Speakers at the 2019 Interfaith Forum in Tokyo.

The G20 Interfaith Forum 2019: Faith on the World Stage

By: Micah Musser

August 13, 2020

Every year since 2014, the G20 Interfaith Forum has convened to contribute to and influence global policy agendas. But can they convince the world's most powerful leaders that religion matters?

It is a rare event that receives welcome statements from Pope Francis and the Archbishop of Constantinople. It is rarer still for these statements to be paired with a message drafted by the prime minister of Japan and delivered by a senior member of his cabinet, and for these remarks to be directed to an audience of over 2,000 religious leaders and adherents, politicians, scholars, activists, and reporters, all gathered in a vast conference room on the second floor of a hotel in Tokyo. 

Yet this is precisely how the G20 Interfaith Forum opened on June 7, 2019, for its sixth annual conference. Held for three days, in advance of the official G20 Summit that took place on June 28-29 in Osaka, the Interfaith Forum brought together religious leaders from around the world to highlight the impact that faith can have in achieving international goals and to agree on policy recommendations for consideration at the G20 Summit. 

Now, just a few months away from the 2020 G20 Summit, scheduled for late November in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, the Interfaith Forum is again ramping up, this time in the midst of a global pandemic that has necessitated a complete rethinking of the event, from the global agenda items under discussion all the way down to the most basic event logistics.

Helping to direct this reshuffling is one of the Berkley Center’s own—Senior Fellow Katherine Marshall. Marshall, who also serves as executive director of the World Faiths Development Dialogue (WFDD), has in the past few years become one of the lead organizers for the forum. I sat down with Marshall to discuss the history of the forum, her role in it, its impact, and its future.

Founding the Forum

Before the G20 was the G7/8, a group of the world’s largest economies founded after the 1973 economic crisis and that still meets today. The G20, for its part, came into being in 1999 and expanded in 2008 amidst the spiraling global financial crisis. The aim was to expand the number of countries involved but still to keep the group small and agile enough to be decisive. Because of its sharp focus on economic issues, Marshall tells me that when the G20 was founded there was "not a whisper of a thought of having religious voices be a part." 

The G20 participants pose for a photo during the 2019 Osaka Summit. Photo by Alan Santos/PR.
The G20 participants pose for a photo during the 2019 Osaka Summit. Photo by Alan Santos/PR.

A tradition had emerged, nonetheless, of parallel religious events linked to the G7/G8 summits, beginning with the large interreligious mobilization in the U.K. focused on ending poverty in 2005; meetings in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 2006; in Japan in 2008 (Marshall was deeply involved); and an ambitious program in Canada in 2010. The Berkley Center hosted an interreligious gathering linked to the G7/8 process in 2012. Overall, however, the G7/8, and then the G20, was expected to focus on the international economy, and even the most devout political leaders would likely be hard-pressed to find a clear link between faith and finances. 

But over time, the agenda of the G20 has grown, and with it, so too has religious interest in the work done at the summits. By 2013, the year before the first Interfaith Forum, the G20 was discussing climate change and the Syrian Civil War alongside its more standard fare of fiscal policies.

Cole Durham and Katherine Marshall at the 2019 Interfaith Forum in Tokyo.
Cole Durham and Katherine Marshall at the 2019 Interfaith Forum in Tokyo.

Then, in 2014, the first Interfaith Forum—billed as the Interfaith Summit—was hosted in Gold Coast, Australia. At the time, it was organized largely by two men: W. Cole Durham, Jr., founding director of the International Center for Law and Religion Studies (ICLRS) at Brigham Young University, and Brian J. Adams, director of the Centre for Interfaith & Cultural Dialogue (CICD) at Griffith University in Australia. Durham and Adams both research religious freedom issues at their respective universities, a fact that leaps off the page if one reads the names of the panels at the first forum, which included events like "Freedom of Religion: Australia and Abroad," "What are the Connections between Religious Freedom, Religion, and the Economy?" and "Student Panel: Youth Perspectives on Religious Freedom and Human Rights."

