Interfaith Conversations at the United Nations

By: Katherine Marshall

February 7, 2015

It's interfaith harmony week. This is one of many special times that United Nations member states have agreed upon to focus on a problem or issue. Interfaith Harmony week began in 2010, a sort of middle path between more far-reaching efforts to focus on religious matters in a UN setting, and a not insignificant current of unease about even broaching the topic. The idea is that around the world groups use the platform to engage in different activities. This year, with horrendous religious tensions so much in evidence, the week takes on a special significance.

I was invited to speak at an event at the United Nations in New York on Friday, marking the occasion. It was a harmonious gathering. Inspirational and hopeful words were spoken, to a scattered hall of official country representatives and a more spirited group of civil society representatives, far at the back. Peace and harmony were the theme songs, and the hopeful message was that religious institutions are today better understood and taken far more seriously than at any point in the history of the UN.

I began with a story, a parable of the demanding and fascinating interfaith movement.

An improbable collaboration unfolded some years ago in Accra. A group of Muslim, Christian and traditional religious leaders came together several times to build an interreligious partnership with the Ghanaian government and the World Bank. Their focus was garbage and sanitation. They crafted positive messages that resonated with the different faiths, centered on cleanliness and godliness. They framed a pristine city as a religious struggle and goal. They used media creatively to energize people, young and old. Moral arguments were combined with a practical bent: Ghanaian pride in the face of an upcoming international sporting event. Volunteers were mobilized. Schoolchildren did cleanup campaigns. Stagnant pools were filled in. Health and sanitation were linked, in minds and in practice.

There were, it must be admitted, some fleeting dreams of a material, lucrative partnership. These did not materialize, as the logic of faith leaders and communities running sanitation services was flawed. However, down the line, when tensions flared in an election season, the religious leaders who had thrashed out practical details around garbage knew and trusted each other and they came together to tamp down tensions. And, several years later, I saw the same faces at an interfaith meeting where the topic was action on climate change. The group had a foundation of trust and knowledge to build on.

Another example of improbable collaboration took place in Manila last August, organized by the Philippines Department of Foreign Affairs and UNDP. The idea was to learn from emergency faith responses to natural catastrophes (particularly Typhoon Haiyan) by faith-inspired groups. The variety and effectiveness of the mobilization was quite remarkable and a sequel is likely to be a Southeast Asian exploration of potential partnerships.

The interfaith movement is a rich mosaic of efforts, ranging from theological discourse to practical coalitions. Some interreligious harmony work is built on ethereal, ethical, and theological foundations. And some is grounded in an earthy, urgent common interest or in response to a crisis or threat.

The Ghana sanitation alliance shows the potential power of partnerships and alliances that build on community mobilization and on a shared commitment to the common good. It also illustrates some of the complexities in interreligious efforts: they may begin in one place, move along unexpected paths, and encounter some obstacles. Measuring results is hard. But they are an essential part of both moral and practical narratives, the common sense of human dignity in its abstract and practical senses, that underlies so fundamentally the global human development goals that we, together, seek to advance.
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Interfaith Conversations at the United Nations