IIC Newsletter 9: July 1998

IIC Newsletter: July 1998
Inside this Issue

Building Community: Living Together, Working Together

Religion, Community & Conflict – Armagh Conference
Highlights of IIC/RKK Japan Tour

INTERNATIONAL INTERFAITH CENTRE ANNUAL CONFERENCE

BUILDING COMMUNITY: LIVING TOGETHER, WORKING TOGETHER

28-30 March 1998 Westminster College, Oxford

Over fifty people from different faiths and countries assembled on Saturday evening to begin an exploration of models of community building. Following introductions and meditation, Sri Deepak Naik, representing Community Building Organisations, outlined projects in UK inner city areas which involve and empower all parts of the community and encourage interfaith co-operation.

The next day, Maulana Dr. Farid Esack of the Gender Equality Commission, South Africa, and Henry Thiagaraj of the Dalit Human Rights Movement, India dialogued together on the situations affecting minority faith communities in their countries, giving examples of constructive projects to further equality. Mary Pat Fisher of Gobind Sadan, India, and Abdul Quereshi of the Interfaith Network for the UK and previously the Lancashire Council of Mosques, spoke about different examples they had experienced of making relationships with people of different faiths and engaging in co-operative action to benefit whole communities.

Other participants at the conference, including Prof. Hal French of the North American Interfaith Network, Alwyn Jones, Khalsa Human Rights, and Thakarsibhai Morjaria, Leicester Council of Faiths, shared information about the work they are doing to bring the various faith communities together. Meditations, small group discussions, a plenary session, and a visit to the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies where Prof. Geza Vermes gave an insightful lecture on the Dead Sea Scrolls, completed the programme.

Conference Reflections
I have found this conference to be full of inspiration, humanity, honesty and openness. We have not been blind in our acceptance and praise of interfaith work, we are all aware of the difficulties, but I have felt a lot of optimism at the conference.

In our discussion group we looked at some very interesting questions such as, ‘Is the welfare of the self more important than the welfare of the community?’ It is therefore very important to consider the inner resources that we ourselves bring to the building of community in the context of such questions.

Community is actually a loaded word; who is within or without of our community? At what point do I exclude someone from entering the community? I think it is important to ask oneself, each day, why am I a member of my community? What is my purpose of being here? Whatever faith I belong to, these questions never cease to be relevant.

As I listened to the discussions and presentations, I became aware of 21 profound process of renewal that seemed to be happening. Communities are changing. Something new is being created as we grow from the past.

As I listened I became aware of certain principles of community building that seem to be emerging.

1) Community is based on good quality relationships; these are the building blocks of community.

2) Community is about caring and sensitivity to each other’s needs; about a sense of our common humanity.

3) Community need not be against anything, but can be for something; in this way communities should be inclusive.

4) The vision of each individual towards him or her self is important in building community; if a community feels oppressed, then who accepted that vision of others towards the community? As Henry said to us “Who said that I am untouchable? I am a very clean person!”

5) Honesty is important in building community. Honesty is very healing and enables forgiveness to take place. Forgiveness enables us to reconcile the past and leads to transformation. Reconciliation is better than vengeance.

6) Simplicity leads to productivity.

7) Prayer and meditation sustains a community.

8) Selfishness leads to tiredness.

9) Intrinsically good action for its own sake has a positive effect; through good action our lives become a statement of goodness.

10) Community is about giving, with humility, dignity and sensitivity.

Sr. Maureen,
World Spiritual University

Religion, Community & Conflict – Armagh, Northern Ireland, 26-27 February 1998

These are extracts from a report (for a full report and papers from the conference, see Proceedings on sale from 1IC later this year).

The conference was a groundbreaking opportunity to examine the role of religion in community conflict situations, from the widest possible perspective, with Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish and Christian presenters from South Africa, Sri Lanka, Israel, Canada, England and Ireland, as well as Roman Catholic and Protestant representatives and members of the ethnic/religious minority communities from within Northern Ireland itself.