When the G20 was founded there was 'not a whisper of a thought of having religious voices be a part.'

But how the Interfaith Summit and the G20 were linked was not immediately clear: religious freedom was the central focus of the summit, but that topic did not even appear on the G20 agenda. Part of the gap, Marshall argues, is that the summit at the time was more focused on dialogue among religious traditions—as most interfaith dialogue is—than on attempting to mediate between religious communities and the broader international world. In short, policy proposals were not really the goal. 

Similar summits were held in Istanbul, Turkey in 2015 and Beijing, China in 2016 (where the government showed less enthusiasm for the religious engagement). After missing the first summit, Marshall participated in the 2015 and 2016 forums. But she still played no central role, and the forum, though growing, continued to have only minor recognition in policy circles. Then came the 2017 meeting, slated for Potsdam, Germany, and the Interfaith Forum started to change rapidly.

Germany, 2017: Process, Policy, and a Reinvigorated Forum

Part of the impetus for the shift in Germany came, perhaps all too stereotypically, from a bit of prodding on the part of the German government in the direction of bureaucratic integration. "The German government was quite insistent that if there was going to be a meeting," Marshall informs me, "it needed to respond to the German government agenda, and it needed to fit within the engagement group process." The earlier format—which focused loosely on religious freedom and which lacked a formal process of engagement with the G20—would no longer do. It lacked the type of procedural legitimacy which would make it intelligible to the German government.

Katherine Marshall participates in a panel during the German T20 meeting in 2017.
Katherine Marshall participates in a panel during the German T20 meeting in 2017.

In this context, the Germans were looking to integrate the Interfaith Forum into a schema that had emerged and evolved for "official engagement groups," international networks of representatives from specific communities—business, civil society, think tanks, labor unions, urban cities, scientists, women, and youth—that produce recommendations for the G20. (The groups were named, presumably in a fit of creative expression, the B20, the C20, the T20 . . . et cetera.) Each engagement group would meet in advance of the official G20 in order to prepare policy recommendations that were closely responsive to the agenda that the host country proposed and, at least in theory, world leaders would address at their final summit. The German government was not trying to mold the Interfaith Forum into a new official engagement group, but it did insist that the event it somehow express itself through this formal process. It became clear to the interfaith organizers that for all its reputation as a nimble body without trappings, with the alphabet engagement groups and ministerial events, the G20 was taking on a significant structure, and it was vital to understand it if the forums were to have an impact.

T20 Summit GLOBAL SOLUTIONS – Awraham Soetendorp. Awraham Soetendorp asks the G20 leaders to include religious voices in efforts to achieve peace.

Unfortunately, this posed a problem for the organizers of the Interfaith Forum: they had few connections with anyone in the official engagement groups, and not much expertise to speak of on the sustainable development goals (SDGs), which formed the basis of the 2017 G20 agenda. However, as fate would have it, Marshall was, through other channels, invited to participate in the T20 process that year. The network of global think tanks that constitute the T20 had reached out to two interreligious groups, primarily to focus on values underlying global challenges. That process demanded preparation of specific policy briefs and proposals, culminating in the T20 Summit in Berlin, where Marshall spoke. The experience provided a bridge between the work of two very different groups focused on the G20 itself. The T20 experience, where Marshall focused on the SDG agenda and the unfolding famine emergency in Africa, spurred the disciplined process of preparing and reviewing policy proposals and helped to shape the G20 interfaith event that took place not long after in Potsdam, Germany. This intensive substantive and intermediary work drew Marshall much deeper into the G20 Interfaith Forum process, and she was later invited to join its executive committee.

T20 Summit GLOBAL SOLUTIONS – Katherine Marshall. Katherine Marshall speaks about the urgent need to address the 2017 famine crisis in Africa and Yemen.

