for Syria. “Walking this way, you have to pass through many countries and meet people of many cultures,” he said. “You can get rid of many prejudices. That’s why the Jerusalem Way stands for tolerance and understanding. There is only one religion, the religion of love!”

The next speaker was Dr. Shantu Watt of the UN Women’s Guild and Women Federation for World Peace, who addressed the topic “The Role of Women in Interfaith Peacebuilding.” Dr. Watt stated, “My goal is to bring forth every person to the forefront of visibility, also every woman!” There are 4,200 religions in the world, she said, and all of them claim to possess the truth. The common ground needed for dialogue can be found by accepting the dignity and equality of other religions.

Interfaith dialogue generally fails to address discrimination against women within religions, Dr. Watt said. Religious dialogue also needs to address unacceptable religious practices, such as female genital mutilation or abortion of female fetuses, if religions want to be bastions of morality and peace.

Her suggestions for interfaith dialogue were: to examine cultural practices and look for their proof in sacred texts, to give women a larger role in religious institutions, and to encourage the media to show how many women are involved in peacebuilding and interfaith dialogue!

Dr. No-Hi Pak of UPF-Korea spoke on “Religious Peace Movements in Multi-Religious Korea.” Buddhism was the main religion for more than 1,000 years, he said. It harmonized with Shamanism, the ancient religion of Korea. Then Confucianism was introduced by China. Buddhists were tolerant toward Confucianism; therefore the two sets of thought coexisted.

When in the 18th century Christianity was introduced, the intellectuals accepted it. Unfortunately Catholicism clashed with the Confucian tradition of worshiping ancestors, and much blood was shed. When the Korean War broke out in 1950 and the Korean people were plunged into misery and anguish, the United States, representing Christian culture, extended a helping hand like a savior and offered assistance, which opened the hearts of the Korean people. Moreover, the impassioned Holy Spirit movement, which swept across Korea when it was suffering the agony of war, served as the fertile soil on which Protestantism rapidly grew.

While Koreans were suffering because of war and poverty, new autogenic denominations rooted in national spirit and traditions came into being within the Christian faith and sometimes even were persecuted by mainstream Christianity. A principal example of this was the persecution of UPF Founder Dr. Sun Myung Moon, who was passionate in carrying out an interdenominational and interreligious peace movement. The ideology that is central to all his teachings is “One family under God.”

Dr. Moon mobilized world-renowned theologians to research the scriptures of the different religions collectively and to publish an interreligious book titled World Scripture. The theologians’ research revealed that 70 percent of religious doctrines were identical, and that the remaining 30 percent differed because of religious rituals and procedures.

To start the second session, the music video for the world's first interfaith anthem, Sami Yusuf  The Gift of Love, was shown.

Professor Dr. Richard Trappl, director of the Confucius Institute in Vienna, spoke on the topic “Religion in China in Old and Modern Times.” China is not just an economic power; its rich culture should be studied seriously, he said. Professor Trappl asked whether Chinese religions like Confucianism and Daoism, which complement each other in many ways, are religions in the sense we have them in the West. The term for “religion,” zongjiao, consists of zong (“family”) and jiao (“teaching”). He argued that Confucianism is an ethics system for creating a human community that is defined by responsibility. Daoism, on the other hand, is an epistemology, to think in polarities between existence and non-existence. For 2,500 years, the rationality of Confucian thinking and the irrationality of the Daoist school of complemented each other. In the 1st and 2nd centuries A.D. Buddhism entered China, opening what we would describe from a Western perspective as a more religious dimension. That was a third pillar. When we look at the destruction of this heritage, highly respected for 2,000 years, during the communist Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, we have to ask how this could happen. During the time of colonization the Western powers taught the Chinese that they were too weak, with their ideals of harmony and peace derived from Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism, to match the achievements of the Western world. It was a dialogue of aggression coming from the West.

Today the Chinese build churches as sites for weddings and they celebrate Christmas throughout the country. This is a secularization of religion, but we can see a change in the atmosphere.

Professor Anis H. Bajrektarevic, a professor for international law and international politics, reflected in his presentation “Multiculturalism, Dead or Dread in Europe?” upon Europe and its role in the world. He observed that all religions originate from Asia, whereas all political philosophies come from Europe. The Asian religions (or, as he called them, “comprehensive philosophies of life”) had the capacity to coexist, he said, in contrast to the monotheistic beliefs of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, which very often were misused for ideological purposes, to purge the otherness in an alleged “exclusive access to the truth.”

In the booming world of physics and metaphysics, Europe is lagging behind. Europe is rapidly losing its bio capital due to dismal demographic scores, as well as migratory pressures (the best educated Europeans are leaving, while mostly unskilled immigrants from the Middle East, North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa are arriving). Europe's lasting crisis is not only economic, it is a recession of thoughts and ideas on how to move forward. Europe has to revisit its social but also cross-generational contract before being able to conduct a sincere and comprehensive interfaith dialogue about multiculturalism and diversity. Professor Bajrektarevic sees as one of the most urgent problems that European people have lost the ability to reproduce themselves because they have lost awareness of the preciousness of the family.

Talking about Austria, Professor Bajrektarevic said that he can understand (although not accept as fait accompli) the sensationalistic media coverage of so-called Austrians of Muslim origin or immigrants of Arab or Muslim descent. Turks and Bosnians represent over three-quarters of the Muslims in Austria, but they are excluded from debates. This is counterproductive to interfaith dialogue and the overall social consensus, security and safety of Austria.

Ms. Eirini Patsea, a young lawyer, speaking on “Cultural Diplomacy and Interfaith Mediation” (with its main focus on Greece), explained the role of the Greek Orthodox Church in interfaith diplomacy in Europe and the Middle East. She gave as an example the interfaith diplomatic activities of the Greek Orthodox Church in Egypt for conflict management between the Muslim and Coptic communities.

She also mentioned the mediating role of the Patriarchate of Jerusalem between the Israeli state and various Arab countries. She pointed out that the leverage of the Patriarchate largely depends on its being one of the biggest owners of land in Jerusalem; as well as on the deep-rooted relationship of Greek Orthodoxy with both the Jewish and the Muslim culture and traditions, allowing the Patriarchate to act as a credible, trusted mediator.

It was suggested that the Greek Orthodox Church has great potential in successfully engaging in interfaith diplomacy, even on a state level, acting as a stabilizing and equalizing power in the regions of Europe and the Middle East.

Dipl. Ing. Ian Banerjee, an assistant professor of architecture at the Technical University of Vienna, spoke on “An Urbanist’s Perspective on Education for Interreligious Dialogue.” Dipl. Ing. Banerjee was born in Calcutta and raised as a Hindu. His best friend was a Muslim, although he didn’t know anything about Islam. This year Dipl. Ing. Banerjee visited India with his Austrian students, and their tour guide was a devout Muslim whose wife would cook vegetarian meals for his best friend, a Hindu. From these experiences he learned that human beings have the capacity to overcome cultural and religious differences by the power of love!

For the text of a presentation from the perspective of Orthodox Christianity by Eirini Patsea, a lawyer and specialist in cultural diplomacy and faith-based mediation, click here.

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