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World Religious Leaders Gather

August 28, 2000

NEW YORK (AP) _ Swamis, rabbis, monks and ministers gather at the United Nations for the Millennium World Peace Summit to discuss how to resolve the conflicts that divide countries _ and threaten their own meeting.

Participants say they hope the summit, which runs Monday through Thursday, will result in resolutions on peace, poverty and the environment, as well as the formation of a permanent council of religious leaders to advise the United Nations on preventing and settling disputes.

In the lobby of The Waldorf-Astoria hotel, where most summit participants are staying, barefoot monks mingled with white-robed swamis on Sunday. 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.″

But the difficulty of achieving any consensus was highlighted when participants learned earlier this month that conference organizers had not invited the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan Buddhist leader and a Nobel Peace Prize winner, to the first two days of the conference for fear of offending China. The seven-member Chinese delegation to the summit accused the Dalai Lama last week of ``creating turmoil in Tibet,″ from which he fled in 1959 after an abortive uprising against China’s occupation.

On Sunday evening, summit general-secretary Bawa Jain said an eight-person delegation of Tibetan Buddhist leaders had been sent by the Dalai Lama, and that two of them would be speaking in the General Assembly hall.

``But I don’t want it to get into anything political,″ said Jain, a member of the Jain faith from New Jersey by way of India. ``I’ve made that clear to them.″

Nonetheless, pro-Tibetan groups said, planned demonstrations protesting the Dalai Lama’s exclusion were still on.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who speaks Tuesday to the gathering, said, ``It would have been preferable if everybody were here.″

``But I think to have the three representatives of the Dalai Lama participate along with another thousand religious leaders in this house to talk about peace, to talk about the role religion can play in our search for peace _ I think it’s progress,″ he said Monday.

He underlined that the United Nations was not sponsoring the gathering or responsible for issuing invitations.

Despite the tensions, many participants say that given the number of conflicts with strong religious components _ from Sierra Leone to the Balkans _ they wouldn’t miss a chance to form alliances for peace.

An interfaith coalition organized the program and invited high-ranking religious leaders.

``The delegations from China and Vietnam were the only ones chosen by their governments,″ said Dena Merriam of the summit executive council.

Among the leaders on the program: Cardinal Francis Arinze, president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue; Cambodian Buddhist leader Samdech Preah Maha Ghosananda; the Grand Mufti of Bosnia, Mustafa Ceric; Israeli Chief Rabbi Meir Lau; the Rev. Jesse Jackson; Evangelist Anne Graham Lotz, the Rev. Billy Graham’s daughter; and numerous indigenous leaders including Chief Oren Lyons, faithkeeper of the Onondaga Nation in upstate New York.

Leaders who declined include Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, who sent a videotaped message, and Jerusalem Mufti Ikrema Sabri, who has refused to meet with Rabbi Lau.

The summit has received funding from Ted Turner’s U.N. Foundation, Better World Fund and others. Turner, who once said that Christianity was ``for losers,″ will give the keynote address.

Still, organizers say the meeting was a response to a call from Annan, and the summit’s first two days will be held in the U.N. General Assembly chamber.

Even the limited U.N. connection has placed the meeting in the midst of international political strife.

A U.N. official advised conference organizers that China would be outraged by an invitation to the Dalai Lama.

Organizers invited him only to the last two days of the conference _ being held at a New York hotel, away from the United Nations. He declined.

Fellow Nobel peace laureate Desmond Tutu said the exclusion ``totally undermines the integrity of the United Nations and the credibility of the summit.″

Participants welcome the opportunity for interreligious dialogue on a grand scale, but some observers question how much progress can make 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.″

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