Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is a great honour to be with you all tonight. As Dr. Zohra Husaini, a director of this council, said recently, “There are few times in history when interfaith co-operation was needed as much as now.” The late Hans Kung was convinced that there would be “no peace among the nations without peace among the religions.” Can anyone here or anywhere reasonably disagree?
I must immediately salute the fourteen faith communities which since 1995 have come together to form this respected body. Your work has included interfaith discussions, visits to the worship centres of your member groups and others, joint advocacy on public issues-including health care and poverty, and holding joint services for peace. You provide a roster of persons from differing faiths to offer prayer at the opening of the weekly meetings of our City Council. You offer a prayer service at our annual Heritage Days and co-ordinate interfaith services in hospitals.
A major priority of the council is a service each March 21st on the International day For the Elimination Of Racial Discrimination. Rosaleen Zdunick notes that you help schools as far away as Wainwright which are having interfaith events. Since the events of 9/11, the council has helped to provide speakers of Muslim faith for numerous events.
Anyone here tonight who has not visited the council offices in Garneau United Place on 84th Avenue and 111th St. Should drop in. One of the founders, Rev.Don Mayne, is the current head of the North American Interfaith Network. In short, Edmonton, Alberta, and Canada can all be very proud of what you are doing.
Edmonton Interfaith Solidarity
Do any of you recall the day a number of years ago when hundreds of us Edmontonians of differing faiths gathered at city hall to protest the “ethnic cleansing” and other horrible persecution of our Muslim sisters and brothers in former Yugoslavia ? How proud we all were that day! A few years later, many of us did the same thing at the legislative assembly to denounce the serious mistreatment of the Christian community in Pakistan. Why don’t we all do the same thing whenever any faith community is being persecuted anywhere? One sad answer to this question is that we could be doing so virtually daily.
Does anyone think that the century we just left has many substantive lessons to offer about interfaith co-operation?
The first half of it saw slaughter, cruelty, enslavement and torture on a scale that the world had probably never before seen. An astonishing 150 million or so human beings in all likelihood died at the hands of professed enemies of all religions like Hitler, Stalin and Mao. Much of the violence was aimed at men, women and children whose fatal failing was practising a religious faith.
One of the miracles of the twentieth century was the failure of God to be driven from human consciousness by the likes of Marx, Hegel, Huxley, Nietzsche, Russell, Shaw, Sartre and others who attacked only with their pens. Belief in God continued among most of humanity across the planet and is now growing strongly in many communities. In fact, it is the God-is-dead school which appears to be on life support nowadays.
UN and Religious Freedom
In the tumultuous period in which we are now living, it is frequently forgotten where the United Nations stands on freedom of religion. Article 18 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 declared that “everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
A half-century on, most of the world’s governments have committed themselves on paper at least through international agreements to protect religious freedom for all their nationals. The gap between promise and performance remains large for believers in many lands who find that their right to religious freedom is either observed more in the breach or not at all by unscrupulous governments.
We know about the totalitarian regimes, which for ideological reasons will tolerate no God or Allah competing with a Leviathan god. But what about democratic governments which stigmatize minority religion they don”t favour as “cults”?
Has not the UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan made human rights central to all UN programming? Did he not declare: “...I believe human rights are the core of our sacred bond with the peoples of the United Nations.” More than any other Sec.-Gen, Annan hasn spoken most not only on advancing human rights but of punishing those who abuse them. Four years ago, he said: “We should leave no one in doubt that for the mass murderers, the “ethnic cleansers”, those guilty of shocking violations of human rights, impunity is not acceptable. The United Nations will never be their refuge, its Charter never the source of conflict of jurisdiction. They are our enemies, regardless of race, religion or nation, and only in their defeat can we redeem the promise of this great organization.”
Peace Among Faiths
No-one here needs to be told that interfaith violence is already one of the major problems of the 21st Century. How can you and I help to reduce it?
One way is for all of us to learn more about other faith communities so that we can debunk the myth-making that so commonly is a precursor to violence. Let me here confess that my own ignorance is part of the problem. In preparing for this event, I picked up a book, The World’s Great Religions. In reading it partly from the standpoint of where various faiths stand on the sensitive issue of forced conversions, I was fascinated. Let me only refer to only five religions.
Where is there in Hinduism, which goes back 4000 years and has no central authority or hierarchy, a basis for coercing non-believers to become Hindus? Did not Prime Minister Nehru of India, who was political disciple of one of history’s best-known Hindus, Mohatma Gandhi,pride himself on India’s secularism and constitution which prohibited the spending of public money for any religion and the teaching of faith in public schools. Has not Hinduism flourished since among many Indians is this structure just as religion has done in the US, which also separates church and state rigidly?
Where in gentle Buddhism, going back 2500 years and being one of the most enobling influences anywhere, is there authority for coercion. Gautama, or the Buddha, gave up three palaces, took up the life of a wandering mendicant, achieved the enlightenment he was seeking, and began to preach about it. During the ensuing 45 years in northern India, the Buddha never used force to win a convert. He once rebuked some of his followers who had resorted to violence: “Shame on him that strikes; greater shame on him who, striken, strikes back.”
Where in the great faith of Islam is coercion sanctioned throughout the thirteen centuries since the Prophet Mohammed died in 632 ACE? Does not the Koran say, “Let there not be any coercion in faith,”? The God of Islam, Allah,is also the God of Judaism and Christianity and other faiths, whose word for Muslims was fulfilled in the Koran. The Prophet was the spokesperson of God, who experienced revelations from God for a decade or more, which he set down in the the holy book of Islam. Later, Muslims developed an outstanding culture in art, philosophy, poetry, mathematics, architecture and medicine. The faith spread through mostly through the mid-latitudes in 57 nations from Morocco to the Malacca Strait.
Like Christianity and Islam, Judaism rests on the concept of strict monotheism . Among numerous other features, it looks to an after life, but is strongly earth-centred, with much stress on a never-ceasing effort to know God’s will as set down in the Torah. Judaism sees history climaxing in a happier age when all peoples “beat their swords into plowshares”.
Christians believe that the resurrected Jesus Christ lives forever to intercede for humankind. He is not only the founder of the faith but the essence of it. He never forces Himself on anyone. A true Christian cannot justify doing what Christ would never do. There were, of course, the Inquisition and the four “Crusades”, but these had nothing to do with the true teachings of our Saviour and everything to do with misinterpretation of the Bible by persons in particular times and communities.
Permit me to close by sharing some good news from our national capital. Recently, we formed an all-party and multi-faith Working Group on Religious-Cultural Harmony. There have been two successful meetings and we are now working on a declaration for the House of Commons to consider. Later, we hope to initiate a religious-cultural solidarity week to be held yearly in every constituency across the country. It is a modest and timely beginning on a work which this council has already begun in our province.
God bless the work of this Council!