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World religions converge at U.N. conference
UNITED NATIONS -- A dramatic display of diversity opened the Millennium World Peace Summit at the United Nations Monday as conch shells, drums and voices issued a call to representatives of the world's leading religions.
Those religious leaders -- many wearing turbans, saffron robes, feathered headdresses or long black coats -- answered the call to participate in what organizers see as an opportunity to examine whether religion can be used to support the peace-making aims of the United Nations.
"We have to ask a fundamental question," said Bawa Jain, secretary-general of the summit. "What role does religion have to play in helping resolve these conflicts, or in exacerbating these conflicts? Can religion play a role in the peace-making process?"
Organizers also hope to establish a permanent council of religious leaders to advise the United Nations on preventing and settling disputes.
Dalai Lama excluded
Conspicuously absent from the gathering, drawn from more than 15 major faith traditions, was the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism and winner of the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize.
The Dalai Lama's office has said that apparent pressure from the Chinese government on the United Nations caused him to be excluded from the meeting, which will run until Thursday.
In an interview with CNN Tuesday, the Dalai Lama said he hoped serious issues would be addressed at the summit. "I feel they should be discussed informally, truthfully, honestly, and in some cases, I think, without forgetting ... long-term vision. They should be practical."
He stressed that he thinks peace is more possible now than in previous years. "The concept of peace, non-violence ... is becoming more reality," he said.
"It is really worthwhile to make an attempt" to forge peace, he said.
Regarding the failure to invite the Dalai Lama, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan told reporters that "I have indicated that it would have been preferable if everyone were here." But he noted that three representatives of the Dalai Lama would be on hand. "I think this is progress, and I hope it can help us move peace processes around the world," Annan said.
South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, another peace prize laureate, suggested in a letter to the United Nations that it was "caving in to pressure from the government of China. If this is so," he wrote, "it totally undermines the integrity of the United Nations and the credibility of the summit."
The Chinese government is sending a delegation made up representatives of Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and Taoism, while the Dalai Lama sent a high-level delegation, including Drikung Chetsang Rinpoche, head of the Drikung Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, who will address meeting participants at the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday on forgiveness and reconciliation.
China, which annexed Tibet in 1951 and has drawn wide condemnation for human rights abuses in the region, refuses to acknowledge the Dalai Lama, who fled into exile during a bloody 1959 uprising.
'Peace is very dear to us'
The United Nations is the venue for some of the events, while others are being held at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, organized by a consortium of nongovernmental interfaith groups.
The Dalai Lama declined a belated invitation to the summit's closing ceremony at the Waldorf, the summit's headquarters, because he was excluded from the U.N. grounds, organizers said.
In the lobby of the hotel, where most summit participants are staying, barefoot monks mingled with white-robed swamis. Inca Indians in wool tunics and tasseled hats looked in wonder at the processions of veils, caps and turbans.
"We'll continue to look for solutions until the peace comes," said Eritrean Bishop Zekarias Yohannes, who plans to meet with Ethiopian leaders. The two Horn of Africa neighbors have a cease-fire in a border war.
"Peace is very dear to us," said Kawmar Ohiah Kamaruzaman, a Muslim professor from Malaysia. "We can't get it in one sitting. But if there is any chance we should grab it."
Opportunity for dialogue
Expected to attend the meeting are Cardinal Francis Arinze, representing the Vatican; Samdech Preah Maha Gosananda, a Buddhist nominee for the Nobel prize; Abdullah Salaih al-Obaida, secretary-general of the Moslem World League; Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, chief rabbi of Israel; and Mustafa Ceric, the grand mufti of Bosnia.
Religious leaders from dozens of countries and regions, including the Balkans, Central Asia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Indonesia, Israel, Philippines, Russia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Syria and Sudan are expected to open dialogues.
Participants welcomed the opportunity for interreligious dialogue on a grand scale, but some observers questioned how much progress can be made in four days.
Harvard Divinity School professor David Little said he hopes religious leaders will discuss subjects they often avoid, such as their communities' treatment of minorities who have become the leading victims of human rights abuses.
Most important, he wants to see leaders make tough political choices about who will serve on an advisory committee to the United Nations and their ongoing responsibilities.
"The institutionalization of an advisory committee is enormously important," he said, "if the summit is not to be seen as a once-in-a-lifetime thing."
Turner is honorary chairman
A major portion of the meeting's funding is coming from the U.N. Foundation/Better World fund, created by Ted Turner, the vice chairman of Time Warner Inc. and founder of Cable News Network, the parent network of CNN Interactive.
Turner, who is serving as honorary chairman of the meeting, has in the past had to apologize for brash remarks about organized religion, including a 1990 comment that Christianity was "for losers."
Recognizing the vast number of different faiths from around the world, organizers set out criteria for identifying the "major" religious institutions.
Among them were "historical importance, the number of adherents, geography and reach, and antiquity."
"A general guideline is that the religion or faith should be more than 100 years old and its charismatic founder or leader (should be) no longer present in body," they said.
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Millennium World Peace Summit
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