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International religious summit at U.N. receives criticism

NEW YORK (BP)–Nearly 2,000 religious and spiritual leaders from throughout the world gathered for the Aug. 28 opening of a United Nations-affiliated conference on world peace amid controversy over the nature of the meeting and the exclusion of a prominent international figure.

The Millennium World Peace Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders, which will include leaders from at least 12 different religions, will focus on the themes of conflict transformation, forgiveness and reconciliation, poverty and the environment.

The four-day summit is expected to establish an advisory council of international religious and spiritual leaders to assist the United Nations in seeking world peace. The summit also is expected to invite religious leaders to sign a declaration for world peace.

It has received criticism, however, for the agenda it will promote and for its rebuff of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan Buddhist leader.

The summit “will do little to strengthen the cause of religious freedom around the world and will more likely offend the values of the pro-life and pro-family faithful,” said Robert Maginnis, vice president for foreign policy at the Washington-based Family Research Council, in a written release. “Like a wolf dressed in sheep’s clothing, the Millennium Summit will cloak anti-life, anti-family politics in the robes of religion.”

The Dalai Lama, a Nobel Peace Prize winner who was exiled from Tibet following the country’s takeover by Chinese communists more than 40 years ago, originally did not receive an invitation to the summit after it was made clear the Beijing government opposed his participation. Later, he was issued an invitation to speak on the final day, which will not be held in the U.N.’s General Assembly hall, but declined it. The first two days of the meeting will be held in the U.N. hall, but the final two days will be at a New York hotel.

Elliott Abrams, chairman of the congressionally established Commission on International Religious Freedom, expressed skepticism about the summit, especially its unwillingness to stand up to the Chinese government.

The exclusion of the Dalai Lama is “the key symbol of what is wrong with Big Think ideas like this summit,” Abrams wrote in a commentary for the Internet site beliefnet.com.

“Of much greater use than this extravaganza would be a summit of religious dissidents, people who do not enjoy their government’s favor and speak up against the religious or political establishment when it is in the wrong.

“History and realism teach us that the struggle for peace and human rights is long and hard, and begins with honoring the bravery and commitment of people like the Dalai Lama. Start by excluding him, and you end up with more speeches about peace than progress toward it.”

In addition, conservative, evangelical Christians are not prominent among the list of religious leaders attending the summit. None are listed by summit staff among more than 20 “preeminent” religious leaders attending the meeting.

Apparently, the Southern Baptist Convention did not receive an invitation requesting a representative attend the summit. Neither the Executive Committee, the most likely SBC entity to receive an invitation nor the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission was invited, said Bill Merrell, the Executive Committee’s vice president for convention relations.

The National Association of Evangelicals received an invitation the week prior to the meeting and has a representative at the summit, a NAE spokeswoman said Aug. 28.

Anne Graham Lotz, a Southern Baptist and the daughter of the evangelist Billy Graham, will speak at the meeting, according to The Washington Times.

The summit, as well as another recent event, is likely to raise concerns among at least some conservative Christians about progress toward a one-world religious body and/or government. At a meeting at the U.N. earlier in August, Sun Myung Moon, head of the Unification Church, proposed the formation of “a religious assembly, or council of religious representatives, within the structure of the United Nations,” according to The Times.

Religious movements represented at the summit are Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Shinto, Bahai, Native American religions and others.

Among “preeminent” leaders attending, according to the summit, are Jesse Jackson; Konraid Raiser, secretary general of the World Council of Churches; Cardinal Arinze, president of the Vatican’s inter-religious council; Israel Meir Lau, chief rabbi of Israel; and Abdullah Salaih Al-Obaid, secretary-general of the Muslim World League.

The summit developed from discussions between entertainment/news media owner Ted Turner and U.N. Secretary-general Kofi Annan. Turner, who is helping underwrite the meeting, is honorary chairman of the summit and will speak during the Aug. 29 session. Turner has advocated abortion rights and criticized Christians.