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In Geneva, faith communities urge new commitment to tolerance

15 November 2005

Whether in European suburbs or Middle Eastern capitals, religious identity can often seem to be a source or fuel of conflict. And as many Western societies struggle to adapt to an emerging multicultural and multireligious reality, issues of tolerance and "living together" become ever more acute.

Responding to these concerns, people from virtually all the world's faith traditions came together in Geneva this week and appealed to their own believers and the broader world to nurture actively the sources of tolerance and compassion common to all religions.

"We affirm that humankind, made up of many peoples, nations, races, colours, cultures and religious traditions, is one human family. Therefore we reject all attempts to drive wedges between religious traditions by presenting them as mutually exclusive. We commit ourselves to lift up the teachings and practices in our religious traditions that nourish life and promote community," affirmed a statement of "common commitments" sent to religious communities in Geneva and the region.

"We call upon all religious communities to make such acts of commitment their own and so further the vision of spirituality that would bring healing and wholeness to our fractured world."

<span style="font-weight: bold; "» Interfaith celebration

The text was made public during a series of events focusing on religious tolerance and dialogue on the theme "My neighbour's faith and mine: religious identity - for better or for worse?" in Geneva 12-14 November 2005, under the auspices of the World Council of Churches and the Geneva-based Interreligious Platform.

Through encounter, debate, prayer and sacred dance, participants from diverse religious horizons and origins shared their traditions, explored the role of faith in their lives and how it influenced societies and attitudes to "the other".

The programme, including an inter-faith celebration at Geneva's historic St Pierre's Cathedral, involved local leaders, scholars and other participants from the Baha'i, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish and Muslim faiths. Highlights of the three-day event included an international colloquium under the heading "An end to tolerance?", and a youth forum which allowed over 100 young people from 19 countries to dialogue on experiences of belief, identity and plurality.

<span style="font-weight: bold; "» Changes in religious identity

Profound changes in society are strongly impacting the nature of religious identity, according to Rev. Jean-Claude Basset, a Swiss Protestant pastor and specialist on interreligious dialogue. In his context, faith could no longer be considered as an inherited or imposed set of values, but was increasingly understood as a question of individual conscience and personal experience. Dialogue therefore requires new approaches.

For other speakers during the event, the fragmentation of traditional identities, strengthened by globalization, is one of the root causes of fundamentalism and an obstacle to dialogue, strengthening religious "fortresses" and the risk of confrontation which, in some contexts, already exists.

<span style="font-weight: bold; "» Spirituality as a response to fundamentalism

The problem of violence is not a problem of religion, but rather a problem of our attitudes to religion, the Algerian-born Muslim academic Larbi Kechat argued. "We need to rediscover the connection between our vertical and horizontal identities, the Divine and the human, which can be the basis for rediscovering our mutuality and complementarity. The crisis facing humankind is the loss of certitudes," which can lead to new forms of religious fundamentalism, he said.

When religion becomes ideology, it has the capacity to nurture exclusivity and therefore violence, according to Rabbi Marc Raphaël Guedj from Geneva. "There is a need to move from identity to spirituality. It is by deepening spiritual experience, and returning to the sources of faith, that a balanced relationship between particular identity and universality can be restored," Guedj proposed. "The deeper our religious experience, the more open we become. Mystics of all traditions have no problem with dialogue!"

<span style="font-weight: bold; "» From mutual understanding to active collaboration

WCC's general secretary, Rev. Dr Samuel Kobia, underlined how interfaith dialogue is of growing significance for the WCC as a global fellowship of Christian churches. "Today the call for dialogue as a way of resolving conflict, as a way of soothing tensions, and as a way of offering a space where divisive issues could be discussed, is heard ever more loudly. Religious leaders are being challenged to more effectively exercise their ethical responsibility in addressing situations which could threaten peace and coexistence."

"The challenge to all religious communities is to re-imagine and rethink a society that is able to cope constructively with religious and cultural plurality," added Rev. Dr Hans Ucko, head of WCC's interreligious relations office, who moderated the international colloquium. "There is an urgent need to move beyond a situation of parallel societies to one that is able to cope constructively with religious and cultural plurality, going beyond mere tolerance to a community of authentic respect."

Dialogue needs to move from mutual understanding to active collaboration, Kobia stressed. "The increased awareness of religious plurality, the potential role of religion in peace-building, and the growing recognition of the place of religion in public life present immense challenges that require deeper understanding and inter-faith cooperation. That which we can do together, we should not do separately."

The interreligious event "My neighbour's faith and mine: religious identity - for better or for worse?" was made possible with the support of Pictet & Cie.

The detailed programme, photos of the events and the main documents, including the full text of the "common commitments", are available on:

Additional information on the WCC's interreligious relations and dialogue team which organized the event is available on: