World Council of Churches

A worldwide fellowship of churches seeking unity, a common witness and Christian service

You are here: Home / Resources / Documents / WCC general secretary / Speeches / 3rd Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions

3rd Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions

Speech of WCC general secretary Samuel Kobia at the Kazakhstan Third Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions.

01 July 2009

Address by World Council of Churches general secretary Rev. Dr Samuel Kobia
at the Third Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions
(1-2 July 2009, Astana, Kazakhstan)

1 July 2009

1. Your Excellency, Nursultan Nazarbayev, the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan, your Eminences, Excellencies, distinguished delegates, I am honoured to be a part of this august gathering of religious leaders at the Third Congress of World and Traditional Religious Leaders and want to congratulate you on your successful efforts at bringing world religious leaders together once more.

2. At the outset, I wish to acknowledge that Kazakhstan has a distinguished history of being at the cross-roads of many cultures and religions. Today it is home to large Muslim and Christian communities as well as a rich variety of other religious communities, all desiring to worship and practice their faith in freedom and peace. As you well know, your Excellency, while it is in the interest of the state that religions live harmoniously in a society, inter-religious cooperation cannot be imposed by the state. Religious communities themselves must work with each other to discover effective ways of dialogue and cooperation. Of course the state can encourage collaboration by creating the conditions that are conducive to such cooperation by assuring the opportunities for the free exercise of religion. You have helped this course as recently as March this year, by agreeing with your supreme court's determination that the restrictions that were proposed by a parliamentary bill were unconstitutional. I want to support your efforts in ensuring such freedom for all religious communities in Kazakhstan.

3. Your Excellency, it has been a well established practice for religious leaders to call each other for dialogue. However, lately government leaders like you are calling us for inter-religious dialogue. The idea that in order to establish Astana as a city of peace, its foundation must be inter-religious dialogue is good and right. Our presence here as religious leaders signifies our support for that cause. As well this congress offers us the opportunity to engage in the important work of meeting and building relationships with each other to strengthen our joint work for peace.

4. I am grateful to be able to offer my reflections to this summit of distinguished religious leaders. The World Council of Churches, which I serve as general secretary is the world's premier Christian ecumenical organization. It has a membership of 349 churches across the world in the Protestant and Orthodox families of faith, and numbers some 560 million Christians. Every Sunday, these faithful people gather for worship in large urban centres and in small rural communities in countries across the world, including here in Kazakhstan. The gathering of millions of ‘captive audience' every week provides the rarest of opportunities for spiritual and ethical formation.

5. One of the roles of religious leaders in building peace is that of convening; bringing others together to deliberate on concerted efforts in overcoming violence and resolving conflicts. Here I wish to share an example of how effective this convening role could be. In 2007, as part of its work on peace making in the Middle East, the World Council of Churches called for a conference in Amman, Jordan. This was a unique opportunity where, for the first time churches from Jerusalem came together with one single voice, expecting costly solidarity from sister churches all over the world. The WCC could, because of its credibility among the different churches, call together diverse church leaders and representatives to address thorny and difficult issues. The wide spectrum of participation and representation in Amman was an encouraging example of ecumenical solidarity. It gave us the courage to keep hope and not despair vis-à-vis international politics. We learnt that churches together in solidarity can make a change.

6. The Amman call continues to have an impact in many parts of the world. Last month in San Anselmo, California, USA, Christians, Muslims and Jews involved in supporting Palestinian-Israel peace process invited WCC to speak about the Amman experience. In a couple of public speaking engagements I shared about the Amman experience with scholars, activists, religious community leaders whose common course is to contribute to peace in Israel-Palestine. The inspiration drawn from our discourses was that hope grounded in true change can emerge, and from it just peace when people of different faiths in the USA engage their leaders and call on them to implement a peace rooted in justice and respect for the aspirations of both Palestinians and Israelis.

7. Religious leaders can also assist in building a peaceful society by being a living model of dialogue and cooperation. In such opportunities as this one, we come to meet, talk, build and renew relationships with each other. This sends a powerful message to our constituencies as we show that it is theologically proper and in keeping with our religious traditions to meet with other religious persons for dialogue and cooperation. Track II diplomacy is the "unofficial, informal interaction between members of adversary groups or nations that aim to develop strategies, influence public opinion, and organize human and material resources in ways that might help resolve conflicts." This cooperation among religious leaders gives us the opportunity to engage and share experiences in faith-based diplomacy as a contribution to Track II conflict resolution. In this way we can think together about creative alternatives to what Track I is able to produce.