No longer was the goal to simply have another forum for interfaith dialogue. The new goal was to find as much common ground as possible, to showcase the potential of religious work in achieving political goals, and to have a hand in shaping actual policy.

In the early years, the Interfaith Forum's executive committee followed a simple format: Durham and Adams, its two initial founders, would each year be joined by an organizer or organizers from the current G20 host country. Marshall's addition in 2017 was part of a larger attempt to scale up the size of the executive committee: that year, it included seven figures representing church organizations or academic institutions in six of the G20 countries: Australia, Belgium, Canada, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The larger executive committee was able to focus far more energy on scheduling events that could interact with the whole range of G20 agenda issues, rather than focusing primarily on religious freedom issues.

It was through this process that the Interfaith Forum began to build up the institutional capacity to follow the shifting agenda of the G20 more closely, and to organize events and write proposals that were carefully attentive to the goals of political leaders. No longer was the goal to simply have another forum for interfaith dialogue. The new goal was to find as much common ground as possible, to showcase the potential of religious work in achieving political goals, and to have a hand in shaping actual policy.

The Policy Turn: Buenos Aires, Tokyo, Riyadh

Marshall remained a significant figure in the Interfaith Forum when it was held in Argentina in 2018. At that meeting, the profile of the forum was raised considerably: not only did Pope Francis send in a message, but the vice president of Argentina was in attendance and welcomed the organization. Once more, the executive committee grew, with new additions representing an even wider range of faiths: two of the new core organizations were the International Shinto Foundation and the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID). The increasing size allowed the Interfaith Forum to produce its clearest set of policy proposals to date.

People do have a tendency to think that they come and pronounce in a meeting and that's a recommendation to the G20. They think that you just say it and bingo! That's the recommendation.

By the time the 2019 Tokyo forum rolled around with its main themes of "Peace, People, and Planet," Marshall had become, in a sense, the de facto leader of the policy brief creation process. She seems to thrive in granularity and appears frustrated by the way in which many religious leaders tend to approach policy matters. "People do have a tendency to think that they come and pronounce in a meeting and that's a recommendation to the G20," she laments. "They think that you just say it and bingo! That's the recommendation." While the rest of the participants and organizers were focused on the meetings themselves, she and her team at the WFDD were busy distilling the insights from the panels into careful policy briefs. In the end, the WFDD played the lead in formalizing all 10 of the briefs that were presented to the G20 leaders. These draw on the diverse, substantive, yet often little known work of a growing network bringing together religious communities, particularly around the SDGs, peacebuilding efforts, and action on climate change.

G20 Interfaith Forum Policy Brief: Combating Deforestation and Protecting Rainforests: Religious Dimensions

Their outputs are impressive. Anyone who reads through them will learn, for instance, about the work of the Interfaith Rainforest Initiative, which coordinates religious leaders and political actors to decrease deforestation, or about the Interfaith Alliance for Safer Communities, which trains faith leaders to protect the dignity of children online. A reader will also find detailed policy recommendations outlining how the G20 can better address the role of religion in countering violent extremism (start by reaching out to local, respected religious leaders instead of soliciting condemnations of violence from prominent, national leaders) or how religious actors can become better agents in fighting corruption (focus attention on tangible things, like extractive industries, and on human trafficking issues). But for all the work that went into the policy briefs, an honest assessment requires a recognition that their impact on the actual G20 agenda was still marginal. Although a few prominent participants were at least aware of the forum's existence—Prime Minister Abe's welcome indicates at least that much—Marshall can't say whether anyone close to the G20 leaders or their sherpas read the specific proposals.

Working to ensure that the 2020 Interfaith Forum has a greater impact has been no easy feat, not least because of the global COVID-19 pandemic, which has necessitated a rethinking not only of the topics on the agenda, but also the format of the event itself. The Saudi hosts of the 2020 G20 Interfaith Forum, with KAICIID playing a role as a partner but also on behalf of the Saudi government, are disappointed with the growing reality that COVID-19 is likely to make a large physical meeting in Riyadh impossible. A series of regional consultations had been tentatively in the works before the pandemic, and they took on far greater importance, given challenges presented by uncertainties tied to the COVID-19 crisis. Once the pandemic erupted, it became clear that regional consultations could add significant value to the process.

