The First Historic Interfaith Conference, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

During the year of the Birth Centenary Celebrations of HH Pramukh Swami Maharaj and in the memory of his historic address at the UN Millennium Peace Summit, BAPS took part in the Forum on Common Values among Religious Followers. The Forum was organized by the Muslim World League, an Islamic NGO based in Makkah which aims, amongst other things, to extend bridges of dialogue and cooperation with all. The Muslim World League invited Swami Brahmaviharidas to represent the Hindu faith as a part of its historic inclusion of Jewish and non-Abrahamic faith leaders.

 

A select 90 delegates from 35 countries which included spiritual leaders of eminence attended the inaugural forum. Swami Brahmaviharidas was joined by Swami Avdheshanand Giriji Maharaj as the two speakers representing Hinduism. Other delegates included United States Ambassadors-at-large for Religious Freedoms, leaders of the Roman Catholic, Coptic and Eastern Orthodox churches, Chief Rabbis from Europe and North America, Buddhist leaders from South Asia and the Islamic leaders from across the globe including the Grand Mufti of Egypt.

 

The event was chaired by the Secretary-General of the Muslim World League, His Excellency Sheikh Dr. Mohammed Bin Abdulkarim Al-Issa. Dr. Al-Issa proclaimed, “We are pleased to launch the Forum on Common Values Among Religious Followers in Riyadh. We hope the conference will result in dialogue and practical initiatives that will bring followers of all faiths together on our shared values.”

 

Four main sections were the held throughout the day – the opening section followed by three topic-oriented panels. Swami Brahmaviharidas addressed the first panel titled ‘Human Dignity – Divine Equality between Creations and the Depth of Human Commonalities’.

 

After age-old Vedic prayers for peace and harmony, Swami Brahmaviharidas remarked that this conference is more than path-breaking; it is path-making! It will guide the conscience of humanity. The Hindu faith has promoted divine equality and harmony amongst all forms of life, which is echoed by all enlightened religions and philosophies. In order to turn the word ‘Harmony’ from a beautiful noun into an active verb, he remembered HH Pramukh Swami Maharaj’s words from the UN Millenium Summit in which Swamshri had asked leaders to have three dialogues to generate more harmony – dialogue with leaders, dialogue with followers, and dialogue with oneself. Integrity in personal belief and action, the faith’s beliefs and actions and interfaith words and actions can “create here a little bit of the heaven we promise in the hereafter”. He remembered how Guruhari Mahant Swami Maharaj often reminds us that to find the right answers, we must first ask the right questions. If we ask ourselves to whom creation belongs, we discover that creation is universal and therefore so is its Creator. Therefore, who are we to divide up a universal world. Swamiji also addressed the notion that some hold – human harmony is only a wishful dream. “Why is it wrong to dream? Going to the moon was once just a dream but it came true. Colonizing Mars is a dream but it will come true. So then why should we not dream for a more harmonious world when we know that it will bring a smile to the lips of God who did not create this world to perish in disharmony but to flourish in harmony.”

 

H.E. Sheikh Dr. Mohammed Bin Abdulkarim Al-Issa was encouraged by the words and shared, “Wow! Fabulous speech. What eloquence! How open-minded it was, and highly emotional with academic precision. A truly inspirational presentation.”

 

Mr. Bawa Jain, Secretary-General of The Council of World Religious Leaders and the Founder-President of The Centre for Responsible Leadership, who had organized HH Pramukh Swami Maharaj’s visit to the UN in 2000, noted, “A great, thought-provoking speech. Delivered with immense grace and dignity. Such a clear expression of our shared values and in a way that honored the historic nature and venue of this forum. This is the first time swamis of Hinduism have been invited to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and this was the right first step on a long and unified journey ahead.”

 

One of the moderators of the panels and the Secretary General of Religions for Peace International, Professor Azza Karam found the points of Swami Brahmaviharidas’s speech to be a key summary of the panel sessions highlighting the importance of not just celebrating similarities but also of celebrating dissimilarities because we have such strong similarities. Also reiterating the importance of looking within our own faith and its beliefs, Professor Karam on a personal note inquired about the upcoming mandir in Abu Dhabi and offered support for such projects of harmony and tolerance.

 

Brahmeshanandji and others declared this a proud moment for Hinduism and many leaders of other faiths from across the world expressed their interest in working with BAPS to further religious harmony around the world, while many others commended the steps taken in the UAE and Bahrain to further the fraternity amongst faiths.

