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The World Religions Summit 2010 – Interfaith Leaders
in the G8 Nations:
Notes of an Observer

Peter Hajnal
Research Fellow, Centre for International Studies
Munk School of Global Affairs
July 22, 2010

The “World Religions Summit 2010 — Interfaith Leaders in the G8 Nations” was the sixth successive annual pre-G8 meeting of faith leaders from all parts of the world. The first such summit was convened at Lambeth Palace in London just before the 2005 Gleneagles G8 summit by Dr Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury and the Reverend Jim Wallis, a US evangelical leader. Subsequent faith leaders’ summits took place in Moscow in 2006, in Cologne in 2007, in Sapporo and another one in Kyoto and Osaka in 2008 and in Rome in 2009. They all had the objective of reminding the G8 of its responsibilities to address poverty, care for the earth and invest in peace — common values of faith communities around the world. An International Continuance Committee ensures that each meeting builds on the experiences of, and lessons learned from, previous meetings and then passes the torch to the hosts of next year’s meeting.

The Winnipeg gathering took place on June 21-23, 2010, just before the back-to-back Muskoka G8 and Toronto G20 summits, on the campus of the University of Winnipeg whose president, Lloyd Axworthy, gave his full support to this endeavour. It came as the culmination of a year-and-a-half-long process under the aegis of the Interfaith Partnership chaired by the Reverend Dr. Karen Hamilton, General Secretary of the Canadian Council of Churches. The main task of the Partnership was to draft a statement for the religious leaders to consider in Winnipeg; the draft was then circulated to various faith communities and other supporting organizations for comment. The Partnership also organized a series of interfaith dinner and dialogue sessions in federal ridings with members of Canada’s Parliament in order to take the interfaith message on poverty, the environment and peace to the Canadian government for action. As well, the Partnership conducted various public awareness activities[1]and circulated a petition urging G8 and G20 political leaders “to take courageous and concrete actions to address poverty, care for our Earth, and invest in peace” and, in particular, to commit to put the MDGs back on track.

The 2010 World Religions Summit brought together, as delegates, 80 senior leaders of religions and faith-based organizations from more than 20 countries of all regions of the world, representing Aboriginal, Bahá’í, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Shinto, and Sikh traditions. Thirteen youth delegates also participated. As well, a number of observers were present in Convocation Hall, the primary venue of the discussions. As one of the observers, I represented the G8-G20 Research Group (one of two non-faith-based members of the Partnership).

Prior to the official opening, the programme included an interfaith bus tour of houses of worship in Winnipeg, an interfaith journalists’ professional development day, and a seminar on religious freedom and human rights. This was followed by opening ceremonies hosted by David Courchene, an Anishnabe elder from Manitoba. This First Nations spiritual event involved the lighting of a sacred fire in a tepee erected in the university’s quadrangle (it remained lit throughout the Summit, guarded by fire-keepers), Anishnabe songs accompanied by drumming, and the casting of tobacco pouches carrying prayers into the fire.

The welcoming addresses were led by the Reverend Dr. James Christie, chair of the International Continuance Committee, who characterized the MDGs as the Rosetta stone for the G8 and G20 political leaders. He was followed by Dr. Alberto Quatrucci with a message from Italy (last year’s venue of the Religious Leaders’ Summit), Hegumen Phillip Riabykh (representing the Russian Orthodox Patriarch) with a message from Russia and MLA Doug Martindale with greetings from the Province of Manitoba. The opening session ended with Elder Courchene reciting an Anishnabe prayer and extending a welcome to the centre of Turtle Island (North America), “where the Creator sits”. He warned against the risk of intellectualizing the world’s problems, and appealed to spirituality, for respect of Mother Earth and caring for the poor. Another song evoking the eagle ended the opening session.

After dinner, the delegates and observers attended the presentation of an oratorio, “I Believe”, composed and produced by Zane Zalis of Winnipeg. It was a moving and powerful musical and narrative treatment of the Holocaust and ways of remembering it. It expressed the desire for freedom, survival and peace — relevant to this World Religions Summit.

Day Two began with opening addresses by President Axworthy and Justice Murray Sinclair, Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which held its inaugural session just before the World Religions Summit. Mr. Axworthy recalled human security and the Responsibility to Protect, both central themes of his tenure as Canada’s foreign minister. He also reminded the delegates of the Canadian tradition of governments engaging religious leaders in debate on global issues, in particular former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s initiatives in this area. Justice Sinclair talked about the role of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as an important step (along with the 2008 apology of the Canadian government) in redressing the harm done by residential schools and other instances of violations of indigenous rights. He noted the positive development of increasing recognition of those rights in a number of countries.

Next, Senator Roméo Dallaire delivered the keynote address. He called for statesmanship rather than political expediency, recalled the Rwandan genocide, and acknowledged positive steps taken by all religions on reconciliation, the environment, security, poverty and human rights. He criticized the lack of political leadership in the face of such issues and cited the role of faith leaders to give inspiration and impetus to political leaders. There was a standing ovation as Senator Dallaire ended his speech.