The North America regional consultation, hosted by the Berkley Center, was crafted to be particularly responsive to current events, with a focus on three topics: refugees and forced migration, religious responses to COVID-19, and antiracism and religious responses. These unfolding crises have yet again highlighted the centrality of religious actors in shaping issues with a community dimension, but bridging the gap between the religious leaders and institutions on the one hand and policymakers at the highest levels on the other is a challenge that remains to be tackled. A hope is for sharp policy briefs to emerge from both the regional consultations and several task forces and working groups focusing on priority issues.

A wide variety of themes are emerging from both working groups and regional meetings, and they add to and enrich work from prior years, in effect building a portfolio of proposals. What’s at stake, said Marshall, are complex, multi-year challenges, and the G20 Interfaith Forum process reflects that concept of continuing engagement and strengthening of ideas and proposals. For 2020, the proposals coming from these different sources will be reviewed by the forum organizers, with priority ideas discussed at the October G20 Interfaith Forum, then submitted to the G20 leaders.

"We're a ways away from being the serious player we all aspire to be," Marshall confesses about the Interfaith Forum. But it's quite clear to her how to become one: "What that means for me is that our involvement depends on having really solid recommendations that are well presented." The value of rigorous policy work is a theme for her. "Unless there's been some solid preparation," she informs me a bit later, "you can't plausibly claim the seats at the table." 

The Value of a Religious Voice

Unless there's been some solid preparation, you can't plausibly claim the seats at the table.

A good number of governments are deeply hesitant to engage formally with religious leaders, a lesson which Marshall learned when she oversaw the creation of the World Bank's Faith and Ethics Initiative in 2000. When the World Bank attempted to bring religious leaders into its decision-making process, even on relatively insignificant issues, "the skeptics spoke loudly," Marshall remembers. "Most governments objected to the World Bank having a formal process even of dialogue with religious communities."

But political actors' unwillingness to engage directly with religious actors is becoming increasingly a burden in the era of transnational movements and international aid organizations. In over a dozen countries in sub-Saharan Africa, for example, more than a third of health care services are provided by faith-inspired organizations. To avoid engaging with religious actors for the fear of privileging one religion or another is often impractical today, when the work of implementing policy often depends on both action and support by religious actors.

Religious leaders and soldiers sitting in a circle outside and talking.

It is in part simply due to the blunt fact that religious organizations are already playing important roles internationally that Marshall thinks their voices should be heard by the international community.

Indian nun stands in an orphanage surrounded by cribs.

"The underlying ambition" of the Interfaith Forum, she tells me, "is to find ways to bring the best of what religious communities have to offer on broad global agendas."

Gerrit W. Gong of the Church of Latter-day Saints speaks to panel attendees following a presentation.
Gerrit W. Gong of the Church of Latter-day Saints speaks to panel attendees following a presentation.

When I suggest that many governments are quite properly concerned about becoming entangled with religion should they engage too directly with the forum's proposals, Marshall raises her eyebrows. The forum has no aspiration to take over or to dominate, she points out. It exists to gather information about the work religious groups are already doing and help translate that into policy recommendations, honing them to bring together the collective wisdom of different actors. The point is to help political actors more effectively engage religion to achieve shared goals and, if there are differences, to engage constructively to find out why and to seek better solutions.

At the same time, she believes that religious actors can play important roles as a "moral compass" in many international negotiations, and she cites anti-corruption work as a place where this is urgently needed. "The anti-corruption communities have become rather technocratic and in a way," she suggests, "they've almost tried to strip the ethics out of it so that it's no longer about evil persons. It becomes much more a systems issue."