One of the most helpful features of this conference was the sense of realism and concern, which pervaded the two days of reflection and debate, to face squarely the paradoxes and contradictions endemic within cultural and religious conflict situations. Eminent speakers and widely representative delegates were concerned to ‘tell it how it is’, refusing to blur distinctions or gloss over differences, while at the same time strenuously seeking positive pathways to reconciliation. And there was clear and unequivocal recognition that religion can have both positive and negative influences as far as communities in conflict are concerned – we have ‘the good’ but also sometimes ‘the bad and the ugly’ in our religious affairs and affiliations.

The conference got off to an excellent beginning on the Thursday morning with a specially arranged schools session involving Politics, Sociology and Religious Education students from a number of institutions in the area, and a representative panel comprising five of the main conference speakers from abroad, under the chairmanship of Norman Richardson of the Northern Ireland Inter-Faith Forum. The Thursday

afternoon session addressed issues of faith and integration by focussing on specific community projects and scenarios relating to the Holy Land, South Africa, and Sri Lanka, which served to highlight the fact that there are common denominators to world conflict, and that there are important lessons to learn from each other.

By Friday morning the conference was in full swing, with greetings and blessings from the Primate of the Church of Ireland and the Primate of the Irish Catholic Church, both of whom spoke warmly and optimistically of the crucial importance of mutual acceptance and mutual understanding by people of faith from all traditions and situations Archbishop Eames speaking of the major step in the reconciliation process being the challenge to “take a step into uncharted waters” and Archbishop Brady proposing that “the basis of respect is recognising the good in others” and pointing out, with particular reference to the Irish problem, that British or Irish nationalism “is not the most important thing.”

One of the most salutary comments of the day came from Yasmin Sooka, chairing the conference as Commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa, when she said that “we need to pursue peace even when we are grossly provoked; in the end, people die, not Catholics or Protestants or Hindus or Muslims!” Dr Duncan Morrow, Lecturer in Politics at the University of Ulster and Chairman of the Community Relations Council, which has a multicultural / multifaith remit, spoke inspirationally of the importance of humility in overcoming the pride that leads to violence and conflict. It was necessary to understand that the age of the ‘Constantinian Settlement’ was over for Christianity in the West, and religion, therefore, was now often identified with exclusion rather than inclusion. But reliance on force or power was hopeless. Dialogue, while neither the same as agreement or mission, was still an underdeveloped skill for Christians in Ireland. Pertinently he pointed out that without people from the non-Christian groups “we would not be here today” and made the important observation that dialogue will not be a “single meeting” but a series or strata of encounters relevant to the different non-Christian groups.

Responses by Professor Klaus Klostermaier of the University of Manitoba, and Rev. Marcus Braybrooke of the Oxford International Interfaith Centre, took up the theme of humility, emphasising that without a willingness to change and change radically we could not claim to be Christian, and the need for repentance for the pain and suffering caused by Christian pride, which required now to be purged of every vestige of triumphalism, acquiring a “certain detachment” that knows that the outcome is in God’s hands.

Describing the Sarvodaya initiative in Sri Lanka, Saliya Ranasinghe (while cautioning that “there are more resources for peace-breaking than for peacemaking”) vividly outlined a movement, very much inspired by the teaching of the Buddha and the non-violent principles of Mahatma Gandhi, which was bringing together old and young, rich and poor, men and women, in a real fellowship, working co-operatively and compassionately for social, cultural, economic and spiritual change. In responding, Father Redmond Fitzmaurice of the Irish School of Ecumenics, accepted that in certain circumstances religion, rather than contributing to peace, can be a cause of violence and strife. But while some saw religion as a problem rather than a solution, others have found in it a transcendent and transcending energy, enabling and empowering people to achieve harmonious and peaceful symbiosis. Indeed, without the mitigating influence of religiously dedicated people, Northern Ireland would be more devastated by communal strife than it already is.