The delegates then settled down to working sessions. Session 1, moderated by Dr. Hamilton, dealt with the topic of extreme poverty and the economy, with the Reverend Dr. André Karamaga, General Secretary of the All Africa Conference of Churches and the Reverend Jim Wallis, now president and CEO of the Sojourners, “a progressive Christian commentary on faith, politics and culture”, as speakers. Both emphasized the role of faith in recognizing and relieving extreme poverty. Dr. Karamaga surveyed Africa’s problems and progress in particular, and characterized aid as a matter of justice, not just of compassion. Reverend Wallis pointed to considerable unity across religions on the question of poverty and recalled the first Religious Leaders’ Summit in 2005 of which he was co-convener. He stated that the job of faith leaders was “to proclaim the impossible and make it possible”, and called for replacing faith in unlimited growth with an ethic of sustainability. This session, as did all other sessions, ended with lively debate in the question-and-answer period.

Session 2, on peace and security, was moderated by Roman Catholic Archbishop James Weisgerber of Winnipeg. The speaker, Reverend Dr. Seong-Won Park of South Korea and member of the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches, remarked on the symbiosis of market economy, geopolitical and military hegemony, and oil and energy. He stated his view that the current financial and ecological crises are interconnected, and added that economic peace and security as well as ecological peace and security were at stake. He emphasized the imperatives of basic human rights, economic justice and a nuclear-weapon-free world. A panel discussion followed, with John Siebert of Project Plowshares, Walter Ruby of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding and the Reverend Dr. Robert Suderman of the Mennonite Church in Winnipeg. The first panelist focused on weapons of mass destruction and the need for peace with justice; the second on Muslim-Jewish cooperation; and the third on the draft statement as a whole. Each stressed the importance of the MDGs.

Session 3, “Extreme Poverty and the Economy”, was interposed between sessions 2 and 4. It continued the debate from Session 1 on these issues and featured Commissioner Christine Macmillan of the Salvation Army’s International Social Justice Commission as speaker.

Session 4, moderated by His Holiness Aram I, Catholicos of Cilicia, dealt with climate change. The speaker, Reverend Francois Pihaatae of the Pacific Conference of Churches, detailed the effects of climate change on people’s livelihood, the state of fisheries, marine resources and rainfall patterns in the Pacific region. He emphasized the unity of life, the oneness of life whether human, animal or plant. In keeping with the tenor of the World Religions Summit as a whole, he took a spiritual view of climate problems and solutions but was also conscious of practical approaches vis-à-vis global politics and the G8 in particular. A panel of two speakers followed him: Reverend Yoshinobu Miyake, a Shinto priest from Japan, and Reverend Gerald Granado from Latin America.

The first day ended with an elegant dinner at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, sponsored by the Ecclesiastical Insurance Office in the UK (“Insurance You Can Believe In”). Reverend Suzanne Membe Matale, General Secretary of the Christian Council of Churches in Zambia was the dinner speaker. To illustrate the inclusive nature of the gathering: I sat at a table with two imams from Saudi Arabia, a Bahá’í from the US, a rabbi from New York and a United Church member, among others. It was a congenial group.

The second day began with Session 5, entitled “To boldly go…” and featured a passionate speech by John W. McArthur of the Millennium Promise organization in the US. He spoke about the challenges and results of the MDG process and conveyed a vision for further action and progress. The session continued with a panel of youth delegations, also addressing the main themes (environment, poverty and peace) of the World Religions Summit. The young delegates were well-informed, articulate and focused.

Next came a performance of “Strike”, a play by Danny Schur dramatizing the events around the June 1919 general strike in Winnipeg which involved 35,000 workers and their supporters. The strike was a milestone on securing human rights and fair employment in Canada.

The last part, Session 6, was devoted to finalizing the statement of the World Religions Summit. It was moderated by Reverend Dr. James Christie and began with a speech by the Rt. Reverend Nick Baines, representative of the Archbishop of Canterbury. He cautioned the assembled delegates that a vision and a dream were necessary but not sufficient. The message to political leaders should be that “good morality leads to good economics. Referring to the statement, he further cautioned that “what we say is less important than what they [the political leaders] hear.” A lively debate followed. The delegates chose the so-called Samoan Circle model to guide their discussions on the basis of the draft statement, in order to reach consensus and arrive at a final statement. This was used to very good effect and, at the end of three days, the summit issued its statement, A Time for Inspired Leadership and Action.The final statement followed the three themes and general lines of argument of the draft statement, but, having been subjected to several draft versions in the course of the World Religions Summit, ended up sharper, more specific and more goal-oriented.

The statement began with references to the MDGs. It urged the G8 and G20 political leaders: to alleviate poverty and injustice; to promote care for our Earth and its environment; to attend to the needs of the most vulnerable, especially children; and to halt the arms race, reduce nuclear weapons, support a culture of peace and the rule of law; and it asked for a transparent and effective dialogue between international organizations and faith communities. The statement was presented at the end of the summit to Minister of State for Democratic Reform Stephen Fletcher who accepted it on behalf of the government of Canada and promised to pass it on to Prime Minister Harper.

Those assembled then witnessed the closing ceremonies: a Shinto prayer and blessing. Finally, Reverend James Christie informed the delegates of the follow-up to this World Religions Summit. Next year’s gathering will take place in France, host country of the 2011 G8 and G20 summits. It will be led by Emmanuel, Orthodox Patriarch of France, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada and Bahá’í leaders from France. The 2010 World Religions Summit closed with a press conference.

Note

[1] These included, among others, a website, www.faithchallengeg8.com and an article by Karen Hamilton in G8 & G20: The 2010 Canadian Summits, edited by John Kirton and Madeline Koch (Newsdesk Media Group and the G20 Research Group, 2010).

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