Here I push back and she agrees: There's no reason to suggest that religious actors are more ethical than secular ones overall and per se. She herself commented earlier that many religious leaders believe that they are at the forefront of women's issues, even though most women's advocacy groups today have disproportionately secular memberships. And when it comes to corruption, well, isn't it a systems issue? Does the international community really need to be reminded that corruption is morally wrong, or do they need policy experts—even "technocratic" ones—who can find solutions to the problem?

The anti-corruption communities have become very technocratic, and in a way, they've almost tried to strip the ethics out of it so that it's no longer about evil persons. It becomes much more a systems issue.

Marshall reframes. "A lot of faith leaders," she clarifies, "act and behave and talk as if they have the ethical high ground—that they're more ethical than others. We know that's not true. What they do have," she continues, is "more ability to talk about the issues and to frame issues as ethical issues than many non-religious people. For some it's their profession but also their mission and their passion."

The Future of the Forum

In many ways, this comment is representative of the many tensions that run through the work of the forum as it currently stands. It's a group of religious leaders claiming that their moral perspective, alongside their experience and feel for communities, gives them an important role to play in international negotiations, yet one that doesn't want to claim a single moral stance on major issues. It's an unofficial organization whose members don't generally come from policy backgrounds that's nonetheless trying to influence global agendas. It's a religious gathering that received its biggest boost from Germany, a largely post-Christian and avowedly secular nation. Perhaps most challenging, it's an organization attempting to represent the entire religious community to G20 leaders, yet trying to do so without papering over the differences between faiths.

2019 G20 Interfaith Forum: Kim Tran on Planet. Kim Tram, a prominent teenaged climate activist of Fridays for Future in Japan, delivers a speech on the final day of the G20 Interfaith Forum in Tokyo.

All of this raises the question of whether the forum can continue in its current arrangement, or whether it can and should change in the future. Its profile has been growing rapidly for the last three years, and a number of its leaders aim for it to become an official engagement group along with the T20 and all the rest. There are some nagging concerns, nonetheless, that attaching it too formally to existing political structures would take away the ability of the forum to have a "prophetic voice," meaning that it could take on unfamiliar, sometimes hidden concerns and issues not figured into formal agendas.

Other concerns about official recognition do appear to weigh on Marshall. "I'm not sure what the official status would really give it," she tells me. "It would be more visible. Much more visible. And to me, that would mean much more demand for rigorous policy recommendations and processes." She also notes that to this point, the forum has largely consisted of invitees drawn from a small handful of well-connected people. But an official group would need to be more fully inclusive, and the process of choosing participants could end up raising endless questions regarding the very definition of a religion and who deserves representation. Official recognition might not be worth the difficulties it would bring.

What Marshall loves about the Interfaith Forum is that it can provide a venue to find the best religious work being done around the world, and to find areas of common ground, but also—and here her eyes light up a little bit more—areas of disagreement.

Marshall recalls that in Argentina, a senior political official approached her. "'This is a fantastic forum you're developing," he told her. "But don't tie it too much to the G20." What Marshall loves about the Interfaith Forum is that it can provide a venue to find the best religious work being done around the world, and to find areas of common ground, but also—and here her eyes light up a little bit more—areas of disagreement. Chief on the list are women's issues and LGBTQ issues, not two areas where religious traditions seem to be able to find much to agree on. But "if you don't start raising those issues, what's the point?" she asks. "I think if this could become a place where those kinds of issues are brought up, that would be very constructive because there really isn't another place. It's rarely the part of the interreligious movement to deal with those issues, at least in the formal processes."

Over the course of six years, the Interfaith Forum has grown from a fairly small summit of academics focused on the issue of religious freedom to a sprawling conference featuring major political speakers and producing detailed policy recommendations for the G20 Summit. It's not clear what it will look like after another six years of growth. But one thing is clear enough: if political leaders can ever be convinced to listen to religious leaders in the international world, the Interfaith Forum is perhaps the organization best prepared to make it happen.