Interfaith Activities at the UN
by Hiro Sakurai
I started working as SGI's UN representative in New York in 1997. My experience in the UN/NGO community has been full of interesting and unexpected dramas, both good and bad, and my involvement in interfaith activities has definitely been one of the most fascinating experiences.
In 1999 I was elected to join the bureau of the Committee of Religious NGOs at the UN. Having started its work in 1972, this committee is the oldest among committees concerning religion and ethics at the UN and brings together diverse NGOs from various religious traditions. However, for many years, the committee had been sidelined from the UN processes, and for that matter, religion itself had often been treated separately from the discourse at the UN.
A major shift took place in 2005, which some of my NGO colleagues called a sea change. And that was a sudden increase of interest in interfaith issues among governments. I was serving as president of the Committee then and closely witnessed and experienced the shift.
It all began with a group of governments who approached our committee with a proposal for organizing an interfaith conference at the UN. After careful review, we decided to take part in this proposed activity. The conference was held in June 2005 and brought together more than 400 representatives from governments, the UN and civil society. It adopted a conference report which was later submitted to the President of the General Assembly to be reflected in the 2005 World Summit outcome document.
It also led to the formation of the Tripartite Forum on Interfaith Cooperation for Peace, which is an informal network launched in 2006 of more than 75 governments, 15 UN system organizations and the members of the Committee of Religious NGOs. This tripartite partnership was most effectively utilized when the General Assembly convened the High-level Dialogue on Interreligious and Intercultural Understanding and Cooperation for Peace in October 2007. This was the first time in the history of the UN that the General Assembly, the largest and most representative body of the UN, convened a high-level event focusing on interfaith cooperation.
As president of the Committee of Religious NGOs from 2004 to 2007, I was closely involved in these interesting developments: co-organizing those major conferences at the UN, playing the coordinating role for the participating NGOs and speaking on behalf of NGOs at those conferences. On top of these extremely precious experiences, what I benefited from even more was an opportunity to witness and experience unseen dramas by and among the people involved in those processes.
The June 2005 conference was one such example. Equal partnership among governments, the UN and NGOs is still far from a reality at the UN, but toward the closing of the 2005 conference, a rare and moving sight could be seen in the corridor next to the conference room. Government officials, UN personnel and NGO representatives were all gathered around a single laptop computer working to finalize the language of our joint statement. And they were all working in a spirit of openness and equality.
Immediately following the conference, our committee hosted a reception at a building across the street from the UN. Shortly after the event began, a rainbow appeared over the UN. Many of us--again, not only NGOs but also ambassadors and UN officials as well--rushed out to the balcony to see it. It appeared to be bridging the General Assembly Building and the UN Secretariat, presenting us a metaphor for the mission of interfaith initiatives: to close the gap between the religious community, the UN and member states.
For me, the experience of working together with close colleagues of various faith traditions has been a joy as well as constant inspiration--an inspiration to develop my capacity and behavior as a human being. It helps me to open my perspectives, my friendship and my life. And I look forward to expanding and deepening friendship with my colleagues and together contributing to a more effective tripartite partnership at the UN in the future.