Local News Archive
Print Issue: January 25, 1968
New Delhi Hosts Meeting On Religion, Building World Places
By Bishop Joseph L. Bernardin
Recently New Delhi, India was the scene of an historic meeting. From January 10 to 14, forty-seven representatives of the worlds great religious traditions gathered at the Indian International Center to discuss the relevance of religion to the establishment of world peace.
The meeting - officially known as an International Inter-religious Symposium on Peace - was jointly sponsored by the Gandhi Peace Foundation and the United States Inter-religious Committee on Peace. Representatives of the Catholic Church included Archbishop Angelo Fernandes, Archbishop of New Delhi, Monsignor Edward Murray of the Archdiocese of Boston and myself.
The Symposium grew out of the National Inter-religious Conference on Peace which was held in Washington in March, 1966. It was decided that time to explore the possibility of calling a worldwide Inter-religious Conference on Peace in 1967 which all the worlds religious traditions would participate. Two representatives of the United States Inter-religious Committee on Peace traveled around the world in early 1967 to discuss the matter with various religious leaders but discovered that the time was not yet ripe for such a conference. However, they did find the Gandhi Peace Foundation willing to co-sponsor an initial, exploratory meeting which could possibly prepare the way for a broader-based, more official conference. Thus the Symposium came into being.
It was a moving sight to see the religious leaders from the East and the West sit down around the conference table to exchange ideas on religions role as a peacemaker and peacekeeper. It was the first time that some of us - so accustomed to the Judeao-Christian culture of the West - had met in such a personal, intimate way with Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Moslems, Zoroastrians and representatives of the Jain and Bahai religions. However, from the very start - despite the diversity of religious and cultural backgrounds - we all felt at home with each other. The true solidarity of the human family became an experienced reality.
The purpose of the meeting, as already indicated, was not to enter into a dialogue on religious values which unite us generally. Rather, the point of reference for our discussions was what our respective religious traditions can contribute toward the specific goal of establishing and maintaining world peace. In order to provide a proper basis for dialogue, a delegate from each tradition outlined the sanctions for peace subscribed by his religion. Of special interest was the presentation of Mahatma Gandhi who considered non-violent methods the only valid way of resolving conflicts.
As the speakers told about their respective religions, it became more and more clear that on the subject of peace there is wide unanimity. The problem now was to translate these ideals and principles into practice, to redirect mans thinking and efforts so that they will lead to a just and lasting peace instead of war. It was emphasized that we must humbly acknowledge that, as a religious people, we have not done enough in the past; not only has war been a frequent occurrence, but it has often been waged in the name of religion.
Nor are we doing enough at present. The current conflicts, with all their destruction of life and property, and the proliferation of nuclear weapons are evidence of this. Each religion must look into its own tradition and its sanctions for peace and re-examine, in the spirit of humility and courage, the reason for its failure to be a truly effective force for peace.
The delegates unanimously approved an official message to the world at large, urging all men to turn their thoughts and efforts to the securing of human rights, justice and peace. The message then went on to speak of specific areas in which changes must be made if peace is to become a reality in our times.
During the course of Symposium, the group broke up into three panel groups which met for several hours daily. At the final session each panel gave its report to the full assembly. These reports were not approved, but simply received by the full membership as representing the views of those who participated in each panel.
The first panel on The Common Religious Concern for Social and Economic Development stressed the fact that peace is not possible as long as two-thirds of the human family suffers from hunger and privatization. As an expression of our common religious compassion for human life, the report stated, we urge that, where there is a clear and specific social or economic need, all religious groups in that area join together in order to discover how that need can be met collectively.
Specific matters to which attention was called included: (a) the need of narrowing the ever-widening gulf which exists between the privileged and less privileged persons and nations by a better distribution of wealth and other resources and a more equitable system of trade; (b) the problem of literacy as an obstacle to progress; (c) the urgency of using the money now spent for armaments to help satisfy the basic human needs of two-thirds of the world; and (d) the necessity of establishing some international control over those natural resources which do not now belong to any nation (such as the oceans and polar regions) but may be needed for the welfare of future generations.
The second panel on Freedom and Human Rights affirmed that the religions of the world must speak with a united voice in upholding and defending these rights which stem from mans status and dignity as man. The panelists agreed these rights should not be less than the human rights contained in the United Nations Declaration and that all discrimination based on caste or class, creed or color or national origin must end. Among other things it was recommended: (a) that education be utilized as an instrument of creating a suitable moral climate in order to achieve human rights and the acknowledgement of their corresponding duties and obligations; (b) that international instruments be established to guarantee the recognition of human rights in every nation; and (c) that channels of communication be opened up immediately among all religious groups so that the concern of religion in this field may be translated effectively and quickly from principle into practice.
Peace-making and Peace-keeping was the subject of the final panel. The members first outlined a number of moral concepts which they considered basic to their discussion. There is a moral conviction, they said, that war must be condemned as a means of settling disputes. They also stated that there is a moral requirement to try to prevent oppression and aggression and, where necessary, to restrain and defend against those who commit these and other crimes upon their fellow men, and especially to protect the weak from the powerful.
In view of these and other principles, the panelists made specific recommendations. The most notable included: (a) establishment of improved institutions for peace-making such as a United Nations Board of Arbitration and Panel of Mediators, an elite corps of volunteers serving directly in a United Nations Police Force, etc.; (b) if necessary, for effective representation of all peoples in this period of shifting history, inclusion in the United Nations of two member governments each for the people of Germany, China, Vietnam and Korea; and (c) cessation of the bombing of North Vietnam as the first step toward de-escalating the war and the placing of United Nations police between the North and South to ensure a cessation of hostilities on both sides. It should be noted that there was no question of giving up or abandoning the South Vietnamese people.
The Symposium, before adjourning, unanimously voted that a broader World Conference on Religion and Peace should be held later in 1969. It was agreed that an attempt would be made to secure the collaboration of as many religious bodies as possible in planning for this conference. The elaborate work of setting up such a meeting will be handled initially by an interim advisory committee soon to be established.
A concluding highlight of the Symposium was the reception of all delegates by the President of India, Dr. Zakir Husain, and the Prime Minister, Mrs. Indira Gandhi. Their interest and support added greatly to the success of the gathering. Their national heritage in the person and works of Mahatma Gandhi will certainly continue to influence the work of the Symposium.
To be present in such an assembly was truly thrilling. It not only gave me a sense of our ties with men of other religious persuasion around the world, but it also convinced me of the solidarity of the family of man in its quest for peace. Conferences like this one can be simply gatherings where talks are given and heard, or they can be the effective catalyst for decisive action. I sensed more of the latter at New Delhi.