Several weeks ago, over 600 religious leaders, representing more than 120 countries and a wide-range of religious traditions (Baha’i, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Indigenous, Jain, Muslim, Sikh, Zoroastrian, and others), came together in Vienna, Austria for the 9th World Assembly of Religions for Peace. The theme of this year’s Assembly was “Welcoming the Other” through multi-religious action for human dignity, for shared well-being, and for a more robust notion of citizenship.
The purpose of these Assemblies, which Religions for Peace (RfP) has been holding every 5 to 7 years since 1970, is to bring together leaders from a variety of cultures and faiths in order to discuss current economic, political, and social issues affecting the globe, and to propose ways of moving forward.
This year, the Assembly also included four commissions focusing on “Welcoming the Other” through: (1) conflict prevention and transformation, (2) just and harmonious societies, (3) human development that respects the earth, and (4) religious and multi-religious education. Each commission met three times—once to identify the problems associated with each issue, next to discuss how religious communities, themselves, could tackles these issues, and finally to propose concrete ways of moving forward. Over 100 Assembly delegates and observers participated in each commission session, which culminated in a Commission Report outlining the results of the sessions.
The “outcomes” of the World Assembly are at same time both concrete and amorphous. For one, the Assembly provided the venue for Religions for Peace delegates to conduct organizational business, which included the election of new officers and approving organizational agendas. But, my own experience (I staffed the event as an intern), as well as those recounted to me by the delegates, indicates that the groundbreaking outcomes are really those that are difficult or impossible to measure. As Katherine Marshall, an Assembly delegate, and Senior Fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University, has written, the World Assembly and other similar events matter because they allow the delegates to network, form working relationships, learn about issues they may not have known about otherwise, and work together to set agendas on how to tackle important political and social issues. If for nothing else, the Religions for Peace World Assembly is important in that it brings together people from a variety of cultures and faiths, where they can safely discuss and debate issues affecting their own communities and the greater globe.
Yet, the diversity of the World Assembly participants, though impressive when listing the numbers of countries and religions represented, should not be overstated. The Assembly is only open to those who are specifically invited or approved by the RfP International Secretariat (which is based in New York). Most of the delegates invited to the event are religious leaders who are well known on the international stage and run in similar circles. Additionally, the Religions for Peace organization often works closely with various United Nations agencies and relies heavily on U.N. documents. As such, the liberal language and discourse usually associated with international humanitarian agencies is found throughout the RfP Assembly theme papers and documents. In many instances, the delegates themselves probe and challenge these (largely) Western-centric discourses. Still, one wonders: who has been excluded from the World Assembly (consciously or not), and what perspectives may have been lost due to these exclusions? To what degree was the “Other” actually included in these discussions at all?
The extent to which the organization operates democratically should also be questioned. While Religions for Peace officers are democratically elected by the Assembly delegates, much of the Assembly agenda is shaped by those in the International Secretariat office—especially by the Secretary General himself, Dr. William Vendley, who has been Secretary General since 1994 and was just re-elected (there were no candidates proposed to contest his re-election) for another term. This is not to say that other RfP affiliates do not have input into the Assembly planning, they do; however, there is a clear hierarchical structure within the organization that undoubtedly influences the selection of issues that take top priority and the types of questions being asked. Those RfP delegates on the periphery—especially those who may have alternative perspectives contradicting discourses expounded by the U.N. and other international agencies, do not seem to have as much influence as those that adhere to the approved script.
Yet, the organization is not immune to change. Today, due to calls for reform, more women and youth are serving as RfP officers than ever before. As the older delegates are making way for the young, and leadership roles are changing, one wonders if subsequent Religions for Peace World Assemblies will also see a push for more democratic reforms.