Delivering the final conference paper, Dr David Stevens, General Secretary of the Irish Council of Churches, spoke trenchantly of the obstacles and opportunities within the Irish situation. Churches mirrored and institutionalised political and cultural divisions in Northern Ireland. They were significant restrainers of conflict and violence. Some church people were the most committed in terms of peace and reconciliation and co-operation in Northern Ireland and this has been so since the start of the troubles. And yet within churches we had some of the people who have been most opposed to co-operation and meeting people. Transcendent faith could make people different, able to stand out against community hatred, able to cross community boundaries, able to be peacemakers, able to forgive, able to stand as victims, able to work for justice. Seeing this difference, we were in the presence of transcendence. The puzzle for people of faith was: why is there so little of it? One explanation was that in divided societies (and perhaps this was part of the human condition) fear, anxiety, a sense of threat were almost “encoded” – they became part of our genetic makeup. And as the dynamics of conflict gathered force, we disappeared into a vortex of antagonism; we became “magnetised” by violence. And it took a very strong people to stand out when all around succumbed. And this was true in the Rwandas, the Bosnias and the rest. We were left, then, with the jealous face, or faces, of religion.

In his Islamic response, Professor Mustafa Abu-Sway of Al-Quds University in Palestine, drew attention to parallels and differences between the Israeli / Palestinian conflict and the Irish problem. The Irish problem was an inter-community problem within Christianity itself; the conflict in the Holy Land was mainly between people of different religions, belonging to the Abrahamic tradition. At the same time the distinction had to be made between the attitudes and aspirations of Zionist and non-Zionist Jews, and between Muslims with peaceful intentions and Islamic extremists. It should also be remembered that there are those on all sides who have “used the religious ticket” to keep the conflict alive.

Also responding to David Stevens’ paper, Yehezkel Landau, co-founder and administrative director of ‘Open House’, Israel, a project involving Arab and Israeli co-operative and educational developments, brought the formal conference to a resonant conclusion with his message of realism and hope. He underlined the fact that terrorists have appeared on both sides of our conflicts, each blaming the other and whitewashing their own side and quoted his ‘mentor’ Buddhist monk who said that the only chance for peace in conflict situations was the mutual recognition of suffering on both sides by people “who are available to both sides.”

Once again, there were clear parallels between the Holy Land and Northern Ireland. In both cases religion and politics were intertwined to the detriment of both – spirituality was polluted by political ideology into some kind of nationalism, and politics were polluted by uncompromising religious claims which fostered and condoned violence. Religion then became another ‘weapon’ in the national arsenal.

The essential message over the two days seemed to be that we need to face hard facts yet look boldly and faithfully for the miracle of transcendence – that which is beyond the range, domain or grasp of human reason, description and belief, but which by redemptive grace and common faithfulness will make ‘a different world’ of a ‘world of differences’!

Maurice Ryan,
Stranmillis College and Northern Ireland Interfaith Forum

1999 promises to be a memorable interfaith year in many ways. The International Association for Religious Freedom holds its next Congress in Vancouver at the end of July. Just before that with the support of IIC and IARF a conference on The Healing of the Nations: Religious Communities Contributing to Peace and Wholeness will be held at the beautiful Sorrento Retreat Centre in British Columbia from 18-24 July. It will be a good opportunity for North American supporters of IIC to come together and to learn more of our work. The World Conference on Religion and Peace are planning their next Assembly for November 1999 in Jordan and from 28 November – 5 December 1999, the Parliament of the World Religions will meet in Capetown, South Africa

All this is good preparation for the start of the New Millennium and appropriately the Year 2,000 has been designated The International Year of Thanksgiving. Our friends at World Thanksgiving are busy preparing for this and are planning a major conference in Dallas in March 1999. The Millennium Institute in Washington is encouraging people across the world to begin the new Millennium with a commitment to a more environmentally friendly way of living.

No doubt there will be many interfaith events to mark the new Millennium. Those planning these may find, All in Good Faith: A Resource Bookfor Multi-faith Prayer, published by the World Congress of Faiths, a helpful resource.

We should like to know what you are planning. Please, keep in touch. Together, we are helping to build a world house in which the dignity and faith of every person is valued as a precious resource.

