Special Event Organized on the Occasion of World Interfaith Harmony Week by the President of the United Nations General Assembly and the Committee of Religious NGOs at the United Nations | Friday, February 6, 2015
The UN Special Event in observation of World Interfaith Harmony Week was built around the theme of multi-religious partnership for sustainable development, acknowledging that 2015 is the year that the Millennium Development Goals transition to Sustainable Development Goals: “a new development agenda for the new generation,” as described by Ms. Cristina Gallach, Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations in the opening session of the special event, which the World Day of Prayer and Action for Children Secretariat observed on Friday, February 6, the final day of World Interfaith Harmony Week.
One significant obstacle to sustainable development is violent extremism, which is propagated often in the name of religion. It was condemned throughout the panel. Ms. Sara Rahim, UN Youth Representative of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, spoke of the divisiveness she faced as a young Muslim growing up in a post-September 11 world. “My religion was hijacked,” she said. Imam Shamsi Ali, chairman of the Al-Hikmah Mosque and director of the Jamaica Muslim Center, traced the roots of religious extremism: ignorance, the sensationalism of media, and the misinterpretation of religious texts. He called for religious scholars to be diligent in explaining religious texts not just to their own religious community but to others. Dr. Uma Myosekar, president of the Hindu Temple Society of North America, also identified education as a way to stop extremism – specifically education of common people of different faiths. Exposure to different faiths, said Dr. Myosekar, should start right at school.
Religious communities were called upon to be the link between human rights and sustainable development, and religious and interfaith leaders to mobilize on shared values in order to take action. “Depend on the deep streams of moral commitment that run through religious communities,” advised Dr. William F. Vendley, Secretary General of Religions for Peace, who is also a council member of World Day of Prayer and Action for Children, and President of the Committee of Religious NGOs at the UN. Dr. Katherine Marshall, Senior Fellow at Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, praised interfaith connections and religious alliances for being both ethereal-theological, and grounded and concrete, saying that the push for sustainable development will come from common interests, moral authority, and concern for welfare.
Because the basic needs of life are to be protected and promoted by every religious institutions, sustainable development presents challenges to religions and faiths around the world. Ambassador Ufuk Gokcen, Permanent Observer of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to the United Nations, stated that female genital mutilation has nothing to do with religion, and he reiterated his faith’s rejection of FGM. Dr. Azza Karam, Senior Culture Advisor of the UNFPA and Coordinator of the UN Inter-Agency Task Force on Faith-Based Engagement, said that in this day and age the litmus test for religions should be where they stand on gender equality.
Rabbi Roger Ross, Executive Director of the Rabbinical Seminary of America, identified the need for religious communities to engage the youth in order for sustainable development to truly come about. “We need the strength of the youth and their willingness to continue our efforts,” he said, as Ms. Rahim had also earlier identified that it is important to “use the existing diversity as a catalyst for change rather than division.” Ms. Rahim also said that there is a lack of outlets and chances for the youth to speak out about possible interconnectedness, which is a great problem. They must be tapped into across all networks, inclusive of all minorities, Ms. Rahim says: “The youth today are interconnected, multilingual, and globalized, and they have the answers.”