Marian Pallister, Justice & Peace Scotland’s representative on the Scottish Catholic Bishops’ Conference Committee for Inter-Religious Dialogue, offers a personal view on the UN’s acceptance of the value of faith groups.
In Matthew V, Jesus tells his disciples that they are the light of the world. He quips that ‘no-one lights a lamp to put it under a tub’ and He points out, ‘…your light must shine in the sight of men, so that seeing your good works, they may give the praise to your Father in heaven’. Our problem for so long is that as Christians (and I think Muslims, Jews and Sikhs are just as guilty), we have hidden our light. And that has led to us being shut out of some of the most important negotiations that concern the world’s most vulnerable people.
What was once seen as the work of religious organisations – education, alleviating poverty, health care – became politicised in the second half of the 20th century. Religion became a dirty word. I know from personal involvement in a charity that supports the education of vulnerable young people in Zambia that some of the major funders won’t consider organisations with the merest smidgeon of a religious connection.
Now, it seems, the United Nations may change all of that. According to Archbishop Bernardito Auza, the Holy See’s Permanent Observer to the UN, there has been a realisation that religious organisations do have a role to play in the development of our world, and in the promotion of justice and peace.
The Archbishop was in Edinburgh to speak on the subject of inter-faith harmony at the Archdiocesan Offices, and delegates from many faiths attended the event, which was held in the wake of President Trump’s travel ban, ironically announced in the UN’s Interfaith Harmony Week.
This first week in February has been observed as Interfaith Harmony Week since 2010, but it isn’t one that is much publicised in mainstream media. As we know, the phrase ‘No news is good news’ is all too often interpreted as ‘Good news is no news’. When religion is used to justify acts of violence it makes banner headlines – but when religion is used to make a positive difference in the world and people of different faiths work together to make that difference, that news is too often ignored.
Interesting, then, that when Justice and Peace Scotland posted a link on Facebook to a Guardian story about Canadians forming rings of peace around mosques to protect worshippers after the violent attack in Quebec, we got our biggest (and most positive) reaction of the year so far. The basis of Interfaith Harmony Week is ‘Love of God, love of neighbour’ and the Canadians gave witness to both in their reactions.
Archbishop Auza explained that for too long, non-government organisations (NGOs) with a religious connection had been offering to collaborate with the UN on issues of health, poverty, literacy and harmony through inter-religious dialogue, and the UN had turned a deaf ear. Since 2015, however, he has been involved in UN-organised inter-religious consultative panels - progress is being made and the climate is clearly changing.
‘The UN has had to realise the importance of inter-religious dialogue for peace and development,’ Archbishop Auza said.
And he added ‘Religion cannot be relegated to the mosques on Fridays, the synagogues on Saturdays and the churches on Sundays. Religion is not just a private affair.’ So - we can bring the light out from under the tub. The UN has realised the relevance of people of different faiths talking together - and is even recruiting religious experts to advise on delivery of the 17 development goals that are on the world’s agenda from 2020 to 2030.
‘The UN and others,’ the Archbishop said, ‘have come to accept religious organisations as partners in seeking development and peace.’ And to realise that people of faith who love God and neighbour perhaps stand a better chance of achieving those goals than all the well-intentioned career peacemakers?