Marcus Braybrooke

HIGHLIGHTS OF THE IIC/RKK JAPAN TOUR 4-14 April 1998

It was indeed a generous offer of Rissho Kosei-kai (RKK) to invite the IIC to bring a group of ten people to Japan. Through the vision and work of its founder, Nikkyo Niwano, RKK, one of a number of ‘New Buddhist Movements’ in Japan, has forged a respected place in the world by its international activities for peace and harmony between different faith communities. The close relationship between RKK and World Conference on Religion and Peace and International Association for Religious Freedom is well known to us and it was IIC’s pleasure to act as hosts for the announcement of the 1997 Niwano Peace Award to the Corrymeela Community in Northern Ireland. In addition Mr Hagiwara, a staff member of RKK who works part time for IARF here in Oxford, has been a much respected colleague and friend for many years.

The following reports of two fellow travellers, Rev John May and Mrs Joan Miller, give a brief description of our memorable visit.

Expect the unexpected
‘Expect the unexpected’ could serve as the motto of our visit to Japan. I found myself ladling sweet tea over an image of the Buddha in honour of his birthday and offering sacred branches at a Shinto shrine. But the most unexpected surprise of all was to be seated directly opposite the President of Rissho Kosei-kai, Rev Nichiko Niwano, before going out to address a large audience at the Great Sacred Hall in Tokyo (the one thing I was prepared for). The barriers of language and custom made conversation difficult, but the magic word ‘Corymeela’ – the Northern Ireland community of reconciliation which received last year’s Niwano Peace Prize – started us off on what was obviously a welcome tack, and I was able to express my admiration for this bold gesture of recognition.

I had an overwhelming impression of a man of immense dignity and integrity, steeped in the Japanese tradition which lends such formality to Rissho Kosei-kai rituals, yet able to speak of the Eternal Buddha in a way that I found hauntingly familiar and to reach out with great warmth and inclusiveness to all who suffer and any who are different. Here was a living embodiment of the universalism I had come to associate with the Mahayana in general and the Lotus Sutra in particular. Perhaps the most lasting benefit of the entire trip for me will be a new relationship to this luminous but mysterious text after hearing it chanted in the worship halls and homes of Rissho Kosei-kai.

Dr John May,
Irish School of Ecumenics, Dublin.
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Papers from the Kyoto dialogue | and John May’s speech.
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Land of the Rising Sun
This was my first visit to the Land of the Rising Sun, organised by the IIC staff, helped by Oxford based Mr Hagiwara and under the auspices of Rissho Kosei Kai’s Department of External Affairs. This department was in the capable hands of Mr Nemoto whose attention to detail and multilingual abilities would cause envy anywhere in the world. Before going I was apprehensive- would I commit every faux pas in the book? Would I be bemused by the legendary inscrutability of the Japanese?

To the first worry the answer was “yes” re slipper etiquette! Slippers are produced on entering a house/building that’s o.k.- my simple mind grasps that, but it is a grave error to walk with slippers on the tatami matting (stockings only, please!) and do not dare to enter the loo without exchanging house for toilet slippers. Anguished cries of “Mrs Miller, no slippers please” hounded this poor unfortunate. My ability to bow steadily improved as the visit went on.

About my second worry all fears vanished when I met the staff and people of RKK. After a long flight, as we came past Immigration at Narita airport, we saw a sign held aloft “WELCOME IIC” and friendly hands seized our luggage, led us to a mini-bus and took us to the RKK Hostel in Tokyo – where the furnishings consisted of futons, duvets, pillows filled with beans (or so it felt), one chair but en suite. The RKK staff were helpfulness personified and with warm smiles to boot.

On visits to temples/shrines (Shinto and Buddhist) we met the chief priest or his deputy. Nearly always green tea in handsome bowls was served, preceded by small, sweet cakes, exquisitely made from bean paste in pastel colours. Only those with back problems groaned at having to sit on mats.

Traditional meals were served on low tables with cushions for kneeling/sitting. The meal was set out on lacquer trays with extra dishes at the side. I once counted twenty lovely dishes, bowls (sometimes covered), handleless cups for soup, pickles, vegetables, fish (nearly always raw), sauces, seaweed, fragrant, slightly sticky rice, and tea. I enjoyed the food greatly, excepting the raw fish, but the cooked seafood, especially tempura (shrimp in batter), I liked.

