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Religious freedom examined at G8 Religious Summit event

Religious freedom examined at G8 Religious Summit event

Religious leaders call for action on poverty, environment and peace:

World leaders meeting in Canada have been urged to take “inspired leadership and action” to halt poverty, protect the environment and end violent conflict. The challenge was made by 80 senior religious leaders from around the world meeting in Winnipeg at the G8 Religious Leaders Summit this past week. See the full story from the Baha’i World News Service:

For the first time at the annual religious summit, there was Baha’i participation – and at a number of levels. Baha’i delegates participated from six of the G8 countries including a Canadian Baha’i delegate, Susanne Tamas, who was asked to Co-chair the Canadian delegation of religious leaders. Canadian Baha’is also served on key organizing committees for the event.

At the suggestion of Dr. Lloyd Axworthy, former Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs and now President of the University of Winnipeg, the Baha’i Community of Canada also organized a day-long Human Rights and Religious Freedom Seminar featuring four human rights experts from different faith backgrounds.

Seminar discusses freedom of belief as prelude to World Religions Summit:

Religion is still a powerful force in world affairs, and the right to freedom of religion must be upheld to ensure that its influence is progressive and positive.

That was among the main messages at a human rights and religious seminar held here on Monday as a prelude to the World Religions Summit, which brought together faith leaders from around the world, ahead of the G-8 and G-20 Summits in Ontario.

Professor Gerald Gall of the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Law was one of four human rights experts from different religious backgrounds who spoke at the seminar, sponsored by the Canadian Baha’i community. Gall told the gathering that religion plays a vital force in defining the landscape in modern society – and a potent source for peace and well-being.

The speakers concurred that the right to investigate and embrace religious truths is taking on new importance. Religion encourages moral behaviour, self sacrifice, and service to others, said Dr. Janet Epp Buckingham, director of the Laurentian Leadership Centre in Ottawa.

It is “vital to individuals, community and society in general,” she said.

Despite religion’s potential for positive influence, Dr. Buckingham acknowledged, it is often seen as divisive. But she and the other panelists agreed that the violence perpetrated in the name of religion is more often the result of clashes over power, natural resources, or economic or ethnic differences.

For example, there are increasing conflicts between Christians and Muslims in Indonesia, said Dr. Buckingham. “This is odd because they have lived peacefully side by side for years,” she said. “But the Christians are ethnically different. They were often from a Chinese background. And they were well off and getting better off.

“So what was portrayed in the media as being a religious clash has much to do with economics and ethnicity. So you have to take this into account before you say, ‘Oh, religion is such a source of conflict,’” she said.

The former environment minister of Iraq, Mishkat Al Moumin – now director of the Washington-based Women and Environment Organization – reported how supposedly warring Shiite and Sunni groups worked together in Baghdad’s Sadr City several years ago to help improve environmental conditions.

At the time, there was a water shortage and limited sewerage. To meet their basic needs, even though they often fought against each other on other issues, “both Sunnis and Shiites said they were willing to make it happen. Because they both needed the same thing,” said Dr. Al Moumin.

It is often environmental problems – such as a basic lack of a water or hygiene – that drive people to violence, and not necessarily religious belief, she said.

Payam Akhavan, a professor of international law at McGill University in Montreal, said that too often those who attribute violence to religion fail to see how the materialistic ideologies of the 20th century were responsible for many more deaths than any religious war.

Today, Professor Akhavan said, the disenchantment with religion has led chiefly to the consumer-driven global capitalism that is “robbing us of our dignity as human beings by reducing us to a bundle of appetites.” At the other extreme is a throw-back ideology of surging religious fundamentalism that sees Western materialism as moral decay and degeneration, observed Professor Akhavan.

“The challenge is to find a path between these two models,” he said.

Such a path can be found by upholding genuine religious freedom, which entails a search for the truth and the freedom to explore that truth, said Professor Akhavan.

“The need is to create a transcendent spirituality, which can give us not merely an opportunity to tolerate each other, but to build a community of belief that transcends our apparent differences,” he said.

“This is an indispensable necessity for the survival of the human race.”