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World religions gather to fight fundamentalism

September 12, 2006 12:28 IST
To mark the fifth anniversary of 9/11, over 1,000 delegates from 84 countries, including India, have gathered for a week in Montreal, Canada, to discuss the rise of religious fundamentalism and its consequences.

A seven-page document titled Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the World's Religions will formally be released on Tuesday by 2003 Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi with support from Art of Living founder Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, Jayshree Talwakar, who heads the Swadhay Parivar movement, and author Karen Armstrong.

The week-long conference opens on Tuesday with its major plenary on 'Religion and Human Rights' with an hour-long address by Ebadi, the Iranian civil rights campaigner.

Other topics of discussion at the conference would include 'Religion and Human rights,' 'Religion and Women,' 'Religion: Din, Dao and Dharma,' 'Proselytisation and religious freedom,' 'Religion and Spirituality,' 'Religion and Science and Religion and Health' and finally 'Religion and the media'.

Dr Arvind Sharma, Professor of Comparative Religion, McGill University, Montreal, and the main organiser of the conference, says the draft declaration on 'human rights and religions' will be formally discussed at this conference and changes suggested by the participants.

"It has already undergone so many changes at various conferences as the draft was first prepared in 1999 (at the Contribution of World Religions conference held at Chapman University in Orange, California) when we suggested in the preamble that 'Sky/Heaven is the father, earth is the mother and we human beings are brothers and sisters' but Abraham traditions (Christians, Muslims and Jews) opposed that concept and so we decided to drop it. For them, God is the supreme spiritual being and not earthy symbols of sky, earth, etc," he said.

'All human beings have the right to be treated as human beings and have the duty to treat everyone as a human being,' says the draft declaration. 'Religions ideally urge human beings to live in a just society and not just in any society,' it explains.

'Everyone has a right to recognition everywhere as a person before law; and by everyone everywhere as a human being deserving humane treatment, even when law and order has broken down (and) everyone has the duty to treat everyone else as a human being both in the eyes of law and one's own.'

The UN Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in December 1948 following the Second World War and WWII, "we all know, resulted from the rise of Communism, Fascism, etc," argued Professor Sharma.

"Now there is a rise of religious fundamentalism," he said. "Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, etc -- there is this rise of fundamentalism in all these religions. We have before us 9/11 resulting from this kind of fundamentalism and so we decided to do something about it before it goes out of hand."

"The Declaration on Human Rights in 1948 was an antidote for the Second War. Now we have a parallel in what happened on 9/11 and subsequently," Professor Sharma explained.

"When we felt the level of extremism in religions was rising, we thought it might be a good idea to get our Declaration on Religions in place before such extremist forces get out of hand as it happened before the Second World War. We are under no illusion that this will in any way stop or slow down the tide of religious extremism. What we cherish and hope is that our initiative might have some effect in abating it, or at least help in mitigating some of its worst excesses," he said.

"Once people get together and openly commit themselves to certain norms, they are harder to violate or at least you violate with a bad conscious," he observed.

"So those who are part of the draft declaration on religion and human rights thought this was the right time (with the 5th anniversary of 9/11) to hold this major conference of leaders of world religions and officially/formally release this draft document for discussions to the public. It has no formal structure as yet," Professor Sharma added.

The draft will be taken to various religious leaders and changes will also be made on the basis of inputs from scholars and the public before hopefully being presented to the Parliament of World Religions in 2009.

When asked which Muslim leaders were attending the Montreal conference, Professor Sharma kept repeating the name, "Madam Ebadi, the Nobel Laureate from Iran."

When pointed out that she was not a religious leader, he brought in three more names (all from Iran) -- Professor S H Nasr of George Washington University, an authority on Islam; Professor Abdolkarim Soroush, a visiting professor at Harvard University who teaches courses on Islam and democracy; and Akbar Ganji, an Iranian political prisoner who was released recently and is currently in North America.

Ganji is likely to attend the concluding session. "He recently turned down an invitation from the White House as he doesn't agree with the policies of George Bush," Professor Sharma said.

It was not clear to this reporter how Ebadi, Nasr, Soroush and Ganji could be deemed Muslim religious leaders? All of them are from Iran and they are what someone would call 'dissenters,' not being in agreement with the policies of the current Iranian regime.

"Although the Dalai Lama and Archibishop Desmond Tutu are not attending the conference, they have lent their support to our efforts," Professor Sharma said. "We have received letters of support from them."

Hindu leaders attending the conference include Sri Swami Dayananda Saraswati, a distinguished teacher of Vedanata and founder of the All India Movement for Seva.

Other participants from India include Dr Ashok Vohra from Delhi University; Madhu Khanna from the Indira Gandhi National Institute of the Arts; Vijaya Ramaswamy from the Jawaharlal Nehru University and New Age guru Dr Deepak Chopra. "You may term him a Hindu leader," Professor Sharma added.

Ajit Jain in Toronto