Buffets, hosted by important RKK dignitaries, were held in grand rooms with chandeliers and uniformed staff. There were chairs around the room or sometimes we took our loaded plates back to ordinary high tables. During our one night homestay with a family, my husband John and I ate in a western style dining room. On that occasion drinks flowed, as did the conversation on serious and light topics. We discussed karma, how to meet death with Christian and Buddhist viewpoints, diet and health, interspersed with cries of “Kampai” and great conviviality. I shall long remember that night.

The most important dialogue took place in Kyoto, in the splendid RKK centre, complete with excellent, professional simultaneous interpretation and chaired by an American professor, Gene Reeves, who had fallen in love with the Buddhist way of life. Outstanding in my memory was a paper by a Buddhist professor of Bukkyo University, Reishi Tayama, who showed good understanding of both eastern and western thinking as well as proficiency in both English and Japanese. He it was who announced to us news of the Angle Irish agreement – we had been isolated from the media since leaving England. We heard about new religious movements and were told there was a new one every day.

Our visit was planned to take in the Buddha’s Birthday Celebrations, April 8th, when, as guests of honour, we met in the RKK Tokyo Great Hall, along with 5,000 other worshippers. In an arena reminiscent of the Albert Hall with galleries, stage, stained glass and a Buddha, we participated in a service which included an orchestra, a robed choir, speeches, gongs, reciting of Lotus Sutra chants and an address by Dr John May, Irish School of Ecumenics, (interpreted by Mr Hagiwara). At the end there was a dignified parade of enchantingly dressed and made-up infants and young girls dressed in colourful saris to show the Buddha’s ancestry. It was a splendid occasion.

We celebrated Easter by a short service in the Great Hall, Kyoto with a Buddhist lighting the candle, a Hindu playing the organ and the elements consisting of bread and sake. It was indeed different, and a significant experience for many of us.

John and I had to buy a large bag to transport our presents, papers and books to Britain. It was Christmas everyday. How generous our hosts were in gifts, hospitality, willingness to transport us (they were aghast when we suggested using the excellent subway system in Kyoto), heaving our luggage on to trains and planes. I could get used to this sort of treatment!

There was little free time to do our own thing but the time spent in visiting temples and meeting people of other faiths was invaluable. My appetite for things Japanese has been so whetted that I intend to make a return visit.

Joan Miller

IIC Future Planning

Our annual conference (Facing the Past, Freeing the Future) and autumn lecture will take place in Oxford as will a full day seminar on religious nationalisms and fundamentalisms involving six faith representatives. Marcus Braybrooke will lead a conference for the IIC prior to the IARF Congress at the Sorrento Center near Vancouver: The Healing of the Nations: Religious Communities Contributing to Peace and Wholeness. IIC representatives will take part in workshops at the IARF Congress, the World Parliament of Religions and the WCRP Assembly.

Contact us for further details about these events and do keep us in touch with international, interfaith events you may be planning.

1999 IARF CONGRESS

Creating an Earth Community: A Religious Imperative

University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada 29 July-3 August

In dialogue Congress participants will face the challenges of the 21st century: How are religious communities to support humane and sustainable alternatives to the economic globalisation of life? How are the spiritual disciplines to be strengthened in our materialistic world? How are those who support freedom of religion or belief to promote respect for fundamental human rights and reconciliation among people who are divided? How may all those of goodwill join together in creating an earth community?

The IARF hopes that many friends of the International Interfaith Centre will participate in the Congress and later join with the IARF in beginning a year of celebrations towards its 100th birthday. For further details and registration information please contact the IARF at 2 Market Street, Oxford OX1 3EF tel. 00 44 (0)1865 202744 fax. 00 44 (0)1865 202746 or email: iarf@interfaithcenter.org. (see also IARF Website at: http://www.iarf-religiousfreedom.net )

Proceedings shortly available from the IARF, as above.