Mumbai Re-emphasizes Need for Interfaith Cooperation

December 3, 2008

This week’s terror attacks in Mumbai are unusual in their size and coordination, but that they occurred at all, sadly, is not shocking. While bombings in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan have fought for our attention, India has seen its own share of violence — since 2003, more than 700 people have been killed in bombings, violent counter-protests, and these latest attacks.

All too often these killings have been labeled "religiously motivated." In India, perhaps the most religiously-diverse country in the world, terror attacks have targeted all three major groups — Hindus, Muslims, and Christians — in cycles of violence born of desperation, fear, and misunderstanding.

It is auspicious that members of the eight-year-old United Religions Initiative (URI), based in San Francisco, have converged on India this week for its third Global Assembly. The group, which is one of a handful of major organizations working to promote interreligious cooperation, was founded with a vision of ending this kind of religiously motivated violence and cultivating a culture of peace.

Each developing its own area of expertise, groups such as the URI, the Parliament of the World’s Religions, World Conference of Religions for Peace, and the Interfaith Youth Core have quietly nurtured programs all over the world — even here in the United States — that attempt to bring people of different religions together. They come together in service and in dialogue; they share prayers and holy day meals; they work to heal their own deep-seated hurts and to encourage public policies of tolerance and acceptance.

These groups and their affiliated programs have brought healing to the Acholi people in Uganda's long-running civil war, and are seeking to do the same in the breakaway islands of the southern Philippines. Through music and arts they are teaching Hindu and Muslim children in India to play together and see each other as equals. I have seen a young south Asian Muslim give a presentation about her group’s work in helping Native American communities reclaim and bury pilfered remains. In Helsinki, a colleague spoke movingly of the reconciliation of Shí'á and Bahá'í Persian immigrants. A movement begun in Ethiopia seeks to bring the message of the Golden Rule into the halls of the African Union, the United Nations, and into governments and schools large and small. Periodically, these people come together in Assemblies and grand Parliaments to inspire each other with their successes and share their lessons learned.

Interfaith dialogue may not be a matter of life and death in the U.S. as it is in India or the Philippines, but it is not without value. Understanding and cooperation strengthen communities in the face of external challenges like 9/11 and internal problems like poverty. It affords opportunities for personal growth and exploration. What we do in the U.S. is broadcast to the world when tourists respect the different traditions they encounter, when our policy makers understand subtle religious and cultural differences, and when our many immigrants and their children make return visits home.

Minnesotans have recently been hearing stories of a group of young Americans returning to their parents’ embattled country, allegedly as militants. Other recent events have highlighted the role of religious youth in spreading intolerance here at home. If the world's youth were engaged in a serious and respectful exchange, at the same time deepening their understanding of their own religions’ messages of peace, perhaps they would become ambassadors of peace rather than purveyors of hate.