All over the world there is a struggle taking place within and about religion. Sometimes it results merely in harsh or prejudicial words. Too often it erupts in violence and acts of shocking extremism. The essence of the struggle is this: are people of religious faith prepared to regard those of a different faith with respect and dignity, and yes even, love; or do they rather regard them as enemies simply because they do not share the same faith or religion as them? Are they ‘open’ to the other or ‘closed’? Do they accept to live in harmony with those different from themselves? In each of the main religions such a struggle is being waged everywhere. Because of the enormous importance of religion in the modern world, the outcome of such a struggle has immense implications for all of us, those from the major faiths and those of none.
Some people naturally want to say that the answer to this lies in the realm of politics; and of course politics has a crucial role to play. But it is clear that since the dimensions of this struggle are inevitably affected by religion itself, people of faith have to step forward and take responsibility. What is more, because those who are passionate about their faith do not want to act in contradiction to it, the argument in favour of the open approach has to go wider and deeper than simply asking people to behave nicely to one another. It has to address full-on, the spiritual, theological and scriptural basis for mutual respect towards those who follow a different religious or spiritual path.
On October 20th 2010, largely unnoticed by the world, the United Nations General Assembly unanimously passed a resolution declaring the first (full) week of February of every year the World Interfaith Harmony Week. The resolution was first proposed a month earlier by King Abdullah II of Jordan, and is unique in the annals of the UN because of its explicit mention of God (albeit in a way that does not exclude those who do not ascribe to a religion) and because it promotes harmonious interfaith relations in a way that specifically draws attention to the scriptural and theological basis for such relations.
[The United Nations General Assembly] Encourages all States to support, on a voluntary basis, the spread of the message of interfaith harmony and goodwill in the world’s churches, mosques, synagogues, temples and other places of worship during that week, based on love of God and love of one’s neighbour or on love of the good and love of one’s neighbour, each according to their own religious traditions or convictions.
Obviously resolutions, no matter how well meaning do not by themselves alter the world, but this resolution does encourage people who do believe in inter- religious harmony and mutual acceptance to stand up and be counted and to challenge those whose narrow and often ignorant view of other religions leads to discord and division. It acknowledges the reality that religious discourse on social behaviour can no longer be confined to the religious elite or the cloisters of academia but is central to the way the 21st Century develops.
The mention of ‘love of God and love of one’s neighbour’ is also important because without it devout Christians, Muslims and Jews are not likely to sincerely get behind the resolution — and Christians and Muslims alone make up some 55% of the world’s population — since Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God (Luke 4:4 and Matthew 4:4, see also: Deuteronomy 8:2-3) … Verily the Remembrance of God is of all things the greatest… [from: the Holy Qur’an, 29:45]. Equally, the mention of ‘love of the good and love of one’s neighbour’ is important because whilst the Good is God for believers, love of the good and the neighbour is the very essence of goodwill for all people. Thus the resolution, though based on the two ‘greatest’ commandments on which hang all the law and the prophets (Matthew 22:40), includes everyone in the world of all religions, faiths and beliefs, and those of no religion at all.
The World Interfaith Harmony Week thus has an unprecedented potential to globally turn the tide against religious tensions by: (1) co-ordinating and uniting the efforts of all the interfaith groups doing positive work with one focused theme at one specific time annually, thereby increasing their collective momentum and eliminating redundancy; (2) harnessing and utilizing the collective might of the world’s second-largest infrastructure (that of places of worship — the largest being that of education) specifically for peace and harmony in the world: inserting, as it were, the right ‘software’ into the world’s religious ‘hardware’, and (3) permanently and regularly encouraging the silent majority of preachers to declare themselves for peace and harmony and providing a ready-made vehicle for them to do so, and thereby creating a public record of this.
What can you do? If you are a religious figure, a preacher or a teacher, all you have to do is take up the theme of inter-religious harmony during the first week of February every year, in your sermon / preaching / writing / instruction. It’s as simple as that. If you would like to register your event so that others can be apprized of it, please do so at www.worldinterfaithharmonyweek.com. If you have a sermon or an article that could serve as a useful religious resource for others, please post it also on the website. If you are a ‘layperson’ of good will there are many things you can do that cost very little and take little time. These may include organising a ‘Harmony Breakfast’ for neighbours of various faiths or merely inviting them over for a cup of tea or coffee or a chat; watching an edifying movie with neighbours; organizing a multi-cultural bazaar; doing joint community work; organizing a joint cleanup; feeding the homeless; planting a community garden; painting an interfaith mural; reading together; merely talking to your own families about the need for tolerance and harmony; or even just going out of your way to greet someone or smile at someone who is of a different faith. Meaningful events are already taking place. A synagogue, a mosque and a church gathered some members and went to Mexico to build a home for a needy family. A film maker documented the journey which also saw a women’s interfaith group being created during the trip. Entitled “On Common Grounds” the film has since won critical acclaim all over the world including Best New Documentary in the first Muslim film festival in Pakistan. The women’s group, and others, are meeting during World Interfaith Harmony Week to watch and celebrate the film, the experience and the long-lasting relationships which were subsequently formed.
The real work of love of neighbour starts with the neighbour precisely and therefore in local communities. A good deed for interfaith harmony, even if the world moves in the opposite direction, is not like a vote for a candidate that loses: it still counts. It counts first for the soul that did it, and is that much the better for it. And it counts by creating a ripple effect of goodness that has unforeseen positive consequences in the future in an ever-widening circle of goodness. So in the first week of February remember God and the neighbour, or the Good and the neighbour. And remember the World Interfaith Harmony Week.