Religious leaders decry violence in religion's name
By K. Connie Kang
Los Angeles Times
By K. Connie Kang
In a historic action, top leaders of five major religions met this month in Indonesia — home to 200 million Muslims — to condemn violence inflicted in the name of religion.
The leaders, representing Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish and Muslim traditions, came from five countries and included former Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid and Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles.
The group said in a joint communique that the world's spiritual leaders have a "special obligation" to denounce "horrific acts" committed in the name of religion. The Wiesenthal Center was a co-sponsor of the event.
"If we are honest with ourselves, we have not been up to the challenge," Cooper said last week after his return from Indonesia. "Part of it is that we have to get by the PC (politically correct) and just deal honestly."
The interfaith meeting was an important step toward that goal, participants said.
"The truth is that we're in this mess primarily because of religious leaders, and we're only going to get out of it if we find religious leaders who will have the guts to change this. That's the bottom line," Cooper said.
In the communique, the religious leaders said: "A blessing to all creation, religion is a constant reminder to humanity of the divine spark in every person. Yet, today the world shudders as horrific acts are justified in the name of religion. ... All too often, hatred and violence replace peace as religion is manipulated for political purposes."
They also urged that their counterparts around the world follow their example and commit themselves to mobilize their communities to "not only respect, but also defend, the rights of others to live and worship differently."
Political scientist Fred Balitzer, special ambassador to Brunei in the Reagan administration and an attendee at the meeting, called it an "extraordinary achievement."
"It's not exactly Martin Luther King's letter from Birmingham jail, but it's kind of like that," said Balitzer, who for 35 years taught political science at Claremont McKenna College in California. He referred to the passionate letter in which King called on the nation's clergy to live out their Christian faith by fighting injustice, "not sit on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities."
Balitzer said the conference also made other important points: Major Muslim and Jewish leaders got together in a Muslim country to talk about the Holocaust and affirm that it happened. The meeting also showed, he said, that there are "moderate Muslims in the world."
Meeting organizers said the event was partly aimed at countering a conference backed by the Iranian government last December that questioned the Holocaust. The organizers chose Bali — the scene of nightclub bombings in 2002 that killed more than 200 people — for its symbolism.
Called "Tolerance Between Religions: A Blessing for All Creation," the event also was sponsored by the LibForAll Foundation, a U.S.-based group that opposes Muslim extremism, and the Wahid Institute, which advocates peaceful Islam. The institute was founded by Wahid, who led Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim nation, from 1999 to 2001.
Wahid set the tone when he said Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was "falsifying history" by claiming that the Holocaust did not happen.
"Although I am a good friend of Ahmadinejad ... I have to say that he is wrong," he said. "I visited the Auschwitz's Museum of Holocaust and I saw many shoes of the dead people in Auschwitz. Because of this, I believe Holocaust happened."
Wahid is thought to be the first major Muslim figure to publicly rebuke Ahmadinejad, who has labeled the Holocaust a myth.
In addition to his presentation, Wahid also co-wrote with Israel Lau, the former chief rabbi of Israel, a Wall Street Journal column in which they denounced the Iranian president and the December conference.
"By denying the events of the past, the deniers are paving the way toward the crimes of the future," according to the column, which was read in its entirety at the conference.
"Last year, Muslims from Nigeria to Lebanon to Pakistan rioted against what they saw as the demonizing of their prophet by Danish cartoonists. In a better world, those same Muslims would be the first to recognize how insulting it is to Jews to have the apocalypse that befell their fathers' generation belittled and denied."
Cooper, who moderated the plenary session, praised Wahid for "having the guts" to say what needed to be said. An interfaith conference may not be news in Los Angeles, he said, but convening one with top leaders in Indonesia and taking on "the most important questions of the day — namely to have religious leaders say that terrorism is a sin" — were significant, he said.
Security was tight, and not everybody who had been invited to that daylong event at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel attended.
Presenters also included Hindu leader Sri Sri Ravi Shankar of India; Buddhist scholar Yoichi Kawada of Japan; Trahjadi Nugroho, president of the Indonesia Pastors' Association; and the Rev. Franz Magnis-Suseno, a Catholic leader in Indonesia.
Also speaking at the meeting — videotaped in its entirety — were survivors of the Holocaust and terrorist attacks who choked up as they described their suffering to the predominantly Muslim audience.