Uniting for Peace Annual Conference “World Religions for Peace” at Wesley’s Chapel on 25 November 2017. Photo credit: Bernard Holland
REPORT BY ANTHONY RUSSELL, EDITED BY VIJAY MEHTA
On Saturday, 25 November 2017, Uniting for Peace hosted an all day conference on World Religion for Peace at Wesley’s Chapel with an audience of around 80 people. After a brief introduction from the chair of Uniting for Peace Vijay Mehta, the conference chair, Rita Payne hoped the day would answer many questions, such as why if religions sought to inspire peace, there was so much violence between them? Dr. Marcus Braybrooke – President of the World Congress of Faiths opened with a short period of silence to remember the Mosque attack in Sinai and short prayer.
First of the speakers was Mark Owen, Director, Winchester Centre of Religion, Reconciliation and Peace. He believed governments would increasingly realise importance of engaging with religious bodies for peace building and by instigating practical initiatives. He describes his work across the globe and locally in Hampshire, including identifying the valuable recourses religious groups have for advancing the cause of peace. There’s little understanding of the need for inter-faith peace-building between states as well as within states. There were now more identity-based conflicts but that issues were complex, often around power and control rather than purely religious issues. Migration had become a real difficulty for community cohesion, where religions can seen a barrier to social integration. Multi-faith work helps to combat radicalisation and negative narratives. Working in Myanmar had shown how easily religions could be manipulated for violence. Finally he asked how one could accept the religions of others, while remaining true to one’s own?
Imam Monawar Hussain of The Oxford Foundation said he had established the foundation in 2009, particularly working with young people, highlighting early problems with language and use of religion to support political ends. First priority was always to challenge extremism through ‘uniting for peace’ with other Faiths to share in a religious service format. Their educational model defines Islam bases on three interconnected approaches; Submission, faith and beauty. Beauty he defined as ‘doing the beautiful’ and living in harmony. He felt an increase sense that young Muslims feels comfortable both as Muslims and as British.
Dr. Marcus Braybrooke – President, World Congress of Faiths said we can’t leave it to religious leaders and talked of ‘Breaking down walls’ of misunderstanding and separation. He concentrated on the need for personal commitment and appreciating the walls within our own hearts; how St Paul had said Jesus came to ‘break down the walls between Jews and Gentiles’ and how those of faith needed to do same. We should challenge all that is exclusive within religion and recognise that the more we’re open to other faiths, the more our understanding is increased. Shared prayer, for example, is so powerful in bringing people together and then how important it was to smile and greet strangers as a great way to start the process towards a world without walls.
Anna Lubelska, the founder and coordinator of the Peaceful Schools Movement said there was positive developments and identified a lot of work on peace in schools in the UK. The movement was about to publish a book called; ‘How to be a Peaceful School’, on an understanding of ‘peace’ not as that of oppression but of respect, faithfulness, compassion and harmony. Schools also had wider social orbits and spoke of a perceptible global desire for change. The four levels of their approach were; promoting peaceful individuals, then relationships, then the whole school community and finally peace in the world. Anna also highlighted three types of initiative. There was the secular approach of ‘values based education’, as advocated by Sue Webb but generated through a consultation process with pupils and teachers. Then the inter-faith approach, finding the common truth at the core of different religions, such as the reciprocity of the shared Golden Rule. Finally the overtly religious approach, with initiatives such as the Peace Garden and emotional support to promote peace.
Natubhai Shah, as the chair and CEO of The Jain Network, reminded the conference that we were of course talking to the ‘converted’ and that Egoism has caused all the problems of the world. The wisdom of the founders of religions had come from knowledge through contemplation. The media has changed the way we think and the values of religions have lost out. So that discipline and respect are in decline. Jainism believed in ‘Honour to the people who are trying to conquer themselves’, with a profound commitment to nonviolence and reverence for all life, calmness of self and inner change. Attacking others was a violence to oneself. Peace was more than the absence of war or even of conflict and suffering. It was a state of mind that can be cultivated with the help of regular practical exercises to conquer oneself.
Vijay Mehta, the chair of Uniting for Peace, addressed the conference on Hinduism’s vision for peace, as about oneness with all being including God and nature. Importantly in this world of confused messages and conflicting identities, he stated Hinduism’s belief in only one spiritual reality; the ‘being’ of all beings; that of consciousness and bliss. Though very religiously diverse, the vast population of India basically gets along, with the understanding that there are many paths but only one truth. Gandhi appreciated that all religions were helpful to each other, increasing understanding and cooperation. Vijay believed the idea of nonviolence came from religion. Violence comes from the seed of hate and prejudice, where only ‘base minds’ believe in the illusion of division. ‘The World is one family’ and inner peace comes from within. Can religion bring peace? The Hindu ethos accepts the difference of others. It took Wilberforce and his supporters 40 years of struggle to abolish slavery and some deviousness (offering MPs free tickets to the Derby so they missed parliamentary votes!) We should pledge to end wars and especially religious justification for them. We need more inner faith so lets do it – now!
The questions from the floor represented a broad range of concerns about religions in general and the doctrines of each in particular. The mood seemed to suggest some were frustrated by what they perceived as the sectarian nature of religions and their violent traditions. The question “Why aren’t religious leaders standing up to say don’t kill?” from someone, seemed to be aimed at Islam, to which the response was that most of the media does not report the peace work of the Muslim community. Someone else said they felt excluded because they weren’t religious, so how are we welcome? Another spoke of the emphasis on tackling ‘the enemy within’ each of us central to the Quaker movement. There were in fact few genuine questions from the floor and much concern and perhaps angst expressed for the perceived ever-greater division in society. Had Gandhi not spoken disparagingly about black people? Wasn’t criticism of Israel’s fence just anti-Semitism? Some agreed we needed to distinguish between ‘faith’ and ‘religion’, where religions were promoting ‘othering’ and exclusion. Religion shouldn’t be seen as finite but open to change.
The interfaith conference provided an excellent opportunity for networking with people from different faiths and religious bodies for peace building.