 

In concluding the forum, the religious leaders agreed to approve the Declaration on Common Human Values which announced:

 

“At the invitation of the Muslim World League, we, the undersigned, have come together with the collective objective of enhancing cooperation and trust between the global community’s spiritual leaders. We do so in the belief that, by leveraging the common principles that undergird all of our faith traditions, we can more effectively promote the values of moderation and harmony, and advance tolerance and peace, establishing common frameworks to immunize our faith communities against the dangers of extremist ideology and behavior, regardless of its source.
Based on the common religious principles that all of our different faith traditions share, we have agreed on the following points:

 

  • Religion is central to every civilization, given its influence in the formulation of ideas in human societies” and how “spiritually it inspires those who believe in it.
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  • Religion should be separated from the wrongful practices committed by some of its followers (regardless of the nature, aim and size of these wrongful practices) and that it is unfair to the followers of any religion to be held accountable for the consequences of these isolated incidents.
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  • Religion should not be taken advantage of in achieving any ends that deviate from its spiritual and reformative purpose, and deviate from the special values it carries in its teachings that its followers believe in, or the general values that represent “religious common values shared with others,” or “general human common values”.
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  • The unique characteristics of each religion or sect should be appreciated, they should be looked at as a form of human diversity that is part of the Creator’s wisdom in creating differences, and “each person has their own conviction and believe through which they worship God, and they communicate it through the wisdom of dialogue.” Followers of religions and cultures must be respected as the Creator honored them by making them partners in humanity and in all that it requires to achieve effective and fruitful brotherhood.
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  • Dialogue is, by definition, a sharing of different views, not a forced obedience to the same, single view. Dialogue depends on open minds and hearts. It is as much about listening as it is about speaking. Dialogue is a process that people of good will use to identify common ground, thereby giving them the means to create a better world in which all can live in peace and harmony.
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  • Coexistence is a necessity of life, based on recognizing that human family is one unit, thus highlighting the importance of human brotherhood in a tangible way, and helping to overcome fear of the “other,” as well as selfishness, and all forms of hatred, division and violence.
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  • The fact that human diversity is inevitable requires us to have tolerance, forgiveness and embrace these differences, we should preserve human dignity by respecting the other, their right to exist and their civilization. We need to transcend the animosity that arises from being apart, that grows because of fear and not knowing the other, on the one hand, and because of injustice and arrogance, on the other.
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  • We propose the launch of a global Forum called: “Religious Diplomacy Forum for Building Bridges” based on the influential role of religions in societies, and the important role of the followers of religions in bridging the relationship between the followers of different religions and cultures to strengthen their religious and civilizational alliance beyond just mere dialogue. The Secretariat-General of this forum is entrusted with making the necessary arrangements for launching of this forum.
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  • We additionally propose to issue an international “Encyclopedia of Common Human Values.” The Secretariat-General of this forum is entrusted with the task of making the necessary arrangements for the Encyclopedia, selecting the writers, evaluating it by a number of religious, intellectual, cultural and academic personalities and institutions, and then launching it globally.
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  • Inviting the United Nations General Assembly to adopt an international day for “Common Human Values”, as they lay the foundation for a common ground that helps in attaining the fruits of human fraternity; to build those common bridges between followers of different religions and cultures; to ward off negative concepts and practices that turn the innate differences between human beings into barriers that prevent them from knowing the other, engaging in dialogue, cooperating, having respect for each other and their right to exist with dignity.
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  • What we have agreed to in this communique is not nearly as important as what we will do in the years ahead to build bridges of understanding and respect across the abyss of ignorance and hostility which have divided us in the past.  We hereby pledge that this meeting is not merely a passing moment, but the historic beginning of a sustained and coordinated movement of the world’s different communities of faith, pursuing the common goals of religious freedom and human dignity for all.”
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The forum also allowed for constructive personal dialogues between leaders. HE Sheikh Dr. Mohammed Bin Abdulkarim Al-Issa and Swami Brahmaviharidas had a private meeting late at midnight overflowing with genuine love and friendship, where there was a warm, transparent and truthful dialogue on how members of all faiths may work together for peaceful co-existence.

 

With special arrangement by the organizers, delegates were also taken to Al Diriyah – the original hometown of the first Saudi Kingdoms and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

 

The event was graciously organized by the Muslim World League with directions from the leadership of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and was held at the Ritz Carlton in Riyadh, the country’s capital.
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