8. Any encounter's success depends on the participants' getting to know each other which in turn leads to breaking down psychological barriers and stereotypes. This humanizes "the other", provides an opportunity to demythologize the narratives about the past and evaluate threat-perceptions. Indeed, facing "the other" can help each of us to recognize that the one who may seem at first like an adversary may actually share many of the same fears and constraints, and similar experiences.

9. Recently there have been many attempts, both by governments and religious leaders to create opportunities for this kind of conversation. The WCC's programme on inter-religious Dialogue and Cooperation itself has done substantial work to prepare our churches to engage with other religious communities. Even as the WCC's goal is to foster visible unity among the churches, these efforts need to be commended to our churches and religious communities.

10. I remain convinced, however, that the real action is not at this table, but at the ground where churches, mosques, synagogues, temples, guruduwaras and communities that gather in other houses of worship not only build relationships for cooperation, but engage with each other in real action that leads to peace and reconciliation. We hear many stories where joint action by churches, mosques, synagogues and temples helps to change local public policy towards social justice, to create programs that alleviate hunger and help the homeless, to provide new initiatives for health and education and to stand in solidarity with each other when one community is threatened. Dialogue that arises out of situations of tension – when we learn to appreciate the tension and manage it properly – lead to effective cooperative action.

11. It is still necessary and important that religious leaders and scholars gather for interfaith dialogue. But let us recognize that too often, we are the very ones who stand in the way of grassroots communities organizing for peace. Sometimes the theologies, the doctrinal traditions, our religious practices, our bureaucracies, keep our people from doing the right thing – engaging in dialogue, cooperating in common action, organizing for peace. Our coming together must find ways of releasing, supporting and energizing grassroots and community initiatives for peace and reconciliation.

12. The third role is that of providing opportunities for the younger generation both to learn from us, religious leaders, as well as to challenge us. Many of us who are here as religious leaders are considered the "older generation" by those in our constituencies. The younger people of today are not as burdened as we are with the differences they see in the other. In a more globalized society and in communities which are much more pluralistic than when we grew up, they are getting to know people from different religions already from a young age. Just as they have been taught by us, we must also learn from them. As religious leaders we must give them the opportunities that we did not have to work with and enter into dialogue with those in other faiths.

13. Your Excellency, allow me to share a concrete example from our experience. For several years now the World Council of Churches, in conjunction with Muslim and Jewish partners, has provided such a chance for younger people in our one-month-long programme entitled Building an Interfaith Community. The course is open to younger people with the goal of learning about each other and challenging and overcoming stereotypes. While fully respecting and affirming each particular faith identity, the course focuses on what we, as people of faith, do to respond and to overcome the pressing challenges of our time and build together a mutually accountable society based on respect and cooperation. The programme integrates spiritual exposure and sharing, the study of the sacred scriptures from each tradition and lectures and workshops given by specialists from Christian, Jewish and Muslim communities.

14. The WCC staff person who is responsible for youth often says "youth are not the future, they are the present!" These younger people in our congregations and in our communities are particularly skilled in networking. Because of the internet they are able to make friends, to work on projects with others and share their concerns – including peace making – with people all over the world. In all our traditions, the younger people of today are uniquely placed to facilitate links between very different kinds of people in a way that we never could. As religious leaders our role in building peaceful societies necessitates encouraging our younger people to understand people of other faiths that can lead to mutual respect with the other that can help prevent intolerance and conflict.

15. With the privilege of leading our communities also comes responsibility, not only to our own constituencies but to all. By bringing people together around building peace and tolerance, we make more progress than by going alone. By providing living examples to our communities through intentional interaction with those of other traditions we build mutual respect as a forerunner of peace building. By encouraging our people and being open to what they have to offer in terms of concrete gifts and action each context, we as religious leaders can contribute to building peace and cooperation. Given time and more creative work we can provide the opportunity for interfaith dialogue to emerge as a key ingredient to make a difference in transforming our societies and our world.