Why did the U.N. proclaim World Interfaith Harmony Week?


The United Nations General Assembly passes a stack of resolutions every year and many of them go all but unnoticed. One such document just approved in New York established a new World Interfaith Harmony Week. High-minded resolutions put most news junkies to sleep, so it’s probably no surprise this one got such scant media coverage (see here and here). But there’s more to this one than meets the glazed-over eye.

The resolution, accepted by consensus on Wednesday, urged all member states to designate the first week of February every year as the World Interfaith Harmony Week. It asked them to “support, on a voluntary basis, the spread of the message of interfaith harmony and goodwill in the world’s churches, mosques, synagogues, temples and other places of worship during that week based on Love of God and Love of the Neighbour, or based on Love of the Good and Love of the Neighbour, each according to their own religious traditions or convictions.

Amid the standard legal wording of U.N. resolutions, that phrase “Love of God and Love of the Neighbour” stands out both as a rare example of religious belief in an official document like this and an unmistakable hint at the authorship of this text. Readers of this blog will recognise it as a trademark phrase of the Common Word group, the Muslim scholars who have been pursuing better interfaith understanding through dialogue with Christian churches. They’ve held a number of conferences with different churches and two of the manifesto’s signatories last week became the first Muslims to address a Vatican synod of bishops. Now the group is pursuing its mission on the diplomatic stage with an appeal to governments to help foster interfaith contacts.

Jordan’s King Abdullah proposed the idea to the General Assembly on Sept. 23: “It is... essential to resist forces of division that spread misunderstanding and mistrust, especially among peoples of different religions. The fact is, humanity everywhere is bound together, not only by mutual interests, but by shared commandments to love God and neighbour, to love the good and neighbour... What we are proposing is a special week during which the world’s people, in their own places of worship, could express the teachings of their own faith about tolerance, respect for the other and peace.”

Before the vote on Wednesday, Jordan’s Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad bin Talal presented the resolution to the General Assembly. In his speech (full text here), Ghazi, who is coordinator of the Common Word group, provided details on the thinking behind this initiative. “Our world is rife with religious tension and, sadly, mistrust, dislike and hatred,” he said. “The misuse or abuse of religions can thus be a cause of world strife, whereas religions should be a great foundation for facilitating world peace.”

“Much good work has already been done towards this,” said the prince, who is the king’s personal envoy and special advisor. “Yet the forces inciting inter-religious tensions (notable among them being religious fundamentalisms of various kinds) are better organised, more experienced, better coordinated, more motivated and more ruthless. They have more stratagems, more institutes, more money, more power and garner more publicity such that they by far outweigh all the positive work done by the various interfaith initiatives. The sad proof of this is that religious tensions are on the rise, not on the decline.”

The idea behind the resolution is to give religious leaders and thousands of interfaith groups around the world a common date to organise around. Ghazi described it as “harnessing and utilising the collective might of the world’s second-largest infrastructure (that of places of worship — the largest being that of education) specifically for peace and harmony in the world...”

Then came an interesting part. The prince said the aim of the week was “permanently and regularly encouraging the silent majority of preachers to declare themselves for peace and harmony and providing a ready-made vehicle for them to do so... if preachers and teachers commit themselves on the record once a year to peace and harmony, this means that when the next inter-religious crisis or provocation occurs, they cannot then relapse into parochial fear and mistrust, and will be more likely to resist the winds of popular demagoguery...”

This is the same idea behind the Common Word manifesto, which aims to give a voice to a silent majority of Muslims who oppose religious extremism but don’t have a ready network to make their declarations heard. Around the world, there are countless groups and projects promoting dialogue and understanding among all sorts of religions, but their message isn’t always heard. Some of these dialogues are well organised, while many are simply local meetings that pass unnoticed outside the group of participants. At the same time, the opponents of interfaith harmony are, as Ghazi put it, “better organised, more experienced, better coordinated, more motivated and more ruthless.”

By launching World Interfaith Harmony Week, this little-noticed resolution aims to give those working for understanding and dialogue a stronger voice as well. It’s a modest first step and we won’t know until next February (and the following February, and the Februarys after that) how much of an effect it will have. But at a time when the forces of religious intolerance are on the rise, as many headlines in our news service show, we can’t forget the many voices preaching the opposite message.